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Indiana vs. North Carolina 1981 NCAA final almost wasn’t played

Isiah Thomas of Indiana University wears the net

Isiah Thomas of Indiana University wears the net from the basket around his neck and is surrounded by fans after his team won over North Carolina, 63-50, in the NCAA championship game in 1981. Thomas was declared MVP of the game in Philadelphia. Credit: AP / Bill Ingraham

PHILADELPHIA — As in most of the modern world, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot where the fabled Spectrum once stood at the corner of Broad Street and Pattison Avenue in South Philly. But the third-ever NCAA Tournament meeting between North Carolina and Indiana in an East Regional semifinal Friday night at nearby Wells Fargo Arena revived memories of the first NCAA Tournament game between those storied basketball programs 35 years earlier.

The 1981 championship game at the Spectrum, which was razed five years ago, was historic for several reasons.

First, it matched legendary coaches Dean Smith, whose Tar Heels roster included Sam Perkins, James Worthy, Al Wood and Long Islander Matt Doherty, against the Hoosiers’ Bob Knight, who had Isiah Thomas, Randy Wittman, Ray Tolbert and Landon Turner.

Second, it was a game that almost wasn’t played because of an assassination attempt on the life of President Ronald Reagan earlier on that Monday afternoon, March 30. All of the major networks immediately interrupted regular programming with news of the shooting, which wounded the president and press secretary James Brady. A somber atmosphere settled over the Spectrum even as the final consolation game ever played in the tournament between LSU and Virginia was going on.

The Academy Awards scheduled that night already had been postponed, and current North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who was an assistant on Smith’s staff, recalled the uncertainty that greeted both finalists. “We came over, yet everybody knew in the back of their mind, ‘Hey, we may not play this. What’s the right thing to do?’ ’’ he said.

“I remember us being in the hallway outside our locker room, and it was either [tournament officials] C.M. Newton or Dave Gavitt who came and got coach Smith and coach Knight and they went and talked. Coach Smith came back and said the president looks like he’s going to be OK, and we’re going to play.”

There was a moment of silence before the game, and then it was just a basketball game dominated by Thomas, who had 23 points and five assists, leading Indiana to a 63-50 win.

Although it might not mean much to them now, current Indiana coach Tom Crean said his players at least are aware of the history. “The Sports Illustrated cover of Isiah Thomas hangs in our locker room in a full-sized poster,” Crean said. “I wish we could take them and tour the Spectrum. We should go take a picture outside in the lot [surrounding Wells Fargo Arena].”

Earlier Thursday, Crean’s players got a taste of another bit of Philly basketball history when they practiced at the Palestra on the University of Pennsylvania campus. “That’s a bucket-list deal for me,” Crean said with a smile.

The second Indiana-UNC meeting in the NCAA Tournament came three years later. Michael Jordan got into foul trouble and was held to 13 points in his final college game by Indiana’s Dan Dakich as the Hoosiers won a regional semifinal in Atlanta, 72-68.

Although current Tar Heels guard Marcus Paige can recite the history of the 1981 and 1984 meetings, there was no emotional significance to those events for the players in Friday night’s game.

As Williams said: “Ten years ago, my guys thought Michael Jordan invented the game. Now they don’t even know who Michael Jordan is if it weren’t for the Hanes commercials.”

Don’t it always seem to go . . .

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