FanSided Q&A with UNC legend and NBA star Sam Perkins

17 Apr 1997: Sam Perkins of the Seattle Supersonics during the Sonics 108-104 win over the Denver Nuggets at McNicols Arena in Denver, Colorado. Mandatory Credit: Brian Bahr /Allsport
17 Apr 1997: Sam Perkins of the Seattle Supersonics during the Sonics 108-104 win over the Denver Nuggets at McNicols Arena in Denver, Colorado. Mandatory Credit: Brian Bahr /Allsport /

Sam Perkins, a North Carolina Tar Heels legend who won the 1982 NCAA Championship alongside James Worthy and Michael Jordan, speaks on UNC then and now. 

If there’s anyone that UNC fans should heed, it’s Sam Perkins.

In the early 1980s, the dominant big man from Brooklyn, NY, brought the North Carolina Tar Heels on one of their most successful runs in school history. Kicking off his UNC career as ACC Rookie of the Year in 1981, Perkins played alongside James Worthy and Michael Jordan on a legendary roster that went all the way to the 1982 NCAA Championship and won.

Perkins ended his time in Chapel Hill as the USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year in 1984, then went on to win gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. As the No. 4 pick for the Dallas Mavericks in the 1984 Draft, Perkins spent 17 years in the NBA playing for the Mavericks, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Seattle Supersonics and the Indiana Pacers. In 2018, Perkins was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.

(Photo by DAN LEVINE / AFP) (Photo by DAN LEVINE/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by DAN LEVINE / AFP) (Photo by DAN LEVINE/AFP via Getty Images) /

Perkins will be attending the 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship in New Orleans as an ambassador for On Location, the only official source for NCAA ticket, hospitality and travel packages to the biggest collegiate events in the country.

In an exclusive interview with FanSided, Perkins spoke on all things UNC, including his take on their Baylor victory, the camaraderie Coach Dean Smith built on his squad, and how UNC won in 1982—and can do it again in 2022.

On the thrilling overtime UNC win over No. 1 Baylor

“It was good. It was good to see that they competed and they kind of persevered through all the hardships between that second half and the objection, but the objection changed the tides and changed the momentum a little bit. And then, they kind of stalled out for a minute, but they held on. That group of guys has been doing that all year long. They had adversity throughout the whole season, and between losses, disappointing losses that they should have won. And now that they’ve come together, for [UNC Coach] Hubert Davis and the players, they have grown to a respectable level to the point where they know themselves now a little bit more, and they’re close. I guess they say you have to fail to in order to find success, and that’s what they do. That’s their motto or the label on that team. They’ve learned through adversity and a win like Baylor and one at Duke show that they can do anything they put their minds to play together.”

“That game, it could have went either way, but I thought the refs were cheating, that’s just my opinion.”

“I’m only saying that because [Duke fans] were saying it too. It was interesting because every call seems to be against Carolina but, fascination of the game, I guess. For them to overcome that and the referees, it was a good one for them.”

FORT WORTH, TEXAS – MARCH 19: Leaky Black #1 of the North Carolina Tar Heels shoots the ball over Jeremy Sochan #1 of the Baylor Bears during the second round of the 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Dickies Arena on March 19, 2022 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
FORT WORTH, TEXAS – MARCH 19: Leaky Black #1 of the North Carolina Tar Heels shoots the ball over Jeremy Sochan #1 of the Baylor Bears during the second round of the 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Dickies Arena on March 19, 2022 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

On his time with UNC basketball

“I mean, all the things that complimented my career — I didn’t even think about ACC Rookie of the Year — I just went out there and played, and I just so happened to look up to have a great tournament, good enough to win the Rookie of the Year, things of that nature. Being part of that four-year experience with Dean Smith, I mean, he’s the one that got me there and got me all those complimentary accolades.

My career there was the best four years I’ve ever had in college because I didn’t know what to expect in college, and no one does until they get there, but playing there and going to school at the same time was part of growing up, and you got to know yourself. You had some down times, but you had some great times as well. Tried not to dwell too much because the days and the moods change while you’re in school: from homework to failing tests to passing grades, there was always a competitive drive in you, with all of us, to do well to stay eligible to play. That was my only concern at the time because I wasn’t that great a student in high school, but at the same time, I learned how to use my time wisely at Carolina as a freshman and sophomore. Even as a junior, you start to be a little more liberal with things, but playing for Coach Smith at the same time, going to school was was a good experience because he was one of the best coaches at the time. I really still think he is, even though he passed away. He gave us life lessons on everything in life. I give all credit, everything I’ve done, to him because he’s the one who prepared you and the way you think and what you think of others because he thought of others as well. [He taught us] to put people before you before you even satisfy yourself, and that’s what I’ve done since leaving Carolina.”

On UNC’s 1982 National Championship team

“You have to go back to 1981. We lost to Indiana, and we had a similar ride with a different outcome. Note: if you play for North Carolina, there’s always a bull’s eye on your back. And so, if a team has beat you, it’s like a celebration; it’s the biggest thing of the year that they’ve done. So everywhere we went, and we didn’t lose too often, but when we did, it was like, it was like a feat. Because Carolina always wins, that’s what they thought. But that year, we lost in ’81, and we dedicated ourselves, like all teams do, to want to come back next year. And in ’82, we had the same drive. We were better. Of course, we had Michael Jordan at the time as an amateur. And we thought we had a great chance of getting back and we had to go through the same preliminary steps and the NCAA road and tried to get to the finals and we did. And once we got there, there were some powerhouses: Georgetown, Houston, Louisville, and us, of course. The same things went through our mind like, you know, we can’t lose this time, but it’s on the back of our minds that there is a chance. But we prevailed. It was the greatest time — that big game was probably one of the best games I’ve ever been involved in. People say it’s the best game to watch because it was so tight. Teams were Georgetown’s John Thompson and Dean Smith. Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler, the McCray brothers—I mean, it was more or less like… teams wouldn’t give each other an inch. And when Final Two came about, that was probably the biggest night, and I didn’t even know that. I mean, I couldn’t surmise how big that game was because you’re so involved at the time, and everything was crucial. And so, you make a mistake here or there, and then you’re in trouble. And of course, we won on a mistake. A bad pass, just a misfortune for Georgetown passing it to James Worthy, which sealed the win.”

“We could have won more. So many players came through Carolina: [Bob] McAdoo, Walter Davis, Mike O’Koren, Al Wood, these guys. They had talent every year, and Carolina was one of these universities and team schools that everybody wanted to be part of at the time. I had to learn the tradition as I got there because I’m from New York. I didn’t know anything about Carolina until I went to visit and saw Dean Smith and who he was, and so I got thrust right into it, not knowing the the the feeling of hate when you play Duke… I had to learn that overnight. It was more or less a learning opportunity. First, you get along and then go along, as they say, and that’s what happened, but it was a wonderful time at the time. No COVID, no nothing. Just had to make sure that you took care of yourself, and that’s what we did as student athletes. We got to know the campus, people on campus, people outside of basketball, fraternities, sororities, things of that nature. It was all right there in front of you, and you just had to pick and choose and choose wisely.”

James Worthy North Carolina basketball
Sam Perkins, James Worthy and Michael Jordan and former coach Dean Smith of the North Carolina Tar Heels (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) /

On the fierce UNC vs. Duke rivalry

“They’re not that far, they’re only eight miles apart, or whatever it is, but it’s right… You go on one highway and it connects to the next school. But Duke people came over to Franklin Street because it was Franklin Street. You know, it was Chapel Hill, and I’m sure they didn’t wear their Duke too proudly over there. But I really believe that we got along more than we say we did.  I have friends and some guys on Duke that I know and was friends with, and we call each other every time Carolina plays Duke. Instead of money, we bet some ridiculous thing, like I’ve got to wear some Duke jersey or a Duke hat or something. This year, it was quiet more or less because we broke even with them. But we’ve still got a chance to meet them if all things considered happens in the tournament. But yeah, it was rivalry there but the ferocity in every time they come together… I mean, even the announcers have to be neutral, but somewhere quietly, they’re rooting for their respective teams.”

And if UNC and Duke face each other in the Final Four…

“Now there’s gonna be even more of an audience because it is the Final Four. It’ll be more of an audience, and people will now see even more so the rivalry between those two. If they did meet, it’ll be like — it’s already like that — but it’d be like the [New York] Yankees and Boston [Red Sox] on a bigger scale. And I really think that’s how it would go. Granted, Duke remembers that farewell/game at Cameron [Stadium], so they’re gonna have some animosity and ferocity going into the game, but Carolina will be poised and hopefully overcome all that eagerness that they would have. I think it’d really be a great opportunity for the NCAA to promote that if it did happen. But if it didn’t happen, there’s some others that would substitute to be even more of a great game Gonzaga, Purdue, Villanova, St. Peter’s… I mean, I don’t know if they’re Cinderella, but they play as if they are one.”

How Dean Smith gathered UNC legends into a generation of NBA greats

“When you come from North Carolina, the NBA knows, and they knew, that they’re getting a good player, because they were fundamentally sound, they were taught, and they had an opportunity to play anywhere they wanted to in any position in the NBA. And with that said, the NBA respected a lot of Coach Smith’s players because of the fact they weren’t just one-dimensional, but they also were fundamentally sound, and that’s what they were really proud of. Our pride was about going to the pros, because they didn’t have to teach you some of the things that they have to teach players often in that position. It prepared me a great deal because of how we played at Carolina; how we did well against each other. And I think that they looked more for our character back then at the time, more than anything, because you knew you were getting a good student of the game and our character was so important, and that’s what Dean Smith stressed every time. I mean, he took us off the court, and one by one, we went into his office, just to talk about life before practice. Five minutes here, 10 minutes there, just making sure you’re good and your head is on straight. Watch out for the girls, who you call friends, and also, take time to help others. That’s the kind of guy he was, and I’m sure the conversations were different with each other, but that was a conversation with me. And I remember that and so now when you would go into court, he’s a whole different person. He’s a coach, but he was a life coach as well. And it transitioned to a point where when you got to the pros and the next level, you were more ready to deal with some of the things he was talking about. Still, you had to learn to go through some obstacles and adversity. But as time went on, you methodically thought about what you did next before you even rush to judgment. That’s the kind of guy he was for preparing us for the next next level for basketball.”

On Dean Smith’s “roommate strategy” that turned teammates into friends

“Yeah, one thing he did was he didn’t recruit the same person. We had different individuals, different backgrounds. We had one guy from a small town, we had a guy from overseas. I remember, we had a guy who never played, was never a big star. But [Smith] brought us all together for a reason, and that was just to get to know everybody from different backgrounds. We had roommates, and instead of just sticking with the same roommate, we’d room with each other differently on road games. My roommate at one time was James Worthy for the whole year. I roomed with a guy named Jeb Barlow, I roomed with Jimmy Black. It’s just to give you a whole other take on life and get to know how he was, get him to get to know me and what I do quirky or whatever, or just get him to try to listen to me because my accent was even stronger in North Carolina. And I was like, ‘No one can understand what I was talking about,’ so they were like, ‘Don’t room with him because we don’t understand what he’s talking about.’ But as time went on, that’s how we got to know each. So they knew I was a New Yorker here. We knew Michael [Jordan] was a country bumpkin. [James] Worthy was from the country in North Carolina, from a small town. It was fun, getting to know each other in retrospect, and then at the same time, it made us closer when we came to play.”

North Carolina basketball all-time starting lineup Michael Jordan
CHAPEL HILL, NC – MARCH 7: Michael Jordan kisses former coach Dean Smith of the North Carolina Tar Heels during a halftime ceremony honoring the 1993 national championship team during a game against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at the Dean Smith Center on March 7, 2007 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) /

On the current UNC roster in the midst of March Madness

“The roster is a little different from the time I was there. We used to get, as they call it, “five-star players,” and I think we didn’t have one and dones, but these players, they have the abilities to go one year, but I think at the same time with recruiting, players are going to bigger schools with bigger names and coaches so they have the opportunity to go to the NBA as quick as possible. These guys seem like they’re grounded, and I’m not saying that they’re not superstars, but they are a team building themselves to be in that position. And they have the opportunity to go to the NBA, but if it doesn’t work, this team, they have to work for wins. They can’t rely on their residuals or their past play and things of that nature because they are growing as the game goes for them. I really think that Hubert Davis has grown a lot, too, because they had to listen to him and feel him out just like he had to feel them out. Now he’s in the so-called “hot seat,” but I really think that he’s done a good job. They both have grown and connected with each other through those early losses to the point where they’ve learned about themselves through all the adversity that they had. They’re beginning to really gel and get to know each other. And so when you see a game like Duke at away or you see them against Baylor, it really shows that they’ve grown and come a long way from the first time they stuck on floor. And people were so optimistic about what the chances were going to be, but they put themselves in a position where they have the opportunity to go forward. Hopefully, in the next game, they can learn a great deal from the last game from what they tripped over and make that positive in the next.”

And if Sam could give advice to today’s Tar Heels, it’s this:

“Take one at a time. I think when we played, I’m not gonna say we were brandishing about or bragging about anything we were doing, but we just had a feeling we were very confident. We weren’t overconfident, because anything could happen, but we just felt like we were gonna win. Not because we were in North Carolina, but because we just knew each other real closely, we knew each other’s interactions and we were really a tight-knit unit. It was to the point where we just went out there and played. We knew I had his back, he had my back, and if we fumbled, we would recover. At the same time, I really think that they need to take one game at a time. They’ve grown a lot from the time I’d seen them to the time that I last saw them this past week, that they just need to take one game at a time. Don’t press and have some fun while they’re doing it.”

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