Basketball was first organized as a varsity sport at the university in late 1910, with the team playing its first game on January 27, 1911, a victory over Virginia Christian College. The team played its home games in Bynum Gymnasium. Though basketball initially was not as popular as football and basketball, the university developed a successful basketball program in the 1920s, winning the Southern Conference several times and completing an undefeated season in 1924. It was during this era that a sportswriter, commenting on the fast play and white uniforms of the team, gave them the unofficial nickname "White Phantoms," which would continue to be used through the 1950s.
Even amid growing concerns on campus in the 1930s about the role of athletics in the university, the basketball team continued to have success. The games moved into a larger space in the new Woollen Gym in 1938. UNC—Chapel Hill was one of the founding members of the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1953 and built intense and lasting rivalries with Duke and N.C. State. The program rose to national prominence in 1957 when a team of players primarily from New York won the national championship in a thrilling triple overtime victory over Kansas.
The basketball program faced a series of challenges in the early 1960s, including NCAA investigations, the departure of coach Frank McGuire for the NBA, and a gambling scandal at the popular Dixie Classic tournament. With increased scrutiny on college sports in general and especially basketball, university administrators decided not to go after another high-profile coach and instead simply promoted a young assistant coach named Dean Smith.
Despite some challenging years early in his tenure —students hanged Smith in effigy after a particularly bad loss in 1965 —Smith would go on to become one of the most revered coaches in basketball history, leading the Tar Heels for thirty-one seasons. He led the team to multiple ACC championships and NCAA Final Four games and won national championships in 1982 and 1993. His national reputation was evident in his selection as coach for the 1976 Olympic basketball team. When UNC—Chapel Hill opened a new, much larger basketball arena in 1986, it was named for Smith.
Smith was instrumental in recruiting African American players to the basketball team for the first time. Willie Cooper, who played on the freshman team in 1964, was the first African American basketball player at UNC. He was followed a few years later by Charles Scott, who became the first African American varsity basketball player at Carolina and had a very successful career at UNC.
Carolina basketball entered a new era in 2003 with the hiring of Roy Williams, an alumnus and former assistant coach under Dean Smith. Tar Heel teams led by Williams won national championships in 2005, 2009, and 2017.
The number of retired and honored jerseys hanging from the Dean Smith Center rafters is evidence of the many great Carolina basketball players over the years. Some of UNC—Chapel Hill's most honored players include player-of-the-year award winners Lennie Rosenbluth, Phil Ford, Antawn Jamison, and Tyler Hansborough. Many former Tar Heel stars, including James Worthy, Vince Carter, and Danny Green, have gone on to long and successful NBA careers. But the university's best-known player (and almost certainly its most recognizable alumnus) is Michael Jordan, who played at Carolina from 1982 to 1984. Beginning with his championship-winning shot as a freshman and continuing through an outstanding NBA career, Jordan became one of the most popular athletes in the world. Even decades after his playing career, Jordan remained popular at Carolina, with fans wearing #23 jerseys to games and his "Jumpman" silhouette appearing on the team's uniforms.
UNC women students first organized a basketball team in 1930. Called the Tar Heelettes by the Daily Tar Heel, they played other local club teams. The first women's intercollegiate game was played a few years later. Women's basketball was established as a varsity sport in 1971. The team won its first ACC championship in 1984. In 1986 Sylvia Hatchell was hired as head coach. Hatchell would become one of the most successful women's basketball coaches of all time, leading the Tar Heels to a national championship in 1994 and multiple ACC championships. She was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.
Date Established: 1910
Date Range: 1910 – Present