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 that year.
Far less known, but at the time equally as important, Jordan helped the United State restore its claim as the world’s best basketball nation in the summer of 1982.
On the surface, the Amateur Basketball Association of the United States of America, now known simply as USA Basketball, was looking to put together a team of amateurs to participate in the 50th anniversary of the International Basketball Federation, better known as FIBA. The U.S. team would play a collection of European All-Stars in games scheduled for Switzerland and Hungary.
Those games were not the ones that mattered. The ABAUSA also scheduled three games against the Yugoslavian National Team in games that would be played in three different cities in the former Eastern Bloc nation.
Yugoslavia had won the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow that the U.S. boycotted. And although nothing was at stake during the exhibition games, for the U.S. squad of 12 amateurs, it felt as though everything was on the table.
“They were grown men in their late 20s who were physically more mature and stronger,” said Michael Payne, a center who had just finished his freshman season at Iowa in 1982. “From a talent level, we were right there with them and we wanted to win.”
Assembling the team(s)
The team was one of three the ABAUSA was putting together in the summer of ’82 for international competition. Many of the players on those three teams, including Jordan, figured to still be amateurs when the 1984 Summer Games took place in Los Angeles, so the international competition was also an early audition for potentially playing on the Olympic stage.
The teams that played in Colombia and Korea — the location of the other two sets of exhibition games — had tryouts. But the FIBA anniversary team was handpicked because of a tighter schedule that had needed a commitment from June 9-28. The ABAUSA sent out questionnaires to all of the elite college basketball players to gauge their interest.
Put 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 U.S. Select team was not the absolute best talent the ABAUSA could assemble to represent the country.
Virginia center Ralph Sampson, winner of the 1982 Wooden Award as the national Player of the Year, did not participate. Neither did the other freshman sensation Jordan and the Tar Heels had just beat in the title game — Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing.
The ABAUSA committee consulted with the U.S. Olympic committee and held a conference call with college coaches. Jordan was invited to the team, set to be coached by C.M. Newton with Lee Rose as an assistant coach, on the strength of Smith’s recommendation.
Oregon State forward Charlie Sitton, who would also team 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-ish at that time.”
“I always thought at that point in time, 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 team’s top players initially. 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 ’82. St. John’s forward David Russell, LSU forward Howard Carter, 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 a NCAA Division II title as a sophomore, and the 7-footer was a first-team, D-II All-American.
Rounding out the roster were Payne, Vanderbilt guard Phil Cox, South Florida center Jim Grandholm, Indiana guard Jim Thomas and Vanderbilt forward Jeff Turner.
Newton was, at the time, the head coach at Vanderbilt, so the five days of practice before the team headed to Europe were in Nashville.
‘You all recognize greatness’
They played one exhibition game before leaving against Marathon Oil, a team of former college players based out of Lexington, Ky. The game didn’t really prepare them for the physical style they would face in Europe, but it was clear who the best player on the team was. Jordan scored a team-high 26 points to lead a 146-119 victory in front of 1,000 fans in 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’d challenge himself on the Select team just as he did when he joined UNC, by playing the older guys 1-on-1. Payne, who was his roommate during the trip, joked he, “can’t tell you how many games of horse we’d play.”
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, North Carolina,” Thomas said. “That’s all it was, and he’d say, ‘I wish I could have played that game, we would have beat y’all (in 1981).’ I said it would have been the same result.”
Thomas said he realized Jordan made everything a competition when their plane touched down in Europe and he bet the others on whose luggage would get off the conveyor belt first.
Almost anonymous in Europe
The two games with the European All-Stars were not that competitive. The college kids were simply no match. In Switzerland, the U.S. lost 111-92, with Jordan scoring a team-high 20 points. In Hungary, they were dispatched 103-88 as he again led the team in scoring with 19. Compounding their loss was a major miscalculation from Edward Steitz, the ABAUSA president who joined the trip as its chief of mission.
He thought the players would appreciate getting to see the countryside, and had the bus take a scenic route from Budapest, Hungary, to Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia). It was supposed to be a five-hour ride, but took double that time, and they still had to catch a 45-minute flight to Zadar, Yugoslavia, for their first game.
“They thought we’d want to see the countryside, all the guys on the team were like, ‘Man, this is ridiculous,’ ” Grandholm said. “But we went over there going, now it’s serious. This is for pride, this is what matters. And you know what, no one’s gonna know about it.”
There was very little coverage of the games in the United States. USA Basketball doesn’t even have one of the box scores in its archives. And in Yugoslavia, the much more pressing matter was the ’82 World Cup of soccer. The games were toggled so not to interfere with soccer fans watching Yugoslavia in group play.
The marquee matchup
Before they played the Yugoslavians, they were down one coach. Rose was the head coach at South Florida and had previously taken both Charlotte (1977) and Purdue (1980) to Final Four appearances. But he’d gotten sick on the trip and it only seemed to be getting worse.
Eleanor Rose, his wife, told The News & Observer that Jordan reluctantly approached her about her husband’s health.
“I think he needs to go home,” she recalled Jordan saying. “I don’t know if you hear him coughing like we hear him coughing in the gym.”
Rose had pneumonia, and he left the team to return home.
The Yugoslavian team wasn’t as deep as the All-Stars the U.S. had just taken on in two games, but they were old and experienced. Some of the U.S. players had already faced them with their college teams.
The Yugoslavian team played UNC in a December 1981 exhibition game. Drazen Dalipagic, a 6-foot-6 guard, dropped 41 points, but the Heels won in overtime. Dalipagic was Europe’s Player of the Year for three seasons between 1976-1980. He’d played on their Olympic teams in 1976 and 1980, and he was 30 years old in the summer of ’82.
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 died tragically in a car accident in 1993 — who was trying to make a name for himself off Jordan. Yugoslavia only had a couple spots open on its roster for the FIBA World Championships set for Colombia later in the summer. Aco Petrovic believed his best shot to do so was to make an impression while defending the Americans’ flashy leading scorer.
“I was out for blood,” Aco Petrovic said on the Inkubator podcast on Jan. 19, 2021. “I did all sorts of things to (Jordan.) I literally, physically, massacred him.”
Or at least he tried to. There was no box score from the first game they played, only the result: the U.S. won 92-90 in Zadar. Then Jordan had 18 points their next meeting in a 93-92 loss in Zagreb. That set up the third and final game to determine the series winner.
The Yugoslavian soccer team had been eliminated from the World Cup, which sent hundreds of fans in 90-degree heat to a single ticket window at Pionir Stadium in Belgrade to try and secure a seat for the final game. A capacity crowd of 5,000 watched the U.S. jump out to a 16-point lead en route to an 88-83 victory. Jordan led the way with 21 points, and the U.S. felt like it had proven itself.
In another 10 years, Jordan and the Dream Team reset the balance of basketball power again for the U.S., after a 1988 bronze medal finish with the last team of amateurs 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 U.S. missed the chance to compete in 1980.
“Playing Yugoslavia was unbelievable,” Grandholm said. “And beating them? That’s where, frankly, we felt like we won the gold medal.”