CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) _ Basketball has been just one part of a long season for Pat Sullivan.

The North Carolina forward gave up a year of eligibility in the 1994 season, then nearly lost 1995 because of a back injury that required surgery. Shortly after he returned to action, his father died after a long illness.

Through it all, Sullivan has maintained a perspective built around basketball and not by it.

``It's just been an incredible chain of events for me this whole year,'' Sullivan said.

Before the start of the regular season, the 6-foot-8 Sullivan encountered back problems that set back his plans to be a senior leader for the Tar Heels, who the season before were loaded with talent. He got the worst prognosis an athlete can hear.

``I had doctors telling me before my surgery that my playing future this year was in question and they had no way of knowing whether I would be back or not,'' he says.

He returned, but not after a strenuous exercise regimen that included walking around the concourse of the Dean Smith Center, resistance training in the swimming pool and a stair-climbing machine. Each week, basketball team trainer Marc Davis gave Sullivan a list of goals to achieve with each exercise.

Then came the practices. One would think 90-minute battles with Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace would be enough to strike a little fear in Sullivan's heart. Nope, neither Stackhouse nor Wallace gave Sullivan pause about his back. It wasn't even a starter that made him nervous.

``You ask some of the guys on the team about Charlie McNairy. He plays so hard, he'll hurt you sometimes,'' Sullivan said. ``Not on purpose, but he'll run you over. After he did that to me and I got up and everything was in one place, I knew I was set to go.''

Just before Sullivan headed into the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, his father died. In the midst of his attempt to overcome one physical hurdle, he has to clear an emotional one.

``People who care about me and who love me, that's who I've depended on when I was down,'' Sullivan said. ``Coach Smith also. I just can't say enough about that man, the things that he's done for me through all of this, whether he's listening or giving me advice. He's just been incredible.''

He and his brother Ryan headed home for the funeral, then returned to Chapel Hill, where Pat resumed his comeback. While he hasn't done anything startling, Sullivan has helped get the Tar Heels to where they are now.

``Playing these past four games in this tournament and to play pretty well, and to feel really comfortable for the first time in a long time, it's been just an incredible chain of events to me,'' he said. ``And to get back to the Final Four for the third time in my career.''

How will it compare to the 1993 title? Sullivan already has some ideas, even if North Carolina doesn't take it all.

``If we win it, I think it will probably be even more special than it was in '93,'' Sullivan said. ``First of all, personally, after all the things that I've been through this year. Secondly, just because ... people doubted us and said that we couldn't do it and all the experts saying Carolina's great, but they don't have this and they can't do that. In '93, we were kind of expected to roll through and get to the Final Four.

``Hopefully, Monday night, I can compare the two.''