RALEIGH, NC — Michael Jordan’s iconic shot against Georgetown 40 years ago that gave North Carolina coach Dean Smith his first NCAA title wasn’t the only championship performance he had this year.
Much less known, but at the time just as important, Jordan helped the United States restore their title as the best basketball nation in the world in the summer of 1982.
On the surface, the Amateur Basketball Association of the United States of America, now simply known as USA Basketball, was looking to assemble an amateur team to participate in the 50th anniversary of the International Basketball Federation, better known as name of FIBA. Team USA would face a collection of European All-Stars in matches scheduled for Switzerland and Hungary.
These games weren’t the ones that mattered. ABAUSA also scheduled three games against the Yugoslav national team in matches that would be played in three different cities in the former Eastern Bloc nation.
Yugoslavia had won the gold medal at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow which the United States had boycotted. And while nothing was at stake in exhibition games, for the 12-member American amateur squad, it felt like everything was on the table.
“They were grown men in their late twenties who were physically more mature and stronger,” said Michael Payne, a center who had just completed his first season at Iowa in 1982. talent, we were there with them and we wanted to win.
Build the team or teams
The team was one of three that the ABAUSA put together in the summer of 1982 for international competition. Many players on these three teams, including Jordan, still thought they were amateurs when the 1984 Summer Games were held in Los Angeles, so international competition was also a first audition to potentially play on the Olympic stage.
Teams that played in Colombia and Korea – the location of the other two exhibition series – had tryouts. But FIBA’s anniversary team was hand-picked due to a tighter schedule that required a June 9-28 commitment. ABAUSA sent out questionnaires to all elite college basketball players to gauge their interest.
In the context of 1982, a player could decline participation for just about any reason, including the need to stay in summer school or work a summer job, so the team US Select was not the absolute best talent the ABAUSA could muster to represent the country.
Virginia center Ralph Sampson, winner of the 1982 Wooden Award as National Player of the Year, did not participate. Neither did the other freshman sensation Jordan and the Tar Heels had just beaten in the title game – Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing.
The ABAUSA committee consulted with the US Olympic committee and held a conference call with college coaches. Jordan was invited to the team, which was to be coached by CM Newton with Lee Rose as assistant coach, based on Smith’s recommendation.
Oregon State forward Charlie Sitton, who would also team up with Jordan in 1983 on the team that won Pan American Games gold, said in the summer of 1982 that Jordan “wasn’t really remarkable at that time”.
“I always thought at that point he didn’t really know how good he was,” Sitton said. “If he wanted to take over, he could.”
Jordan wasn’t considered one of the best players on the team at the start. There were others who were already more accomplished. Notre Dame guard John Paxson, who later teamed with Jordan on the Chicago Bulls, was a consensus second-team All-American in 1982. St. John’s forward David Russell, LSU forward Howard Carter, l Stanford forward John Revelli and Sitton were each named All-America honorable mentions by the Associated Press. Center Earl Jones had just led the University of the District of Columbia to an NCAA Division II title as a sophomore, and the 7-footer was a first-team, D-II All-American.
Payne, Vanderbilt guard Phil Cox, South Florida center Jim Grandholm, Indiana guard Jim Thomas and Vanderbilt forward Jeff Turner round out the list.
Newton was, at the time, Vanderbilt’s head coach, so the five days of practice before the team headed to Europe took place in Nashville, Tenn.
“You All Recognize Greatness”
They played an exhibition game before heading out against Marathon Oil, a team of former college players based in Lexington, Ky. The game didn’t really prepare them for the physical style they would face in Europe, but it was clear who was the best player. in the team was. Jordan scored a team-high 26 points to lead a 146-119 win in front of 1,000 fans at Memorial Gymnasium.
“Coaches, just like players, know when you’re in the gym and you all recognize greatness,” Turner said.
Jordan, along with Cox, were the two youngest players on the team at 19. And he would challenge himself on Team Select like he did when he joined UNC, going against the older guys 1-on-1. Payne, who was his roommate on the trip, joked that “I can’t tell you how many horse games we played.”
Thomas, a 6-foot-4 guard, played on the Hoosiers team that beat Carolina for the 1981 title. He was one of the first players Jordan played after practice.
“He was very – Tar Heel, all the way, in North Carolina,” Thomas said. “That’s all it was, and he was like, ‘I wish I could have played this game, we would have beaten you all (in 1981).’ I said it would have been the same result.
Thomas said he realized Jordan made it all a competition when their plane landed in Europe and bet the others on which luggage would come off the conveyor belt first.
Almost anonymous in Europe
The two games with the European All-Stars weren’t that competitive. The college kids just weren’t up to it. In Switzerland, the United States lost 111-92, with Jordan scoring a team-high 20 points. In Hungary they were eliminated 103-88 as he once again led the team with 19 points. Their defeat was compounded by a major miscalculation by Edward Steitz, the ABAUSA president who joined the voyage as head of mission.
He thought the players would enjoy seeing the countryside and instructed the bus to take a scenic route from Budapest, Hungary to Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia). It was supposed to be a five-hour drive, but it took double that, and they still had to take a 45-minute flight to Zadar, Yugoslavia, for their first game.
“They thought we’d want to see the campaign, all the guys on the team were like, ‘Man, this is ridiculous,'” Grandholm said. “But we went there, now it’s serious. It’s for pride, that’s what matters. And you know what, no one will.
There was very little coverage of the games in the United States. USA Basketball doesn’t even have one of the box scores on file. And in Yugoslavia, the most urgent matter was the 1982 FIFA World Cup. The games were switched so as not to interfere with football fans watching Yugoslavia in groups.
The marquee match
Before facing the Yugoslavs, they had lost a coach. Rose was South Florida’s head coach and previously took Charlotte (1977) and Purdue (1980) to the Final Four. But he had fallen ill during the trip and it only got worse.
Eleanor Rose, his wife, told The News & Observer that Jordan approached her reluctantly about her husband’s health.
“I think he has to go home,” she recalled, telling Jordan. “I don’t know if you hear him cough like we hear him cough in the gym.”
Rose had pneumonia and he left the team to return home.
The Yugoslav team wasn’t as deep as the All-Stars the United States had just faced in two games, but they were old and experienced. Some of the American players had faced them before with their college teams.
The Yugoslav team played UNC in an exhibition game in December 1981. Drazen Dalipagic, a 6-foot-6 guard, was down 41 points, but the Heels won in overtime. Dalipagic was Europe’s Player of the Year for three seasons between 1976 and 1980. He had played on their Olympic teams in 1976 and 1980, and he was 30 in the summer of 1982.
They also had a 23-year-old Yugoslavian point guard named Aleksander (Aco) Petrovic – the older brother of New Jersey Nets star Drazen Petrovic, who tragically died in a car crash in 1993 – trying to make a name for himself. off Jordan. Yugoslavia had just a few open spots on their roster for the FIBA World Championships taking place in Colombia later this summer. Aco Petrovic thought his best shot at doing so was to make an impression while defending the Americans’ top scorer.
“I was bloodthirsty,” Aco Petrovic said on the Inkubator podcast on January 19, 2021. “I did all kinds of things to (Jordan.) I literally, physically, slaughtered him.”
Or at least he tried. There was no box score from the first match they played, only the result: USA won 92-90 in Zadar. Then Jordan netted 18 points in their next encounter in a 93-92 loss at Zagreb. This set up the third and final game to determine the winner of the series.
The Yugoslav soccer team had been knocked out of the World Cup, sending hundreds of fans in 90-degree heat to a one-stop shop at Belgrade’s Pionir Stadium in an attempt to secure a place in the final game . A crowd of 5,000 saw the United States take a 16-point lead en route to an 88-83 victory. Jordan led the way with 21 points and the United States felt they had proven themselves.
Ten years later, Jordan and the Dream Team once again restored the balance of basketball power for the United States, following a bronze medal in 1988 with the last amateur team to compete in the Olympics.
But in 1982, winning two out of three against the team considered the best in the world was arguably more satisfying after the United States missed out on the chance to compete in 1980.
“Playing against Yugoslavia was amazing,” Grandholm said. “And beat them? This is where, frankly, we felt like we had won the gold medal.
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