On one side of the chalkboard inside the locker room of the Forum, Bob Knight had posted his defensive reminders for the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team. On the other side were instructions for Knight's patented motion offense.
This was ground Knight typically covered minutes before tipoff. But Aug. 10, 1984, was no ordinary night in the City of Angels or across America. This was the moment U.S. basketball had been waiting for since 1976, the last time Americans had played for a gold medal in the
, in Montreal.
As Knight walked in, wearing his familiar mask of intensity, he noticed his players' heads were uncharacteristically down -- all except
Between his offensive and defensive game plans was a yellow sheet of legal paper. "Coach," it said, "don't worry. We've put up with too much s--- to lose now."
If the handwriting wasn't recognizable, Knight knew the tone was signature Jordan. Somewhere, Knight still has that sheet of paper.
"I looked at it, and only Jordan would write something like that," Knight recalled in a phone interview from his Lubbock, Texas, office. "After that, I knew we were ready. So all I said to them was, 'All right, go get the gold medal.' "
Before the tip, Knight sensed Jordan's teammates would respond, telling assistant coaches Don Donoher and C.M. Newton the game would be decided in the first five minutes.
And it was. The U.S. relentlessly attacked Spain in a 96-65 victory to make the Jordan-led team the last American amateur men's basketball team to win gold. Jordan, Knight's captain, had a game-high 20 points.
"Everybody on that team realized how much pressure was on us to win gold, and the only way we could have lost that game was if we were uptight," said Steve Alford, a member of that team. "So Michael doing what he did, writing that note to coach, was a great way to break the ice and erase all the tension."
Alford, now coaching at New Mexico, knew Knight as well as any 1984 Olympian after having just completed his freshman season at
. Playing for the complex, demanding coach is a walk through an emotional minefield. Alford marveled at how deftly Jordan navigated his way with Knight.
"There's nobody else on that team who could have pulled [the note] off, I can tell you that," Alford said. "Michael was able to get away with it because somehow he could get to coach and make him laugh."
oday, Knight calls Jordan "the greatest player ever in a team sport," comparing him to
But back in the spring of 1984, the irascible coach had seen the tape on Jordan and had heard what his dear friend, then-
coach Dean Smith, had told him. And when Knight had seen Jordan with his own eyes, Indiana's Dan Dakich was on his way to becoming a folk hero after holding Jordan to 13 points in the
East Regional semifinals win over Jordan's
So on the eve of the start of Olympic tryouts, Knight was curious to see which Jordan would report to Bloomington, Ind., with 73 other college players.
Jordan quickly earned Knight's trust, not necessarily for what he did on the court but for how he did it. Of all of Jordan's skills, Knight believes the greatest was his will to win. Jordan was demanding of himself and his teammates -- in that order -- and Knight quickly sensed he could trust Jordan enough to pull him aside.
"I remember telling Mike very early, 'I'm going to get on your ass and some days you may not understand why," said Knight, the winningest college basketball coach ever after a career at Army, Indiana and Texas Tech. "I'm going to say something to you and the ears of the other guys are going to perk up, and they're going to say, 'Damn, if he will be like that with Jordan then I better take care of my [game].' And he was fine with that. That's the direction the team took in large part because of him. This was his team, and that's why I made him the captain."
One day during at an Olympic practice before the June
draft, Knight remembered standing next to an
team executive, whom he refuses to identify.
"I was standing next to my friend as we watched us practice and I said, 'You're luckier than anybody could be in basketball, you have a chance to get Jordan,' " Knight said. "He said, 'Yeah, Bob, he's great, but we need a big man.' And I told him, 'Play Jordan at center and he'll lead the league in scoring. He's that good.' "
Jordan practiced like he was playing for a medal -- at the end of practice. It impressed his teammates and Knight, whose practices were notoriously grueling, his reputation for being difficult on players well-earned. As
once described Knight's approach to the
: "Bobby Knight was a raging maniac. He put us through pure hell."
The final roster -- Jordan, Alford, Tisdale, Leon Wood,
, Vern Fleming, Alvin Robertson,
, Jon Koncak,
and Jeffrey Turner -- weren't necessarily the most talented players. They were the most compatible with Knight's coaching.
As promised, Knight held Jordan to an even higher standard. Jordan was coming off an All-American career at North Carolina, months away from NBA stardom. None of that mattered to Knight. Jordan once cracked that while Dean Smith was the master of the four-corner offense, Bob Knight was the master of the four-letter word.
A bond developed between Jordan and Knight, so much so that Jordan invited him to his first Bulls retirement ceremony, in 1993. They traded laughs and stories, less than a decade from their Olympic experience that made Jordan stronger because, well, as the saying goes, it didn't kill him.
Those months under Knight felt so long, Jordan couldn't envision four years of it. He bet Alford $100 that Alford wouldn't finish his college career at Indiana. After the Hoosiers won the 1987 national title in Alford's senior season, Jordan paid up.
"I think all the work we put in helped Michael establish a special bond with coach," Alford said. "I mean, we were practicing three times a day during parts of that three-month time frame. My eyes were wide open. I was a college freshman soaking all this in. Michael had a humility to him, a passion, and was no prima donna."
eter Ueberroth, the organizer of the 1984 Games, cherishes many memories from that summer.
raising his arms triumphantly after winning four gold medals. Mary Lou Retton smiling widely after becoming the first gymnast outside Eastern Europe to win gold in the all-around.
The men's basketball Olympic gold.
And what Ueberroth remembers most about Jordan is the way the budding superstar handled himself away from the glare.
"Michael was so respectful and kind with everyone he came across, everybody behind the scenes who would help, that it made an impression that this was somebody who had time for everybody," Ueberroth said. "He was still so young at that point (21) that I even think he might have been a little awe-struck at everything. He fit in. He was a great star who didn't try to steal the limelight. We were blessed to have him part of it."
In Ueberroth's eyes, Jordan's 1984 team holds a special place among Olympic basketball champions because it was the last collection of amateurs to win gold. After the '88 team lost to the Soviet Union in Seoul, professionals were allowed in and the '92 Dream Team was born -- with Jordan leading the way again.
"I think because of what happened, the '84 team always will have a distinction the others don't," Ueberroth said.
Members of the 1960 U.S. team led by
may debate that. Knight considers any comparison to the '60 team, coached by his mentor, Pete Newell, the ultimate compliment. But Knight bristles at any mention of the Soviet Union's boycott of the 1984 Games lessening the gold Jordan and Company won.
"I have one word to say about the Russians," Knight said in his final interview at the '84 Games. Typical Knight, he had many words. "You people have never seen the Russians play, and I've been watching them for two years. The Russians wouldn't have won here. They can't play defense. They couldn't have beaten some of the teams in this tournament, and if you guys don't know that, you're not as smart as I think ... and I don't think you're too smart, anyway."
Russians or no Russians, you didn't have to be a descendant of
to know Michael Jordan left Los Angeles with a gold medal around his neck and the world at his feet.