At ‘other’ 1982 championships, Michael Jordan led USA Basketball past Yugoslavia

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 he had that year.

Far less well-known, but equally important at the time, in the summer of 1982, Jordan helped the United States re-establish its claim as the world’s best basketball nation.

At first glance, the Amateur Basketball Association of the United States of America, now simply known as USA Basketball, was looking for a team of amateurs to participate in the 50th Anniversary of the International Basketball Federation, commonly known as FIBA. The US team would play a collection of European All-Stars in matches scheduled for Switzerland and Hungary.

Those games weren’t the ones that mattered. The ABAUSA also had three games scheduled against the Yugoslav National Team in games to be played in three different cities in the former Eastern Bloc country.

Yugoslavia had won the gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics boycotting the US. And while nothing was at stake during the exhibition games, for the American 12 amateur squad, it felt like everything was on the table.

“They were grown men in their late twenties who were more physically mature and stronger,” said Michael Payne, a center who had just finished its freshman season in Iowa in 1982. wanted to win.”

Composing the team(s)

The team was one of three teams that ABAUSA was putting together for international competition in the summer of ’82. Many of the players on those three teams, including Jordan, still thought they were amateurs when the 1984 Summer Games took place in Los Angeles, so the international competition was also an early audition for possible play on the Olympic stage.

The teams that played in Colombia and Korea – the location of the other two exhibition games – had tryouts. But the FIBA ​​anniversary team was picked due to a tighter schedule that required a commitment from June 9-28. The ABAUSA sent questionnaires to all of the university’s elite basketball players to gauge their interest.

In the context of 1982, a player could refuse entry for just about any reason, including the need to stay in summer school or have a summer job, so the US Select team wasn’t the absolute best talent the ABAUSA could muster to take the country. .

Virginia center Ralph Sampson, winner of the 1982 Wooden Award as National Player of the Year, did not compete. Nor had the other freshman sensation just beat Jordan and the Tar Heels in the title match — 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 would be coached by CM Newton on Smith’s recommendation with Lee Rose as an assistant coach.

Oregon State forward Charlie Sitton, who would also team up with Jordan in 1983 on the team that won gold at the Pan American Games, said in the summer of ’82 that Jordan “wasn’t really standout then.”

“I always thought at the time that he didn’t really know how good he was,” said Sitton. “If he wanted to take over, he could.”

Jordan was not initially considered one of the best players on the team. There were others who had already achieved more. Notre Dame guard John Paxson, who later teamed with Jordan with the Chicago Bulls, was a consensus second-team All-American in ’82. St. John’s striker David Russell, LSU striker Howard Carter, Stanford striker John Revelli and Sitton were each named All-America honorable mentions by The Associated Press. Center Earl Jones, as a sophomore, had led the University of the District of Columbia to an NCAA Division II title, and the 7-footer was a first-team, D-II All-American.

Rounding out the roster were Payne, Vanderbilt guard Phil Cox, downtown South Florida Jim Grandholm, Indiana guard Jim Thomas, and Vanderbilt forward Jeff Turner.

Newton was Vanderbilt’s head coach at the time, so the five days of practice before the team left for Europe were in Nashville.

‘You all recognize greatness’

They played one exhibition game before taking off against Marathon Oil, a team of former college players from Lexington, Kentucky. The match didn’t really prepare them for the physical style they would face in Europe, but it was clear who the best player was. was on the team. Jordan scored a team-high 26 points and led a 146-119 win in front of 1,000 fans at Memorial Gymnasium.

“Coaches, like players, know when you’re in the gym and you all recognize greatness,” Turner said.

Jordan, along with Cox, was the team’s two youngest players at age 19. And he challenged himself on the Select team, just like he did when he came to UNC, playing the older guys 1-on-1. Payne, who was his roommate on the trip, joked that he “can’t tell you how many horses we would play.”

Thomas, a 6-foot-4 guard, played on the Hoosiers team that defeated Carolina for the 1981 title. He was one of the first players to play Jordan after practice.

“He was very—Tar Heel, all, North Carolina,” Thomas said. “That was all, and he would say, ‘I wish I could have played that game, we would have beaten all of you (in 1981)’.” I said it would have been the same result.”

Thomas said he realized Jordan was making everything a competition when their plane landed in Europe and he bet the others would be the first to get the luggage off the assembly line.

UNC's Michael Jordan reaches for a loose ball in action against NC State.

UNC’s Michael Jordan reaches for a loose ball in action against NC State.

Almost anonymous in Europe

The two games with the European All-Stars were not that competitive. The school kids were just no match. In Switzerland, the US lost 111-92, with Jordan scoring a team-high 20 points. In Hungary, they were sent off 103-88 when he again led the team by scoring 19. The offset of their loss was a major miscalculation by Edward Steitz, the ABAUSA president who joined the trip as head of mission.

Thinking the players would appreciate seeing the countryside, he had the bus take a scenic route from Budapest, Hungary, to Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia). It was supposed to be a five-hour drive, but took double that time, and they still had a 45-minute flight to Zadar, Yugoslavia, for their first game.

“They thought we wanted to see the countryside, all the guys on the team said, ‘Man, this is ridiculous,'” said Grandholm. ‘But we went there, now it’s serious. This is for pride, this is what matters. And you know what, no one will know.”

There was very little coverage of the games in the United States. USA Basketball doesn’t even have any of the box scores in its archives. And in Yugoslavia, the far more pressing issue was the 1982 FIFA World Cup. The matches had been switched so as not to hinder football fans watching Yugoslavia in groups.

The selection of the tent

Before playing against the Yugoslavs, they were one coach behind. Rose was the head coach in South Florida and had previously brought both Charlotte (1977) and Purdue (1980) to Final Four appearances. But he had fallen ill during the journey and it only seemed to get worse.

Eleanor Rose, his wife, told The News & Observer that Jordan was reluctant to approach her about her husband’s health.

“I think he should go home,” she recalls Jordan saying. “I don’t know if you hear him coughing the way we hear him coughing at the gym.”

Rose had pneumonia and he left the team to return home.

The Yugoslav team was not as deep as the All-Stars the US had just played in two games, but they were old and experienced. Some American players had already faced them with their college teams.

The Yugoslav team played UNC in an exhibition game in December 1981. Drazen Dalipagic, a 6-foot-6 guard, lost 41 points, but the Heels won in overtime. Dalipagic was Europe’s Player of the Year for three seasons from 1976 to 1980. He had played in their Olympic teams in 1976 and 1980 and by the summer of ’82 he was 30 years old.

They also had a 23-year-old Yugoslav point guard named Aleksander (Aco) Petrovic — the older brother of New Jersey Nets star Drazen Petrovic, who was tragically killed in a car accident in 1993 — who was trying to make a name for himself. from Jordan. Yugoslavia had only a few spots left on the roster for the FIBA ​​World Championships to be held in Colombia later in the summer. Aco Petrovic believed his best chance was to impress while defending the Americans’ flashy top scorer.

“I was out for blood,” said Aco Petrovic on the Inkubator podcast on Jan. 19, 2021. “I did all kinds of things to (Jordan). I literally, physically, butchered him.”

Or at least he tried. There was no box score from the first game they played, just the result: the US won 92-90 in Zadar. Then Jordan had 18 points their next meeting in a 93-92 loss in Zagreb. That provided the third and final match to determine the winner of the series.

The Yugoslav football team had been eliminated from the World Cup, which sent hundreds of fans in 90-degree heat to a one-stop shop at the Pionir stadium in Belgrade to try and secure a seat for the final game. A packed crowd of 5,000 saw the USA jump to a 16-point lead en route to an 88-83 win. Jordan led the way with 21 points and the US felt like they had proven themselves.

In another 10 years, Jordan and the Dream Team rebalanced basketball power for the US, having won a bronze medal in 1988 with the last team of amateurs to compete in the Olympics.

But in 1982, it was probably more satisfying to win two out of three against the team considered the best in the world, after the US missed the opportunity to participate in 1980.

“It was incredible to play against Yugoslavia,” said Grandholm. ‘And beat them? There we honestly felt that we had won the gold medal.”

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