Basketball icon Michael Jordan, a 19-year-old University of North Carolina freshman guard, authored the first chapter of his legend with a thrilling shot to beat Georgetown in the NCAA championship game on this day in history, March 29, 1982.
The sweet 16-foot jump shot from left of the rim with 17 seconds left to play lifted the Tar Heels to a 63-62 win over the mighty Hoyas.
An incredible 62,000 fans watched the performance live at the Louisiana Superdome, while about 17 million viewers caught it on television.
Jordan was a largely unknown figure on the national stage until that moment.
His hardwood heroics propelled him onto a path of greatness and, eventually, to a rare level of international stardom that extended far off the court and deep into wider pop culture.
“Michael Jordan personified greatness on the court, and redefined superstar athlete off it,” the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame writes in its profile of a player widely regarded as the greatest in the history of the sport.
“His freshman season at UNC culminated with Jordan hitting the game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA national title game. That shot put Michael on the map and a new era was born.”
The game capped a tournament that broadcaster Brent Musburger dubbed “March Madness” before a national audience for the first time in 1982.
“That shot put Michael on the map and a new era was born.” — Basketball Hall of Fame
Jordan was not the only basketball legend in the spotlight during North Carolina’s landmark victory.
Jordan’s North Carolina teammate and fellow future basketball Hall of Famer James Worthy sealed the victory with a steal in the final seconds. They bested a powerful Georgetown team led by another freshman phenom, and also a Hall of Famer in waiting, Patrick Ewing.
The victory sealed the legend of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith after an incredible career that was missing an important piece of hardware.
“He’d led the United States to a gold medal at the 1976 Summer Olympics. He’d been to six Final Fours. He’d led the charge to desegregate sports in North Carolina, signing Charlie Scott as the first black scholarship athlete at UNC in 1967,” Jason Owens wrote for Yahoo! Sports in 2020.
“He was a giant of the game, one of its great teachers who commanded the respect of his peers and those beyond the basketball world. He had everything. Everything but a national championship.”
North Carolina, one of the premier programs in the history of NCAA men’s basketball, was propelled into a new era of success on the heels of Jordan’s jumper.
The Tar Heels added four more national titles in 1993, 2005, 2008 and 2017.
Jordan was selected as the No. 3 overall pick by the Chicago Bulls of the NBA following his junior year in 1984.
He went on to a professional career unmatched in its combination of statistical accomplishments, team success and personal stardom.
Jordan was a 14-time NBA All-Star and 10-time scoring champion in his 15 seasons.
He led the Bulls to six NBA championships, winning the finals’ Most Valuable Player honors all six times.
“Jordan went on to a professional career unmatched in its combination of statistical accomplishments, team success and personal stardom.”
He also won two Olympic Gold medals representing the United States in men’s basketball, in 1984 and again as part of the legendary “Dream Team” of 1992.
He was joined by Ewing, the Georgetown star who lost to Jordan’s Tar Heels in the NCAA final in 1982, on both those U.S Olympic champions.
Jordan’s fame was driven not just by his dominance on the court, but with his famously graceful, balletic ability to glide and leap past opponents with gravity-defying ease.
His incredible acrobatics were evident while winning NBA Slam Dunk Contests in 1987 and 1988, further cementing his celebrity among casual sports fans.
That extraordinary athleticism inspired his nickname Air Jordan.
Nike introduced the Air Jordan sneaker in April 1985, near the end of Jordan’s rookie season with the Bulls.
“Nike had expected to sell only 100,000 pairs of the $65 shoes in the first year,” said sports website The Ringer. “Instead, it shipped 1.5 million in the first six weeks.”
“Nike had expected to sell only 100,000 pairs of the $65 (Air Jordans) in the first year. Instead, it shipped 1.5 million in the first six weeks.” — The Ringer
The sneakers continue to be a popular fashion statement today — early models are high-priced auction items coveted around the world.
Jordan proved to be at the forefront of a new era in international sports marketing in which on-court or on-field success blended seamlessly with brand image and consumer product marketing.
He parlayed his gift for basketball into a sizable business empire, including current ownership of the NBA franchise Charlotte Hornets.
“The court was his and the world soon followed,” said the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“His unmistakable style — the wagging tongue, the baggy shorts, the signature line of sneakers — helped make the 14-time All Star the most recognizable person on the planet.”