By R.L. Bynum
The much-anticipated ESPN Films documentary “The Tournament: A History of ACC Men’s Basketball,” promises to rekindle many memories for longtime Carolina fans and give insights into the evolution of the program to the younger ones.
Can the debate over the infamous 1975 scoreboard game be settled? Should Lenny Rosenbluth have been called for charging in 1957? Both rankle Wake Forest fans years later.
UNC alum John Dahl is executive producer for the 10-part, 10-hour series along with fellow Emmy Award winner Jonathan Hock. It debuts on ACC Network at 9 p.m. Monday, with two episodes every Monday until March 7, the week of the ACC Tournament. It includes clips from over 160 interviews.
Hock worked on “Survive and Advance,” the 30 for 30 documentary on N.C. State’s miracle run to the 1983 NCAA title, and “The Class That Saved Coach K.”
“Telling the story of the ACC Tournament from its very beginning was a journey of discovery for me and the whole production team, with every unopened film can revealing another treasure, and every interview bringing to life priceless stories,” Hock said. “There’s no greater conference tournament in sports, and it’s all in here.”
The largest original programming in the ACC Network’s nearly 2½-year history includes color film from the first ACC Tournament in 1954, won by host N.C. State.
“Let’s not take that for granted. It looks remarkable,” said Dahl, who also got a broadcast copy of the 1970 final between N.C. State and South Carolina.
Four-time Emmy Award winner Larry Weitzman is the documentary’s director.
“While diving into ACC history, one of the things that was so fascinating was how much of a family story it is,” Weitzman said. “The players and coaches all know each other intimately. The intensity of the competition feels like sibling rivalry.
“All we had to do was sit down with the wonderful characters who have created ACC lore, and the stories and the passion just poured out,” Weitzman said. “The challenge wasn’t finding enough fascinating material. The struggle was which amazing stories we would have to leave out.”
Jack Coleman, a Duke alum, narrates the documentary, which gives viewers a sense of the drama of the event and why it became such an important part of college basketball. The documentary was first announced in March 2019 and work is still being completed on the final two episodes.
Dahl said that it is a “privilege to make this story happen. And to do this the way we’re doing it — 10 parts, 10 hours — it’s humbling. I feel like a weight on me, too. We’ve got to get this right. So many people want to experience it all, and you want to do it justice to all those who made this possible.”
Dahl, vice president and executive producer for ESPN Original Content, grew up a Maryland fan in Rockville, Md., but moved to Charlotte at age 12 and was drawn to Carolina by its journalism program.
Dahl, who covered the ACC for The Chapel Hill Newspaper while at UNC, attended his first ACC Tournament in 1984 while working with the legendary Woody Durham as a production assistant for the Tar Heel Sports Network.
Dahl said that Lenny Rosenbluth, King Rice and Shammond Williams gave outstanding interviews and that he got terrific insights from Charlie Scott about the challenges of being Carolina’s first Black varsity athlete.
“I just didn’t know the depth of what Charlie experienced during that time, and really how it all came about with his teammates, how Larry Miller supported him, how Dick Grubar supported him,” said Dahl, adding that the documentary has “Charlie take you inside his life at that time. It was extraordinary and it was inspiring to hear how he persevered through all that.”
Scott was on the 1968 UNC team that won the ACC tournament behind MVP Larry Miller, but Dahl said that, without Miller, there was tremendous pressure on Scott heading into the ACC final against Duke in 1969.
“The way the game was going, it wasn’t looking good,” Dahl said. “Dick Grubar got hurt, and Charlie basically said, ‘just give me the ball,’ and he just took over. And I think it’s one of the greatest performances in ACC history, if not just college basketball history, quite honestly, when you look at everything that was at stake there.”
Most viewed Scott’s snub in the ACC player-of-the-year award voting as being because he was Black. But he proved his worth by scoring 40 points in Carolina’s 85–74 win over Duke, which still stands as the record for a championship game.
“The Tournament” documents how Scott originally was headed to play for Coach Lefty Driesell at Davidson before Coach Dean Smith lured him to UNC to make history.
Dahl said that Rosenbluth, who turned 89 last month, was “remarkably sharp” with his memories of tournaments in the 1950s.
The call that longtime Wake Forest fans have groused about for decades came in the No. 20 Deacons’ 61–59 loss in the 1957 semifinals to the No. 1 Tar Heels at Reynolds Coliseum. Did Rosenbluth charge into Wake Forest’s Wendall Carr in a key late play or was it a blocking foul?
The referee called a block, and that helped UNC advance in the days when only the league’s champion — in the ACC’s case, that has always been the tournament winner — made the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels went on to go 32–0 and win the national title.
“Looking at the video several times, which I did again last night, I do think it was a foul on Wake Forest,” Dahl said. “But it was a very controversial moment. And I think people really will appreciate hearing that story.”
Two decades later, the Greensboro Coliseum scoreboard hanging above the court loomed large during Carolina’s first-round game against the Deacons in 1975.
Wake Forest’s Jerry Schellenberg threw a long inbounds pass to Skip Brown late in regulation. But referee Fred Hikel ruled that the ball hit the scoreboard and awarded possession to Carolina. That helped UNC, which trailed by eight with 50 seconds left in regulation, rally for a 101–100 overtime. The Heels went on to upset reigning NCAA champion N.C. State in the final behind the MVP performance of freshman Phil Ford.
Deacons fans and players swear that it never hit the scoreboard and UNC fans will just as adamantly declare that it did. Dahl said that the documentary doesn’t settle the debate.
“There’s no replay where we can really see if it touched the scoreboard,” Dahl said. “It doesn’t look like it did, just the trajectory of the ball. But there are people who insist that it did nick the scoreboard. I wish we could have just ultimately settled that.”
All of that is covered in Episode 5.
Episode 7 focuses on the UNC-Duke rivalry, specifically the championship games in 1988 (which Duke won in Greensboro 65–61) and 1989 (which UNC won 77–74 at The Omni in Atlanta).
“They were so intense. They were very physical. Wait until you see that episode. King Rice is so good,” Dahl, who worked for CNN Sports at the time and attended that game, said with a laugh. “In his mind, the Duke players played to the camera and like, ‘I’m going to find you when the cameras are not on you.’ This is over 30 years ago and he’s still mad at them. It’s just really good.”
Dahl admits that they could have easily done 15 episodes and that they had to leave some compelling storylines out, such as UNC’s 75–69 win over Virginia in 1977 in Greensboro on its way to making the NCAA final.
“We had to balance, too. There’s things you have to leave out,” Dahl said of Episode 4. “But sometimes, you just feel like, to tell the story right, you’re going to have to devote an entire episode to Maryland-N.C. State, a rivalry that I think defined the ACC and led to the future growth of the conference and what it meant to college basketball.”
Dahl called the interview with Shammond Williams in Episode 8 one of the best of the entire documentary and said that it will “bring you to tears.” Williams was the 1997 tournament MVP in Greensboro when Carolina beat N.C. State 64–54 in the final.
“I think one kind of unsung story is Shammond Williams, quite honestly,” Dahl said. “I really did not appreciate his full story. His recollections, his experience with Dean Smith and with the Carolina program. Wow, it’s just so powerful. He felt like Dean Smith believed in him when nobody else really did.”
The first of five weekly trips down ACC Tournament memory lane start Monday.
Episode schedule, summaries
(All episodes air on ACC Network)
Episode 1 (1954–57)
9 p.m. Monday
When an Indiana native named Everett Case arrives in Raleigh in the mid-1940s to become the basketball coach at N.C. State, his vision spearheads not just the rise of the sport at his school and in the region, but the start of an athletic conference that will change college basketball forever.
Episode 2 (1958–68)
10 p.m. Monday
While Case is the ACC’s original driving force, he’s not the only icon on Tobacco Road to establish a legacy for all time in the conference’s early years. From North Carolina’s Frank McGuire to Wake Forest’s Bones McKinney and Vic Bubas at Duke, new coaches emerge to challenge the early success of Case. It all precedes a final poignant moment of triumph for him in 1965 at Reynolds Coliseum, the only home the tournament ever knew up to then.
Episode 3 (1966–72)
9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 14
After a rough start, North Carolina’s Dean Smith comes to be known for both dominance and dignity, playing a central role in desegregating the ACC with the recruitment of Charlie Scott. Scott is UNC’s first Black scholarship player and the star on some of Smith’s greatest teams in the late 1960s.
Episode 4 (1973–74)
10 p.m. Monday, Feb. 14
While the conference tournament is captivating many by the early 1970s, it can be just as frustrating and even heartbreaking for great teams that don’t win it, and thus miss out on a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. An intense and high-impact rivalry develops between Maryland and N.C. State, capped by the finale of the 1974 ACC Tournament in arguably the greatest college basketball game ever — and a battle that helps shape the sport’s future.
Episode 5 (1975–80)
9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 21
In the mid-to-late 1970s, the ACC continues to be the greatest showcase of talent and drama in all of college basketball. Smith’s UNC teams may be the class of the conference, but rivals also flourish, including a Virginia team in 1976 led by Wally Walker, and a Duke program that re-emerges with a championship run in 1978 followed by a controversial title two years later.
Episode 6 (1981–83)
10 p.m. Monday, Feb. 21
As the ACC thrives thanks to its groundbreaking tournament and the power of television, 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson enters the conference as one of the most heralded recruits in college basketball history. The Virginia center earns national player-of-the-year honors three times, but never wins the ACC Tournament. Meanwhile, Smith earns two more conference titles, and a national championship in 1982 with freshman guard Michael Jordan. The next year, a colorful, charismatic coach named Jim Valvano rides the momentum of an unlikely ACC title to one of the most memorable NCAA runs ever.
Episode 7 (1984–89)
9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28
As the 1980s continue, familiar and new faces alike define the ACC. After previous ACC Tournament heartbreaks, Maryland’s Lefty Driesell and Georgia Tech’s Bobby Cremins both seek redemption. All the while, Mike Krzyzewski survives early calls for his job, turns up the heat on the Duke-North Carolina rivalry and resurrects Duke into a perennial title contender.
Episode 8 (1990–97)
10 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28
At Duke, Coach K puts together one of the most iconic teams in ACC history with Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley. Wake Forest seeks a return to glory led by Randolph Childress and Tim Duncan, and Smith’s extraordinary career ends in memorable fashion with a title in 1997.
Episode 9 (1998–2008)
9 p.m. Monday, March 7
As a new century dawns, Duke is more dominant than ever, winning an unprecedented five straight ACC Tournament titles and seven in eight years with a core of stars headlined by Shane Battier, Jay Williams and J.J. Redick. Meanwhile, Roy Williams rejuvenates the Carolina program that his mentor Smith once made standard, and Clemson’s pursuit of an elusive ACC championship continues.
Episode 10 (2009–20)
10 p.m. Monday, March 7
The changing college sports landscape brings the conference to 15 member institutions, with Florida State, Miami and Notre Dame each earning their first ACC championships. Virginia’s Tony Bennett and Duke phenom Zion Williamson each bring new excitement before the unimaginable happens.