The Tournament

John Dahl’s 10-part documentary, “The Tournament: A History of ACC Men’s Basketball,” debuted Feb. 7 on the ACC Network, with two episodes airing each Monday for five weeks. Beginning Feb. 3, and continuing for the next four Thursdays in this space, Dahl will share his thoughts on the upcoming episodes, including exclusive video clips of Tar Heel basketball’s role in the series that week.

Read about John Dahl '86

John Dahl ’86

As a kid playing in his driveway, John Dahl ’86 imagined himself as Terps shooting guard Mo Howard sinking a buzzer-beater to win the ACC Tournament. Dahl’s fascination led him to UNC and eventually evolved into a career as an executive producer at ESPN.

For the last 25 years, Dahl has produced hundreds of documentaries, from “Catholics vs. Convicts” to the 2020 blockbuster “The Last Dance.” Now he’s turned his attention to men’s Atlantic Coast Conference basketball. “I thought we should tell the story of ACC basketball through the history of the ACC Tournament,” Dahl said, “because staging a tournament before anybody else did is what makes the ACC special.”

“This is a passion project because ACC basketball is part of my identity,” Dahl said. “I’m bringing something to the screen that has never been done before and that is both exciting and humbling. I feel a sense of responsibility to all of the amazing people who have played in the ACC, coached in the ACC, covered the ACC, as well as fans who love ACC basketball, to get this right.”

Dahl will be profiled in the March/April issue of the Carolina Alumni Review.

A Conversation with Dahl

John Dahl was the feature guest March 1 for the New York Carolina Club’s Tommy Kearns/NYCC Basketball Speaker Series. The virtual discussion was hosted by UNC History Associate Professor Matthew Andrews ’08 (PhD), who has studied the links between sports, American history and culture.

Exclusive Episode Previews

March 7

Monday’s final episodes feature an unprecedented five in a row for the Blue Devils; ACC newcomers Florida State, Miami and Notre Dame each winning their first; Clemson’s many near-misses; and Roy Williams doing his mentor proud.

John Dahl’s Take:

“Like at the end of every big project, I have mixed emotions, kind of sad, kind of glad. I’ve put my heart and soul into this for the last three years of my life, riding this emotional wave of adrenaline that is both exhausting and exhilarating. But it’s neat to witness the impact you’re making. Mike Krzyzewski stopped Jim Sumner mid-question in his postgame press conference after the Florida State game recently and started talking about Sumner’s role in giving historical perspective in the ACC Tournament doc. Mike Krzyzewski is a pretty busy man right now, he’s got a lot going on, but it sounds like he’s finding time to watch this film, which is really cool.”

In this exclusive video clip, UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough ’09 becomes fashion critic and ACC Tournament champ.

Feb. 28

Monday’s episodes feature redemption for Maryland’s Lefty Driesell, Georgia Tech’s Bobby Cremins, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski — who survives calls for his firing and begins building a dynasty — the resuscitation of Wake Forest behind Tim Duncan and a proper curtain call for the Dean.

John Dahl’s Take:

“Initially, when our team sat down to interview Shammond Williams it was just supposed to be about Dean Smith’s last ACC Tournament title. But the more we started piecing that story together, we realized how Shammond’s journey was so emblematic of who Dean was. Dean found Shammond when other programs overlooked him, then he empowered him, built him up, believed in him and Shammond rewarded him with his final championship. We decided that telling the story through Shammond perfectly captures who Dean Smith was as a man and as a coach. It’s funny because we probably would never have interviewed Shammond if he wasn’t the ’97 ACC tourney MVP, but we decided to do it and then he just nailed it. From the first rough cut, I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to blow people away.’ That kind of next-level emotion and introspection is what makes a series like this work. I live for those moments of storytelling. It’s so satisfying when you’re grinding through 160 interviews of content, over 10,000 minutes of interviews and suddenly you strike gold and that gets you all energized again and you think, ‘This is worth it. This is so worth it.’ ”

In this exclusive clip, the ACC’s most bitter rivalry comes to a boil during the 1989 tournament final.


In this exclusive video clip, UNC’s Shammond Williams validates his coach’s faith in him.

Feb. 21

Monday’s episodes feature the ascendance of Virginia basketball from Wally Walker to Ralph Sampson, a Blue Devils revival thanks to Banks, the origin of the “Airball!”, Thacker & Packer, Michael Jordan helps Dean Smith finally win the big one and Jim Valvano and the Cardiac Pack survive and advance.

John Dahl’s Take:

“Phil Ford was scheduled to do his interview with our crew at 3 o’clock one afternoon, but Phil got in touch with the crew the day before and politely asked if it would be possible to change the time to 2 o’clock. You could tell that he really didn’t want to inconvenience the crew, and it was only later that we found out that it was because he had to go to a funeral. It speaks to what Dean Smith instilled in his players about consideration for others, and it reminds me of the time I was in college working at WBT radio in Charlotte one summer, and I played in a charity basketball game with Phil. We were the backcourt, and it felt like a fantasy camp. Phil let me run the show, and I probably scored 20 points, and he might have scored two. As a 21-year-old college kid I was still young enough to think, ‘Hey I can hang with Phil Ford!’ I could not hang with Phil Ford, but Phil was gracious enough to let me think that for one night.”

In this exclusive video clip, UNC’s Phil Ford accomplishes something no freshman has ever done at the ACC Tournament.

Feb. 14

The episodes slated to air Monday feature how Dean Smith was hired to “de-emphasize” basketball at UNC, the invention of his Four Corners, the border war between Larry Miller at North Carolina and John Roche at South Carolina, the incredible David Thompson, the incorrigible Lefty Driesell and the greatest game in ACC Tournament history.

John Dahl’s Take:

“One of our producers, David Check, did the interview with Charlie Scott, and he knew they both came from New York so they were comparing notes on their upbringings. David proudly told Charlie that he had gone to Bronx Science High, which was then considered the second-ranked public school in all of New York City. Charlie countered that he went to Stuyvesant High, which was the top-ranked school in New York City and then transferred to Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina where he was the valedictorian. At that point, sufficiently put in his place, David did not talk any more academics. But bringing us back to those times, Charlie said that he transferred from Stuyvesant because as an African-American he wasn’t allowed to play basketball. After his interview with Charlie, David called Stuyvesant and shared that story with the current administration, and he’s since heard that they are discussing the possibility of naming their gym in Charlie’s honor.”

Next week: UNC’s Phil Ford accomplishes something no freshman has ever done at the ACC Tournament.

In this exclusive clip, UNC’s first Black scholarship basketball player, Charlie Scott, said he felt welcomed by the team … but not always by the community.


In this second exclusive clip, South Carolina’s Kevin Joyce jumps to the moon to tap out the Tar Heels.

Feb. 7

Monday’s debut episodes feature the rise of pioneering N.C. State coach Everett Case and his bitter rivals Vic Bubas at Duke and Bones McKinney at Wake Forest, the birth of the Atlantic Coast Conference and its tournament, a tradition established after the first tournament championship game and the story behind what really brought Dean Smith to Chapel Hill.

John Dahl’s Take:

One of the coolest pieces of these first two episodes to me is the interview with former Greensboro News & Record editor Irwin Smallwood. It is surreal when you see his career tenure on the screen, and it reads 1947 to 1989 … 1947! Irwin is sharing stories about sitting outside the smoke-filled room when the ACC was created that he actually witnessed first-hand almost 70 years ago. He’s 95 now and it reinforces the urgency of a project like this. That interview is a priceless gift to all of us, and it sets the tone for what’s to come in this series.”

Next week: Dean Smith is hired to “de-emphasize” basketball at UNC.

In this first exclusive video clip: In the midst of a magical 1957 season, UNC’s first great player, Lennie Rosenbluth, makes a prophetic statement to Coach Frank McGuire.

In this second exclusive clip, McGuire builds a recruiting pipeline from his hometown to his new address.