If you're the type to believe in omens, the North Carolina Tar Heels men's basketball team playing at New Orleans' Superdome in the 2022 Final Four is promising. After all, no other venue — save the one in Chapel Hill that literally bears his name — is more synonymous with the legendary career of head coach Dean Smith.
Smith won each of his two national championships at the Superdome, the first 40 years ago. The 1981-82 Tar Heels might be the most consequential college basketball team of all time, as it was in New Orleans that the most transformative figure in the game's history jumped into the national spotlight.
Michael Jordan revolutionized the way in which basketball exists in pop culture, building from the foundation Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were laying at the same time MJ was a Tar Heel to make the sport truly mainstream.
Jordan's meteoric rise assuredly still happens without the 1982 Final Four; a longstanding joke rooted in truth says that Dean Smith "was the only man capable of holding Michael Jordan under 20 points."
But the landmark jump shot Jordan hit to lift Carolina to a 63-62 defeat of Georgetown provides a fitting origin point for Jordan's ascent. It's also a poetic snapshot encapsulating the connection between Jordan and Smith in their careers, a relationship detailed in the 2020 docuseries "The Last Dance."
Back in 1982, a young Hubert Davis made it home in time to catch the second half of North Carolina's first national championship win in 35 years. Davis missed the first half due to a Boy Scouts' meeting, but his household was among the 17.5 million tuned in as Jordan coolly sank the game-winning bucket.
"I wanted to get out of it, and my parents wouldn't allow me because I'd made a commitment," Davis, the first-year North Carolina head coach, said of missing the first half.
That moment, Davis explained, was one in which his parents emphasized the importance of integrity; staying true to one's promises and exhibiting loyalty.
It's no wonder, then, that Davis was a fit for Smith's version of North Carolina basketball.
Six years after Jordan's jumper, Davis was a Tar Heel freshman. He spent four years in the program, culminating in a senior season averaging more than 21 points per game.
He graduated in 1992 and embarked on a lengthy NBA career, his rookie year coinciding with the second of Smith's national championships.
Davis recounted watching the 1993 title game when he was a member of the New York Knicks, a rookie teamed up with Patrick Ewing. Ewing was nearly the freshman star of that '82 title game, scoring 23 points and grabbing 11 rebounds for Georgetown.
New York was in Atlanta to play the Hawks the next night in April '93. Davis tuned in as a moment etched in championship game lore almost as prominently as Jordan's game-winner — Chris Webber's ill-fated timeout call — sealed another North Carolina title.
Another 12 years as well as another New Orleans Final Four passed between Tar Heel championships, and Smith was eight years retired by the time the 2005 squad cut down the nets.
Although North Carolina was not in the Superdome for the 2003 Final Four, however, New Orleans again proved pivotal in the program's history. It was there that longtime Smith assistant Roy Williams coached his last game for the Kansas Jayhawks before returning to Chapel Hill.
Williams won another two crowns before his own retirement last year, the last of which came two years after Smith's death. But while Williams passed his mentor in titles won, Williams was quick to deflect any talk of surpassing Smith.
"I don't think Roy Williams should ever be put in the same sentence with Dean Smith, I really don't," Williams said following the 2017 national championship game. "Coach was the best there's ever been on the court. And he was an even better person."
As North Carolina once again converges on the Superdome in pursuit of a national championship, it's Smith's character that deserves remembrance. In 1967, Smith recruited Charlie Scott, the University of North Carolina's first Black scholarship athlete. Smith believed in and used his post to push for civil rights.
While recruiting Ewing to become a Tar Heel — a recruitment that would have paired the standout center with Michael Jordan a decade before the Dream Team — Smith encouraged Ewing to sign with John Thompson and Georgetown if he wasn't to come to Chapel Hill.
Thompson was a pioneer for Black head coaches, becoming the first to win a national championship when he did so alongside Ewing in 1984. The iconic Georgetown coach broke through a glass ceiling that remains all too prevalent today, though a Sweet 16 featuring teams led by Juwan Howard (Michigan), Kelvin Sampson (Houston), Shaheen Holloway (Saint Peter's), and Carolina's Davis should hopefully open more doors in the immediate future.
For North Carolina to make it to this point under Davis' guidance, after hitting some struggles along the way, required a visit to Smith's playbook.
"I’ll give you a quote that Coach Smith used to give us all the time," Davis told Adam Smith of The Times News. "‘A mistake is good when you recognize it, admit it, learn from it and grow from it. And so if you recognize this and admit it and learn from it and grow from it, and you never do it again, then it can turn into a positive."
No matter how this year's Superdome-hosted Final Four ends, the positive effect Smith made throughout his coaching career will again radiate through New Orleans.