North Carolina Basketball: The 5 Biggest Fan Favorites in Tar Heels History
The North Carolina Tar Heels have produced a healthy crop of star players over the years. But not all of them are what we would consider "fan favorites."
Fan favorites are the guys that withstand the test of time, whether they were successful at the next level or not. As a matter of fact, only two former Tar Heels on this list were successful in the NBA—at least so far.
Another is still finding his way.
But what all of these players have in common is popularity among UNC fans. Their style of play, work ethic and moments of greatness on the collegiate hardwood earned the respect and unwavering gratitude of folks residing in Tar Heel Nation.
These are the five biggest fan favorites in Tar Heels history.
5. Ed Cota, 1996-2000
Ed Cota never captured a title while in Chapel Hill. He never even suited up in the NBA.
But his play captured the attention of the UNC fanbase, and point guards are still compared to the former Tar Heel today.
Cota was a smooth operator with a lot of flash. He consistently dished out jaw-dropping, no-look, behind-the-back and bounce passes between defenders. He even had a nasty behind-the-back fake pass.
Few passers were more creative and aggressive than Ed Cota.
Passing wasn't the only area he excelled, though. He was a master of the floater, and Dick Vitale made it famous with his line, "Ed Cota with the floata!"
That line is still mimicked by UNC fans when they hear Cota's name.
Standing at 6'0" and under 200 pounds, NBA scouts and executives didn't think he had the size or the jumper worthy of the next level. He was undrafted in 2000 and has spent the rest of his basketball career overseas.
That may have only increased fans' appreciation for Cota.
They witnessed a point guard for four years that was blessed with wicked handles, great vision, superior passing skills and a "floata" that couldn't be touched. Yet he was completely overlooked in the draft.
Cota finished his career as Carolina's all-time leader in assists (1,030) and ranks third all-time in D-I history. He was also the first player in D-I history to record 1,000 points, 1,000 assists and 500 rebounds during his career.
Ed Cota was the 1997 ACC Rookie of the Year and was named to the Freshman All-American squad. In just his second season, he broke the ACC's single-season assists record with 274 dimes. Then he broke his own record with 10 more as a senior.
4. Tyler Hansbrough, 2005-2009
The days of Tyler Hansbrough are still fresh in everyone's memories, but I have a feeling those memories will stick for a very long time.
I'm not sure anyone that has donned a Carolina uniform could be considered tougher, more aggressive or more focused than Hansbrough. And he was like that from Day 1.
Hence the moniker, "Psycho T."
Hansbrough exploded onto the ACC scene as a freshman, scoring 18.9 points to go with 7.8 rebounds per game. He'd bully the opposition for rebounds and power through double-teams to score with surprising ease.
He also broke the ACC freshman record for most points in a game, dropping a 40-spot on Georgia Tech.
There wasn't much of a contest for the 2006 ACC Freshman of the Year. Hansbrough had that on lock. In fact, he was second in voting for ACC Player of the Year.
The accolades continued to pile up through his storied Carolina career.
He was unanimously voted onto the ACC All-Conference Team for each of his four seasons at Chapel Hill. In 2008, he took home every major award—including the ACC, AP, Wooden and Naismith Player of the Year trophies.
As if fans didn't love him enough by then, he decided to return for his senior year—a rare decision for a player with that much hardware. But his goal was a championship, and that's exactly what he helped bring home in 2009.
Hansbrough finished his career as Carolina's all-time leader in points, rebounds, free-throw attempts, free throws made, field goals made and 20-point games. The list of records only grows as his stats are broken down by games and seasons.
Just one year after leaving Carolina, his jersey was hoisted into the rafters of the Dean Dome.
3. James Worthy, 1979-1982
James Worthy was one Tar Heel that was impossible to hate. He was highly skilled yet humble, and was always flashing a smile.
At 6'9", 225 pounds, he didn't put the "power" in power forward, unless he was soaring over the top for a slam. He was a finesse guy with impeccable footwork, a deadly turnaround jumper and a hook shot.
Nobody could possibly explain the frustration of guarding James Worthy better than Dennis Rodman did in his book, I Should Be Dead By Now:
[Worthy] would be coming off a screen, and I’d be trying to figure out whether he was going over the top or underneath. Next thing I knew, he was at the rim. Now if we’d played those guys more, I might have figured out how to guard his a**. But there was nothing but frustration with James Worthy. Clever, quick, a great player – he’s one of the few guys who flat pissed me off. I want him on my team just so I don’t have to guard him.
That may be an NBA take on Worthy, but he was no different in college. He was the master at counter-moves.
Unfortunately, Worthy is often overshadowed by the great Michael Jordan. They won a national title together in 1982 against Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas.
Jordan hit the shot that proved to be the game-winner, but Worthy sealed the deal with a steal in the final seconds. He also took home the tournament's Most Outstanding Player Award with his performance.
Worthy logged 28 points on 13-of-17 shooting, which remains the highest scoring total of any Tar Heel in a national title game. From that point on, everyone understood why he was called "Big Game James."
Through his NBA career, he continued to offer up reasons for that nickname to stick. He helped the Lakers to three NBA titles and carried home the Finals MVP in 1988.
2. Michael Jordan, 1981-1984
This is one man that needs no introduction. To this day, you can't escape his brand—or those he endorsed.
Hell, in 1992 he had his own song. The Gatorade "Like Mike" commercial was so big you could buy the single on cassette.
Combine that with being the greatest of all time and it's understandable how Worthy's name could be so easily lost in the mix.
Jordan was just special in every possible way. Like Worthy, he rose to the occasion in the biggest games of his career. He was quick and agile with the heart of a lion and the hang time of an eagle.
At North Carolina, he was a raw version of what we witnessed in the late '80s and through the '90s. His game evolved every passing year, and it's sometimes hard to remember the days when he was a mere human.
But he was still pretty darn good.
Jordan was the ACC Freshman of the Year in 1982, scoring 13.5 points on 53.4 percent shooting. His freshman season was capped off with a game-winning shot in the NCAA title game.
Little did we know, game-winners would be Jordan's trademark throughout the rest of his career. That's why his shot got so much play. It was the beginning of something truly special.
Averaging 19.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists, along with a shooting percentage of 55.1, Jordan took home the Naismith, Wooden, Rupp, Robertson and ACC POY trophies as a junior.
That would be the end of his career at North Carolina, and the start of a new era of NBA basketball.
1. Phil Ford, 1974-1978
It seems a little off to place someone above the G.O.A.T. as a Tar Heel fan favorite. But Phil Ford is an icon in Chapel Hill, and many consider his collegiate career to be much more impressive than Michael Jordan's.
It just didn't work out at the next level.
Ford was an extremely gifted ball-handler, which made Dean Smith's four-corner offense virtually impossible to counter. If North Carolina was ahead in the waning minutes of a game, you could pretty much just turn the TV or radio off.
It was over.
But before reaching that point, Ford was scoring in bunches. He averaged 18.6 points per game at UNC and would finish his career as the all-time leading scorer—a record that held up for 30 years.
He still holds the record for most double-doubles (points and assists) in Carolina history. He was also the first ACC player to reach 2,000 points and 600 assists in his career.
In 1978, he had the monopoly on awards. He carried home the Wooden Award and the USBWA, NABC, Sporting News and ACC Player of the Year awards.
Ford's impressive career looked like it would continue through his years in the NBA, as he earned the 1979 Rookie of the Year. He averaged 15.9 points, 8.6 assists and 2.2 steals per game that season.
Unfortunately, Ford was unable to sustain that level of play with nagging injuries and team changes. He would retire after just seven years in the NBA.
Though his NBA career was cut short, the legend of Phil Ford holds strong in North Carolina. His jersey is in the rafters, and he was a fixture on the bench for 11 years as an assistant coach.
Nobody has forgotten Phil Ford, and he remains the fan favorite to this day.