What if… Michael Jordan had stayed for his senior season at Carolina?

Are you ready for a completely pointless post? Well, you got it! And just so you know I didn’t sit down and do this all at once. This happened in small bits, not that that’s an excuse.

“What if” questions are usually stupid, but I think it’s fun to wonder how things might be different sometimes. I especially like doing this in something non-serious like sports. So with all the hoopla about Michael Jordan turning 50 today, and me being a big fan of the North Carolina Tar Heels, I was reading an article about Jordan’s college days in which he said he was still bitter about the 1984 NCAA Tournament loss to Indiana and only agreed to go pro after Coach Dean Smith advised him to. But what if he’d stayed for one more season? How might UNC basketball history be different? How might the NBA?

Let’s start with the 1984 NBA Draft. With Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie gone 1 and 2, the third pick went to the Chicago Bulls, who had to choose between another Tar Heel in Sam Perkins and Auburn standout Charles Barkley. They went with the more explosive Barkley, who had a productive career and several playoff runs with the Bulls, but only got to the conference finals once, where they were dispatched by the Knicks. As for Jordan, he went on to win a gold medal for the USA in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Bob Knight coached the team and said he never got more from a player in his career than he did from Jordan.

As for the 1984-85 college basketball season, even with Perkins gone to the NBA, the Jordan-led Tar Heels were a force to be reckoned with. Ranked preseason #2 behind only defending champion Georgetown, North Carolina would have to deal with strengthening competition in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Jordan was flanked by sophomore point guard sensation Kenny Smith, who missed a chunk of his freshman season due to a broken wrist. Brad Daugherty led a trio of big men, including junior Warren Martin and sophomore Joe Wolf, with Daugherty starting at center and Martin and Wolf rotating. Junior swingman Steve Hale rounded out the starting lineup, with big bench minutes also going to Buzz Peterson and Dave Popson.

The Heels stormed out to a 14-0 record, the last being a home win versus N.C. State, before stumbling at home to the much improved Duke team. Then they went on another eight game winning streak, including a tough win over a rising Georgia Tech squad, before losing the return match to State at Reynolds Coliseum. Tech avenged their loss in the rematch at The Omni before Carolina closed out the ACC regular season by avenging their loss to Duke, beating them in Cameron. The Tar Heels finished the ACC regular season as 11-3 champions, 25-3 overall, ranked #3 behind Georgetown and Big Ten Champion Michigan.

In the ACC Tournament, the Heels dispatched Virginia with ease and then beat #4 seeded Duke by 15 points in the semifinals, setting up a rubber match with Georgia Tech, which had beaten N.C. State. Mark Price, John Salley, and Bruce Dalrymple put up a strong fight, but Jordan had 23 points, 9 rebounds and Daugherty added 19 points, 12 rebounds as the Heels won 57-54 to take the ACC Championship. Jordan was named ACC Player of the Year and tournament MVP.

In the NCAA Tournament the Heels were named #1 seed in the Southeast Region. They easily beat Farleigh Dickenson in the first round before being heavily tested by Villanova out of the powerful Big East. It took a Herculean effort by Jordan to overcome the hot shooting and defensive-minded Wildcats, but the Heels prevailed 60-59. In the Regional Semifinal Jordan scored 34 points as the Heels beat #5 seed Louisiana Tech 90-59. Then, in the Regional Final they upended upset-minded #11 seed Auburn 62-56, sending the Heels to Lexington, KY, and their first Final Four in three years.

Georgetown beat fellow Big East school St. John’s in one national semifinal, then North Carolina beat Memphis State, who had beaten Michigan in the Regional Final, 65-45. Jordan and Daugherty each had 20 points. The win set up the rematch everyone was hoping to see: North Carolina vs. Georgetown. Michael Jordan vs. Patrick Ewing as seniors, after they met in the title game as freshmen.

The titanic confrontation came down to the final seconds. With the score tied 64-64, Daugherty was blocked by Ewing. The ball slipped out of the hands of the Hoyas’ Reggie Williams and into Kenny Smith’s, who dished to Jordan for a dunk with two seconds left. David Wingate’s desperation heave wasn’t close, and Dean Smith and Michael Jordan each had their second National Championship. Jordan, who scored 23 points and had eight rebounds and four steals in the final, was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

The debate for the rest of the spring raged as to who would be the number one pick in the NBA Draft. After Jordan’s monstrous senior season in which he averaged 24.5 ppg and led a team many thought were undermanned to the title, people began thinking he would go ahead of Patrick Ewing, long thought to be a lock. When the New York Knicks won the first ever draft lottery the debate only intensified. On draft night, the Knicks surprised some and chose Jordan, with Ewing going second to the Indiana Pacers.

Jordan would become legendary in the Big Apple, where he would spend his entire NBA career. Under the guidance of Coach Hubie Brown, Jordan was at first surrounded by mostly role players, with the exception of Bernard King. Together, Jordan and King were an explosive scoring combination. Jordan would win Rookie of the Year and become a marketing sensation, signing a big deal with Nike. However, a potential playoff run ended in disappointment after King suffered a serious knee injury late in the season. Jordan almost carried his team to a series win, but the Knicks were ousted in the first round by the Milwaukee Bucks in the fifth and decisive game.

Over the next four seasons the Knicks added pieces in point guard Mark Jackson. Hubie Brown spoke out against a proposed trade that would’ve sent a high draft pick in 1987 away to Seattle, and the team drafted Scottie Pippen out of Central Arkansas. In 1988 they finally made the conference finals, but fell to the Detroit Pistons in six games. In the offseason they added veteran center Moses Malone as a free agent.

That set up a confrontation in the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals with the Detroit Pistons. In the seventh game in Detroit, Jordan hit a jumper from the foul line over Vinnie Johnson as time expired to give the Knicks a 103-102 victory, sending them to the NBA Finals. There, the Knicks dispatched the two-time defending champion Lakers, hampered by injuries, in a four game sweep. Michael Jordan was an NBA Champion.

The next three seasons brought similar results, as Jordan and coach Hubie Brown presided over nothing less than a dynasty, winning four championships from 1989 to 1992, beating the Blazers in ’90 and ’92, and the Lakers again in-between.

In 1992, Michael Jordan joined Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Barkley, and others as “The Dream Team.” They were coached by former Lakers coach Pat Riley, who’d left L.A. after 1990, after considering a broadcast career before taking the Team USA job. The Dream Team proceeded to storm through the competition, with Jordan the biggest star, of course. Gold was a certainty and they delivered, becoming cultural and Olympic icons in the meantime. Jordan became a rare two-time Gold Medal Olympian in basketball.

There was shock before the ’92-’93 season when coach Hubie Brown retired. Faced with filling the vacancy shortly before the start of training camp, the Knicks scored a coup in hiring Pat Riley. Riley promised to bring a modified version of “Showtime” to New York, featuring the world’s greatest player. This didn’t go over well with Moses Malone, whom the Knicks promptly packaged with a first round pick and a couple of role players to Indiana for the unhappy Patrick Ewing. So the top two picks of the ’85 draft, who’d met twice in NCAA Title Games, were now united.

Together, Jordan, Pippen, and Ewing dominated the NBA in 1992-93, setting a record by going 74-8, the greatest regular season in history. Then, they swept through the Eastern Conference playoffs, dispatching Barkley’s Bulls in the finals before going on to beat Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets four games to one for a fifth straight championship. It seemed the Knicks’ dominance would never end.

However, tragedy struck Jordan in 1993 when his father was murdered. Jordan shocked the world when he announced his retirement. Seeking a new challenge, he signed a minor league deal with the New York Mets and played for their AA Binghamton club in 1994, batting .202 with 3 HR, 51 RBI, and 30 stolen bases.

Although he impressed everyone with his tenacity and ability to hang in with professional baseball players, it became apparent that his future wasn’t in Major League Baseball. In his absence the Knicks’ run of championships had ended in 1994 when the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks beat them in seven games in the conference finals before losing themselves to Olajuwon’s Rockets in seven games in the NBA Finals.

As the 1994-95 season was coming to an end it was clear that the Orlando Magic were the team to beat in the East, powered by the combination of Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. But things changed when Jordan announced his return late in the season. People wondered if he would be the same dominating force he had been before, but doubts were erased when he put 55 points on the Bulls at MSG late in the season. In the playoffs, though, the Knicks were beaten by the Magic in six games. The Magic went on to lose in a sweep to the Rockets.

The next season saw the addition of Dennis Rodman to scour rebounds down low. The result was that the Knicks matched their 1993 record of 74-8 and won their sixth championship, beating the Seattle Supersonics in six games. More titles followed in 1997 and 1998.

A lockout wiped out the start of the 1999 season and many thought Jordan would retire, but much to the Knicks fans’ happiness, he stuck around for one more season. In the finals the Knicks were heavily tested by the San Antonio Spurs, led by David Robinson and Tim Duncan. But in the end, Jordan’s 45 points in Game 7 won it for the Knicks, giving them another four titles in a row and nine overall in the Jordan era. He announced his retirement after the season.

There were temptations to come back. New York fans wanted Jordan to make a run at least tying Bill Russell’s eleven championships, especially given what they considered the lost titles of 1994 and 1995. But this was a different era and Jordan’s place in history as the game’s greatest player ever was more than secure. Two NCAA Championships, two Naismith awards. #1 pick of the 1985 Draft. NBA Rookie of the Year. Eight MVP awards. Nine NBA championships, nine NBA Finals MVPs. In addition, Jordan would enter the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005.

Jordan switched into owner mode in 2004 when he was granted an expansion team in Charlotte, who had just lost the Hornets to New Orleans. Being an owner proved more of a challenge for His Airness, but having Jordan involved in the franchise from the start helped heal Charlotte’s NBA wounds left by the Hornets owner George Shinn. Jordan’s Charlotte Flight made the playoffs after a few lean years and, by the end of the decade, were threatening the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference, led by drafted stars: point guard Chris Paul, small forward Rudy Gay, center Brook Lopez, plus free agent pickup Josh Smith.

In 2011, the Flight went to their first NBA Finals after beating LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and the Miami Heat in seven games. They proceeded to beat the Dallas Mavericks, also in seven games. Miami returned the favor in 2012, winning a title themselves. In 2013 it looks like the Flight (now minus Gay but plus former Celtic Paul Pierce) and Heat will battle it out against either the Spurs (still led by Duncan) or the Thunder (last year’s West champs). And so Jordan’s legacy continues…

Author: Matt Privett

Christian. Husband. Father. Pastor.

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