NBA could've been a reality for Packers linebacker Julius Peppers

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Matt Doherty had his players in the huddle, but he knew he didn’t have their attention. His University of North Carolina basketball team was too in awe of what they just saw.

And what they were seeing again.

Instead of listening to Doherty’s instructions during a timeout, they were all watching a replay of an alley-oop dunk from Ronald Curry to Julius Peppers on the Dean Smith Center videoboard.

“One of the best dunks that I was a part of as a coach,” Doherty recalled this week. “And it was ironically two football players.”

It was Feb. 6, 2001, against Wake Forest when Curry, the Tar Heels quarterback/point guard, threw that lob to Peppers, a forward/defensive end. Doherty isn’t sure if that’s the moment he knew Peppers could play in the NBA, but even today, his former coach said the 6-foot-7 Peppers was a legitimate NBA prospect in the making had he not decided to focus solely on football after that second season at UNC.

“I’ll tell you this, I do believe if Pep would’ve just focused on basketball, he could’ve played in the NBA,” said Doherty, who is now a scout for the Indiana Pacers.

Peppers, the Green Bay Packers linebacker now in his 14th NFL season, agrees.

“No question,” he said. "At the time, [football] was the best situation for me. I had a passion for both, still do. Still love to watch basketball."

Peppers’ career averages in his two seasons of college basketball won’t wow you: 5.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. But he shot nearly 61 percent, including 64.3 percent as a sophomore, and played his best basketball in the final two games of his career. A year after going to the Final Four as a freshman on a team in which, according to then UNC football coach Carl Torbush, Peppers and Curry were “two of the big reasons they got to the Final Four that year,” Peppers was near dominant in his two NCAA tournament games under Doherty.

In two games – a win over Princeton and a loss to Penn State – Peppers made 13-of-15 shots and grabbed 15 rebounds. He put up 21 points and 10 rebounds in the second-round game.

Walk through any NFL locker room, and you’ll hear players arguing about who’s the better basketball player. In Green Bay, there are three former college basketball players – Peppers plus cornerbacks Demetri Goodson (Gonzaga) and Quinten Rollins (Miami of Ohio). Even Goodson and Rollins know the answer in the Packers’ locker room is Peppers.

“We’re playing for second,” Goodson said.

“All football players think they can play basketball,” said Doherty, who played alongside Michael Jordan on UNC’s 1982 NCAA title team. “And the only the one that really could a little bit when I was there [as a player] was Lawrence Taylor.

“But I’ll tell you this, Julius could. I don’t know if anybody else could, but Julius could. He had feel. He wasn’t just a rebounder or banger. He could pass the ball, make the 15-18 foot shot and had soft hands.”