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Stripes Before Stars: The Story of the 1983 U.S. Pan-American Games Team

Long before this 1996 photo, Michael Jordan and Wayman Tisdale were teammates on the last U.S. team
to win gold in the Pan-American Games. NBAE via Getty Images

On the plus side, it beat the hell out of early August in Kansas.

When the United States Men’s National Team broke camp at Kansas State and arrived in Caracas, Venezuela for the 1983 Pan-American Games, they hopped the bus to the brand-new Athletes’ Village in Guarenas, about 30 miles from the competition center.

And froze.

The 1983 U.S. Pan-American Games Team

“The village wasn’t completed,” said team manager Lon Kruger, who would go on to a long career as a head coach in the NCAA and NBA. “The windows weren’t on. The doors weren’t on. We looked at each other like, ‘What’s going on?’”

They stood around for a bit, peering through holes in the walls. Then a 20-year-old rising junior from the University of North Carolina spoke up.

“Michael Jordan stepped up and said ‘This is the Athletes’ Village. We’re OK,’” Kruger said. “And when Michael said it, everyone else was good with it.”

“[He said] there’s nothing we can do about it now,” said point guard Leon Wood. “We’re here to get our medal. Let’s go about our business.”

Over the next 12 days, that business included eight straight wins over the best competition from across the Americas. Over teams that’d played together for years. Over guys five to seven years older than the 12 American college kids. From Aug. 15 through 27, the Americans outscored their opponents by an average of more than 12 points on the way to a gold medal.

That 20-year-old guard? He scored a team-high 17.3 points per game to lead the U.S. to its 28th straight win in Pan-Ams play, finished his junior season at North Carolina, then went on to become the Greatest Player of All Time.

All in all, the ’83 team featured two future Hall of Famers (Jordan and Chris Mullin, who missed the Games after fracturing a foot in an exhibition game), seven players (Jordan, Mullin, Michael Cage, Sam Perkins, Ed Pinckney, Mark Price and Wayman Tisdale) who’d play more than a decade in the NBA and five members of the 1984 Olympic Team.

“We had a courtside seat, watching the highlight show,” said Greg Stokes, a forward on the team. “One night it might’ve been Jordan, one night Tisdale, one night Pinckney. It just depended on who got going that night.”

And in the 28 years since, after taking gold in eight of the first nine Pan-Am Games, the Americans haven’t touched gold again.

“You don’t realize until it’s over with what a special moment that was,” said Fred Reynolds, a guard on the ’83 team. “You’re up there, getting your picture taken representing the United States. That flag is draped over you. You set out a goal and accomplish that. We were against professional guys and we were in college. I don’t think we’ll ever see that again.”

"At that time, when you were representing the United States, the expectation was to win the gold medal." Lon Kruger, Manager, 1983 Pan-American Games

They came, like any classic American story, from far and wide.

When it came time to send the nation’s top collegiate players to the Pan-American Games tryouts in Manhattan, Kansas, the Big East and ACC sent their share. In that mix were St. John’s Mullin, Villanova’s Pinckney, Kentucky’s James Master, the duo of Jordan and Perkins from North Carolina and an 18-year-old electric shock named Price, out of Georgia Tech.

But there were also guys from San Diego State (Cage), Oregon State (Charlie Sitton), Iowa (Greg Stokes) and 6-foot-9, 250-pound Tisdale from Oklahoma. And then there was the case of Leon Wood, who sat out tryouts due to injury, but still got the invite largely because he’d led the nation in assists in 1982-83.

Point guard Leon Wood, now an NBA referee, would go on to play seven years in the NBA.

While playing in the Pacific Coast Athletic Association.

“The ACC and Big East dominated everything, and it’s like ‘Leon Wood? Huh?’” Wood said. “Like, ‘wait a minute what’s going on here?’”

A standout at Cal St. Fullerton, a school better known for its baseball team and its midwifery program than its basketball team, Wood nonetheless appeared to head coach Jack Hartman and his staff as the perfect distributor for a team loaded with finishers.

“I knew I had to put on a show,” Wood said.

And after the coaches made their final selections for the roster in the spring, they brought the team back for two weeks of training in Manhattan – home of Hartman’s Kansas State team.

The plan was to scrimmage them, over and over again, to find out which concoctions of players flowed best together, and which guys could come off the bench to provide support. The heat wave that deep-fried Manhattan in early August only helped in the team-building process.

Every single day of the two-week training gauntlet before the team shipped off to Latin America broke 90 degrees except for one. On Aug. 2 and 3, the thermometer hit 102, dipped into the 90’s for a day, then flirted with 100 again on Aug. 5.

“Who knew how hot it was gonna be in that gym,” said Sitton, who played forward for the ’83 team before a year in the NBA and a career in hospitality.

But the players knew the stakes, and the in-gym inferno was a convenient metaphor for the reception they’d get abroad.

Dating back to the first Games, in 1951, the U.S. teams had put up a combined record of 51-2. To that point, they’d won with stars – the 1959 team featured Oscar Robertson and Jerry West – and they won with no-names and once, they even won with soldiers – because the 1955 Games were held in March (ruling out college players), the U.S. team that won gold in Mexico City was composed of half-AAU, half-Armed Services players.

But no team before – and no team since – that 1983 team had quite the collection of talent as America did that year.

“We were the USA, and at that time, we were the team to beat,” Wood said. “Not to say that we’re not now, but as amateurs, if you had ‘USA’ across your chest you were the team everybody was aiming for.”

“I was very curious [how we’d do] myself,” Wood said. “I knew we had the talent and all, but back then in 83, we’re still 19, 20, 21 years of age, and we’re gonna be going against guys like Oscar Schmidt of Brazil – guys who are like 26-27, and … at least in our eyes, they were pros.”

"He was probably the guy you looked up to most. He was the Man, even though back then he was just a guy." Charlie Sitton, Forward, Pan-American team

Reynolds hadn’t ever seen anything like him.

He’d gotten glimpses of him on TV, but that was about it.

But those 1,800 miles from El Paso, Tex. to Chapel Hill, N.C. were a lot longer then than they are now, and until Reynolds – a West-Texas-forever kind of guy playing on the periphery of the college game, at UTEP – got a first-hand look at Jordan in Kansas, MJ might as well have been living in a whole other world.

A full year before Michael Jordan began his illustrious NBA career, he was the leading scorer for the U.S. Team at the '83 Games.
Click here to watch MJ take over in the second half of the gold medal game!

“You hear about him, and then you see this physical specimen walk onto the court,” Reynolds said. “He was that ripped and cut. I shook his hand for the first time, and I just remember how big his hands were.”

Everything about Jordan was big back then. Not quite six-titles, 10-time-scoring-champ, Greatest-Player-of-All-Time big. But still, pretty damn big.

“I don’t think anybody could have foreseen the type of success he’d eventually have,” said Stokes, a forward on the team. “But he was a tremendous player at that time was well.”

“From the first day of practice, clearly he was the guy who stepped up and carried himself as a leader,” said Kruger. “And the others responded.”

But he was also small, too, in a sense. Small, like details.

It wasn’t just that Jordan scored. He also did every drill to perfection, Kruger said. He also busted it back to the other side of the court and played defense, too. And he did it as well as anyone on that squad – and, by the time the tournament ended, he proved he could do it just about as well as any human being in the Americas, too.

And he never stopped.

“He didn’t have to work that hard at that, but he definitely did,” said Sitton.

Some of the team just couldn’t help getting caught up in the mystique, either. Watching Jordan throw down on most of the Western hemisphere skewed even the most democratic of distributors. Like, say, Wood.

“I’m not tooting my horn – I was pretty athletic,” Reynolds said. “Here’s Jordan on one side, I’m on the other and Leon’s in the middle coming down the floor. Ok, maybe the first five or six times I wasn’t open, but the seventh time, he keeps giving it to Jordan with four people on him. I’m like, now, we have a problem, Leon – I know you’re not looking at me!

“I wasn’t saying anything, but I was mad. Then he did that to Ed Pinckney, and Pinckney lost it. He was like…’Dangit – pass me the rock when I’m open! If I’m running down the court we better not have three people getting the ball to Jordan. Pass me the rock one time!’ I’m like, ‘Man, I should’ve said something.’”

Every day in practice, if Jordan was coming out the restroom from the shower, I was guarding him.
Fred Reynolds, on how he cracked the Pan-Am lineup

So, when Jordan struggled from the field in a few early training games, Reynolds went to Kruger to figure out why he wasn’t getting his shots.

“I was like what else can I do? I made this team, but I’m not happy that I just made this team – I wanna play,” Reynolds said with a laugh. “I’m looking, like Jordan’s shooting 3-for-12, 4-for-20, I’m like what is it gonna take? Kruger’s the one who told me – he tells me, ‘You know it’s not you – because he’s All-American he’s gonna play.’”

From then on, until the Americans wore gold medals around their necks, wherever Jordan went, so went Reynolds.

“I had an attitude from then on. Every day in practice, if Jordan was coming out the restroom from the shower, I was guarding him,” Reynolds said. “I might as well have been in his shoes. I’m like, that’s only way I’m gonna play.”

And that’s the way it went for the 1983 team, Reynolds said. Competition bred closeness, and for the month of August, (incomplete sentence)

“It was a great friendship, and a healthy, healthy competitive drive we had,” he said.

“There really wasn’t any animosity between the guys,” Stokes said. “A lot of times, with All-Star teams, guys get caught up and do their own publicity, and they’re concerned with whether they start or not. With us, we just threw five guys out there and those guys played. And when they needed a break, five more guys came in.”

“The facility wasn’t finished, faucets didn’t have running water, and you get off the plane and you see guns all around you. It was an eye-opener.” Fred Reynolds, Forward, Pan-American team

The Americans took off from Kansas in early August, took down some Latin American teams in an exhibition series and finally touched down in a land far from stable.

Just four months earlier, Venezuela had been rocked by what’s now known as Viernes Negro – Black Friday – when its currency, the Bolivar – long the hallmark of stability in Latin America – underwent massive devaluation.

Wayman Tisdale, a 12-year NBA veteran, went on to release eight jazz albums. The team's second-leading scorer at The Games also played guitar for his teammates in the Village.

And the Athletes’ Village reflected a country in panic.

“It was somewhat like an ugly version of a dorm, because it had windows, but they were open,” Wood said. “I don’t remember them being glass windows. It was definitely a wake-up call, because you gotta appreciate where you’re at.”

“It wasn’t the best environment,” Sitton said. “It was kind of hodgepodge.”

But it was safe, Kruger said. And USA Basketball did everything it could to accommodate the players’ needs, from bringing them out to dinner to supplying bottled water.

Of course, not everybody needed the pampering.

“I don’t even remember taking showers there,” Reynolds said. “I guess we did, but the facilities weren’t the best. Guys in the NBA, they don’t see that now. There were mosquitoes everywhere. But that’s like El Paso. I was like, ‘this is an upgrade from where I come from!’”

“We were there to play,” Stokes said. “We weren’t there for the facilities.”

Not that the Village was the only distraction.

“After one game, Mark Price and myself got asked to do the drug test, and after the game it took me forever to take the test because I wasn’t gonna drink any of their water,” Wood said. “So I think I was there at least three or four hours.

“It was very, very scary. I was sitting there like ‘I can’t go, I can’t go,’” he said with a laugh. “Mark might’ve had some bottled water, but I think I might’ve had a beer just to get me going. Everybody else had already left, so I’m the only one in here trying to use the restroom.”

Only 18 years old when he played in the Pan-American Games, Mark Price scored more than 10,000 points and earned four All-Star nods in his NBA career.

And in some sense, the conditions brought the team even closer together. They didn’t have much else to do, besides maybe watching the women’s volleyball games – which they did together, too – so they spent their time in Guarenas constantly with each other.

They ate together. They played cards together. And when they got bored, they decimated North, Central and South American national basketball teams together.

“We hung out late at night,” Reynolds said. “Unlike today, I didn’t have my boys coming to visit me. So we were close. We were close.”

Stokes did impressions. Cage, until he had to leave early due to an illness in the family, told stories. And at night, Tisdale brought his guitar and played a little bit for everybody.

Years later, before cancer claimed his life in 2009, Tisdale would go on to release eight jazz albums – one of which, Face to Face, hit No. 1 on the Billboard jazz charts.

“It’s amazing that guys of that caliber come together in such a short time,” Reynolds said.

And when they hit the court, the fans let them know just how welcome they were. It wasn’t that the whole world was against them in Caracas – just the Western half of it.

“Life gives you lemons, and you make wine,” Reynolds said. “Hell, we didn’t need lemonade. We made wine.”

“That was a lot of guys’ mindset: that we gotta come out of here with a gold medal, and we better put a whooping on these teams that are gonna be in the Olympics, so they know we’re the team to beat.” Leon Wood, Guard, Pan-American team

The Americans fell behind Mexico, 20-4, to open the Games.

Then, after a 70-43 run to close that game, followed by a comeback win against powerhouse Brazil in Game 2, the U.S. team won five of its final six games by 13 points or more – including a 101-85 win over Puerto Rico in the gold medal game.

“I remember we pretty much rolled on the other teams we played,” Stokes said. “I don’t wanna say it wasn’t hard, because they were talented, but it was more fun than hard.”

Sam Perkins, Michael Jordan's teammate at North Carolina, was the team's third-leading scorer in Caracas.

But the word was spreading fast across Venezuela. This U.S. team – especially its star, Michael Jordan – was not to be missed.

“The fans would get there early just to watch us warm up,” Reynolds said.

“Night in and night out, you’d see him dunking on people,” Stokes said of Jordan. “All of us could do that kind of stuff, so we weren’t saying ‘Aww’ because we’d seen that before. But it was part of the show: Jordan gets a fast break, an alley-oop – whatever it was, he’s gonna do something to somebody.”

But Jordan was far from the main attraction. Back then, he wasn’t the jump shooter he later became, so teams had some success – but only some – forcing him to the perimeter with a zone defense.

Which left everybody else open.

“Tisdale, that guy did the most incredible dunk I’d ever seen,” Reynolds. “He was left-handed, about 250, but light on his feet. He jumped like he was 190 pounds.”

Not that the entire team played above the rim. Even without Mullin, they could still shoot, going . Price, who backed up Wood off the bench, shot 47.3 percent from the field, including an 8-for-13, 17-point effort against host Venezuela in Game 3.

Under Hartman, a man described by Wood as “a disciplinarian, set in his ways,” the team slid neatly into all of its roles.

“Nowadays, everybody had a tendency to run and slam dunk,” Sitton said. “But they don’t have shooters like we did. And we had some big rugged guys who could get rebounds, and in international basketball it comes down to that.”

In the biggest game of any American during the Games, Tisdale (who averaged 15.5 ppg) racked up 29 points and 12 rebounds against a Canada team unable to stop him. A game later, against Mexico, he and Jordan combined for 37 points. After Jordan scored 24 points against Argentina in Game 6, six U.S. players scored in double-figures in the Americans’ second win over Brazil to secure the gold.

He carried us.
Leon Wood, on Jordan's gold-medal game performance

But in that win, the second half belonged to Jordan alone.

Showing the closing ability that made him the most-feared late-game player of his day, Jordan scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half to lead the Americans to gold.

“He carried us,” Wood said.

A 101-85 win over Puerto Rico in Game 8 was nothing more than a formality – albeit one that saw Tisdale and Perkins (13.1 ppg) both record double-doubles – and ended with the Americans standing, 12 as one, on the gold medal stage for the very last time.

“I still have the medal,” Wood said. “It’s rusty now, but I treasured it.”

“I can say I’m in the Hall of Fame,” Reynolds said. “My picture’s there. The best thing that happened to me was last year, my son went to the Hall of Fame. I’d never told him that. He knew I played and everything, but goes to the Basketball Hall of Fame, and he calls his mom and says ‘Mom’ – he’s so excited – ‘Mom, Dad’s in the Hall of fame, in a picture with the Pan-Am Team.’”