Stevens remembers facing Dean Smith
By STEVE RANSON
When the University of Nevada men’s basketball team plays North Carolina today in Chapel Hill, one person watching the game on television will be Len Stevens, former Wolf Pack coach.
Steven’s Wolf Pack played North Carolina at Lawlor Events Center on Dec. 30, 1987, and then returned to Chapel Hill the following season for a Feb. 21, 1989, game.
Both times, the Tar Heels defeated the Wolf Pack, 115-91 in Reno and 109-86 in North Carolina.
The home-and-way schedule surprised many Wolf Pack fans, but not Stevens.
“I knew Dean Smith (former North Carolina coach) because we both traveled with Converse (shoes),” Stevens said. “Every summer Converse would take coaches on trips.”
That friendship then produced two basketball games.
“They were making a trip to the West Coast and looking for another game,” Stevens remembers.
The Tar Heels scheduled a game on Jan. 2 at UCLA, but Smith wanted another game on the road prior to his team facing the Bruins. Nevada came to the rescue.
“It was a one-for-one,” Stevens said, explaining how Nevada would fly cross country the following year for a rematch.
Stevens, who is now executive director of the Sparks Chamber of Commerce, said Smith also agreed to answer questions at a Reno luncheon.
“We had 600 people there, and we made some money off of it,” Stevens said with a laugh. “Dean was so gracious, he did a great job.”
Stevens said the community and Wolf Pack fans were excited the university was bringing a top 10 team to Reno.
“It was sellout at that time. We had six of the 10 top crowds here when I coached.”
One of Stevens players was freshman Matt Williams, founder of Jam on It Basketball Academy in Reno.
“The atmosphere (at Lawlor) was second to none,” Williams said, adding how Wolf Pack fans were supportive of the team’s play against the Tar Heels.
Playing at North Carolina, though, was a history lesson in sports for Stevens and the Wolf Pack.
“It was an experience like going back to a National Hall of Fame,” Stevens said.
He said one large section of the University of North Carolina Hall of Fame had displays of its All-American players, their coaches and records.
Stevens was impressed with the number of sections dedicated to each era.
“That’s something I won’t forget,” Steven said. “The only match to that was the row of Heisman Trophy winners at Notre Dame. They had three to four rows of honored players.”
The basketball venue at Chapel Hill also impressed Stevens.
“The fans were not on top of you, and the noise wasn’t what you expected,” Stevens said. “The fans were very polite, very knowledgeable and very kind.
Stevens said Nevada took the early lead when Darryl Owens slammed three dunks over the head of All-American J.R. Reid.
“The fans applauded him (Owens) for that,” Stevens said.
“Their crowd knew more about us than I thought,” said Williams.
Prior to the game, Williams said some of his teammates felt intimidated because of their visit. Williams, though, wasn’t. He had played AAU basketball against many North Carolina players.
“Once we shot around and I saw guys from the summer, that feeling went way,” Williams said.
Although the Pack was the underdog coming into the game, Stevens said it did not take much to motivate the team.
“It was a chance to play a team with that much history,” he said. “With the intensity we had, we were firing on all cylinders.”
In addition to visiting the UNC campus, Stevens took his players to Duke and North Carolina State.
He said current Nevada coach Mark Fox will probably take his team to the Hall of Fame and to several campuses like Duke and Wake Forest.
Stevens said the trip will be a history lesson.
“It will be unbelievable,” he said. “We’re talking about Tobacco Road (term used for the tobacco producing area college basketball teams are located).”