One of the most influential people on Michael Jordan‘s career was his legendary college coach at UNC, the late great Dean Smith. Jordan often said it was coach Smith who taught him everything about playing team basketball and learning about all the essential elements of becoming a great basketball player. When Jordan came to UNC from high-school, he was still rough on the edges even though it was evident he was already a tremendous athlete who didn’t know how to play the game in the right way.
In his book A Coach’s Life: My 40 Years in College Basketball, Smith talks about Jordan when he was a freshman at UNC and how he could become a starter for the team immediately. For Smith, players needed to understand the importance of defense, and only those who were active on both ends of the floor would start in games. According to Smith, it didn’t take long for Jordan to make his presence felt on defense and understanding the system much sooner than other freshmen on the squad. That is why Smith decided to insert him in the starting lineup in their first game against Kansas, and it paid off big time for the team and Jordan because it raised his confidence.
I called it the “Where you stand” meeting, and in it, I told each player where he stood on earning playing time as we prepared to enter the season. In Michael’s case, I told him, ‘Michael, defensively, if I find that you can really be a factor, then and only then would you be considered as a starter.’ After that, he really came on. He showed that he knew our principles defensively better than most freshmen. About two days before the opener against Kansas, I made the decision. He would start. But I surprised him with it. He didn’t know until we were in the locker room at the Charlotte Coliseum shortly before the game, and I wrote his name in chalk on the board. He was excited, but he knew just because he would start in the opener didn’t mean it was engraved in stone.Dean Smith, via A Coach’s Life: My 40 Years in College Basketball
Even though Jordan was an immediate starter for the team, Smith remembers it took him some time to develop as a player, and things weren’t easy at first. Jordan wasn’t a particularly good shooter at that time because of his massive hands, which made it difficult for him to be comfortable and consistent in making those shots.
Michael wasn’t an instant star; rather, he was an important part of a potentially great team. The 1982 season was actually an up and down one for him, which is what you’d expect from any freshman. One of the areas that needed work was his outside shot. The problem was that he had such huge hands, which actually made it harder to shoot. It was like trying to shoot a volleyball.Dean Smith, via A Coach’s Life: My 40 Years in College Basketball
Under Smith’s mentorship, Jordan became one of the country’s best college players, which culminated with them winning the NCAA title in 1982. His growth as a player was unbelievable, and there was a saying coach Smith is the only guy that can hold Jordan under 20 points per game. They developed a special bond, which lasted until Smith passed away in 2015, and Jordan always had tremendous things to say about Smith and how he helped him on his way to becoming one of the best players in basketball and NBA history.