The University of North Carolina has seen no shortage of star power, a cursory glance at the jerseys in the rafters of the Dean E. Smith Center can attest to that.
Dudley Bradley’s No. 22 doesn’t hang up there with UNC’s upper echelon, but he etched himself into Tar Heels lore by doing the thankless tasks that the storied program holds dear.
Bradley came to Chapel Hill as one of the most highly regarded players ever from the Baltimore area. At Edgewood High School, Bradley teamed with brothers Charles and Carl to win a Maryland state championship in 1974-’75.
Sadly, the 16-year-old Carl died of a heart ailment only a month later while playing in a recreational league. Charles went on to play at the University of Wyoming and played in 110 games with the Boston Celtics and the Seattle SuperSonics.
When 6-foot-6 Dudley landed at UNC, he had to wait his turn behind Walter Davis for two seasons.
Bradley became a starter as a junior in the 1977-’78 season, finding his niche as a defensive ace.
By his senior season Bradley had perfected his role, and his performance in 1978-’79 is surely among the best defensive seasons in UNC history.
Bradley’s standout performances came in a pair of 70-69 victories for the Tar Heels.
On Dec. 16, 1978, Bradley helped “hold” Michigan State’s Earvin Johnson to 18 points, six rebounds and six assists. Johnson’s numbers ended up looking good cosmetically, but Bradley’s harassing defense helped slow the fast-paced attack of the eventual NCAA champion Spartans.
Then on Jan. 17, 1979, Bradley had an iconic performance for UNC against North Carolina State at venerable Reynolds Coliseum.
The signs were there from the start, when Bradley darted behind the Wolfpack’s Kendall “Tiny” Pinder for a steal on the game’s opening possession.
A few minutes later, Bradley beautifully read a lob pass to Craig Watts and sprinted over from his help position to swat away Watts’ layup attempt.
That set the tone for a dominant first half as the Tar Heels rolled to a 40-19 lead at intermission.
It appeared to be more of the same in the second half when, on the Wolfpack’s first possession, Bradley’s quick hands knocked the ball away from Clyde Austin for another steal.
But N.C. State kept chipping away at the big deficit. Pressure defense, hot shooting by Charles “Hawkeye” Whitney and Kenny Matthews, and UNC’s inability to execute the “Four Corners” stall offense helped give the Wolfpack a 69-68 lead in the final minute.
Bradley missed a mid-range jumper and Austin corralled the rebound with 16 seconds remaining. UNC’s only hope for another shot at victory was to foul immediately.
Austin got loose from mustachioed Ged Doughton and was picked up by Bradley when the N.C. State point guard crossed the half-court line. Austin tried to spin away immediately, but Bradley saw an opening and came from behind to swipe the ball away.
Bradley had a clear path for a dunk with five seconds remaining to give UNC the lead for good and crush the hopes of a Reynolds crowd that was riled up after the comeback.
After the game, Austin offered up one of the great quotes in ACC history:
“I saw Dudley and tried to move away from him, and the next thing I know Coach is calling me a son of a bitch.”
Bradley finished that season with 97 steals (3.3 per game), still UNC’s single-season record. He swiped the ball seven times against Duke in the Tar Heels’ 71-63 victory in the ACC championship game.
However, Bradley’s senior season ended in the second round of the NCAA tournament with a 72-71 loss to Penn. Top-seeded UNC and second-seeded Duke both lost hours apart in Raleigh, a day known as Black Sunday in ACC circles. Perhaps that’s way Bradley’s stellar season is often neglected.
Bradley was picked by the Indiana Pacers with the 13th pick in the 1979 NBA draft. Building on the defensive prowess he showed in his senior season, he set an NBA rookie record with 211 steals.