The Tournament: 10-part documentary gives rich history of ACC’s signature event

More than 160 interviews highlight the ACC Network’s four-year effort

From left to right foreground, Duke's Greg Paulus, Jon Scheyer, and Gerald Henderson celebrate after winning the ACC Tournament in 2009. A new ACC Network 10-part series chronicles the history of the ACC Tournament. (John Bazemore / AP Photo)

For nearly seven decades, the ACC Tournament has featured some of college basketball’s best players, top coaches and biggest personalities.

The ACC Network is tackling telling the story of the conference’s signature event with a 10-part documentary series, “The Tournament: A History of ACC Men’s Basketball.”

The series debuted last week, and the network plans to release two one-hour episodes each week for five weeks as it tells a rich story with a deep dive into the conference’s history.

“We got over 160 interviews for this series, which is an awful lot of people,” said John Dahl, the executive producer of “The Tournament,” “and remember, of course, most of them were done during a pandemic.”

Virtually every major character from the conference’s history is heard from, either with new interviews or archival footage. While many of the contributors from the conference’s early days are no longer with us, Dahl’s team was able to talk to 1959 ACC Player of the Year Lou Pucillo as well as three starters from UNC’s 1957 national championship team.

The project has been four years in the making. Dahl said he was still putting finishing touches on the ninth and 10th episodes when the first hit the air as he tries to include as much detail about the conference tournament as he can fit.

“It was originally going to be six parts,” Dahl said. “Summer of 2019, we had a rough cut of the first episode, and it was like 15 minutes heavy.”

As he looked to make cuts, the significance of the story he was telling became clear.

“I’m like, ‘We can cut this,’” he recalls. “And I’m like — interviews from (1957 Player of the Year) Lennie Rosenbluth and (member of the All-ACC team in the league’s first year) Vic Molodet and all these guys from the ’50s,” he said.

That’s when the decision was made to add another four episodes.

“You know, if we don’t bring it to the screen, who will?” he said. “We have the ACC Network. It’s our responsibility.”

Dahl has deep ACC roots. He grew up in Maryland as a fan of the Terrapins, attended Duke’s basketball camp as a young player, then worked for the Tar Heel Sports Network while a student at UNC.

“Even after college, I moved to Atlanta, which was part of the ACC footprint with Georgia Tech, and I went to the ’89 ACC final while living in Atlanta,” he said. “So my formative years, my allegiances, are all in ACC country.”

Since the focus of the documentary is the ACC Tournament, the conference’s long history of success in the NCAA Tournament is downplayed, which may seem like a peculiar decision on the surface, but even 10 hours wasn’t enough to include that.

“We thought telling the story of the tournament will get a history of ACC men’s basketball, and so we try to stay focused on the ACC Tournament,” Dahl said. “NCAA Tournament appearances, really the only ones we really did a little more with were Virginia and their championship run after getting knocked out in the first round and North Carolina and ’57. Because it was the first national championship for the ACC, it was like part of the whole package. But with Duke, we really don’t spend any time on the (Christian) Laettner shot against Kentucky.”

The epic 1974 championship game between Maryland and NC State, which pushed the NCAA to change its rule and allow multiple teams from a conference to receive bids, receives a full episode. Generally considered the greatest game ever played, the 103-100 overtime win that launched NC State to a national title still stirred emotions nearly a half-century later.

“The memories are strong,” said Dahl. “When John Lucas talks about that final game, you can tell there’s still frustration. John said he’s never watched the game since that day because it’s too painful. John Lucas definitely brings it.”

The early episodes tell the stories of the birth of the conference, Everett Case’s early dominance and Dean Smith’s arrival at UNC. The series seems to hit its stride with the 1974 episode as the ACC takes its place as the nation’s best basketball conference. Ralph Sampson, Michael Jordan and Jim Valvano are all featured heavily.

The final four hours will take viewers from 1983 to present day.

The documentary’s strength is in capturing the urgency that comes with tournament season, from the early days of the league, when only the winner could move on to the NCAAs, to present day, when it provides teams with one last chance to earn a win over its rival. The seventh episode will focus on UNC-Duke as the two teams battle in the 1988 and 1989 finals.

“To tell a history of ACC men’s basketball, it was just important to me to differentiate what is unique about the ACC,” Dahl said. “We quickly settled on the tournament. It’s the conference tournament. … That’s how we tell the history of the conference and men’s basketball there, through that prism of the revolutionary, groundbreaking ACC Tournament.”