For those that have dared to challenge the infamous competitiveness of Michael Jordan, few have been spared from what the basketball icon did to make sure they paid.
Former Missouri forward Ron Jones found this out the hard way.
In his sixth collegiate start Nov. 27, 1982, Jones and the No. 15-ranked Tigers beat No. 3 North Carolina 64-60 in St. Louis with the 6-foot-4 then-junior draped over M.J. — who finished with 13 points — most of the game.
But as well as Jones defended, he made his fatal error in the media room after the game. According to his account, Jones told reporters that he tried to hold Jordan scoreless.
His Airness got wind of the comments in time for UNC’s rematch with Missouri that season in the championship of the Rainbow Classic on Dec. 30, 1982, in Hawaii, and Jordan let Jones have it. Fourty minutes, 19 Jordan points and an endless amount of verbal jabbing later, North Carolina got revenge in the second meeting 73-58.
“He reminded me of that out there,” Jones said of his comments toward Jordan. “It was a lot of trash talk. ‘You can’t guard me,’ things like that. ‘I’m getting ready to beat you baseline. Get ready to go backdoor,’ it was just constant talking. And the tongue wagging ... I had never seen that before. And that was a distraction.”
Jordan’s legendary professional career has been chronicled recently in ESPN’s critically-acclaimed documentary series “The Last Dance,” the last two episodes of which air on the network Sunday night. In a world mostly devoid of live sports thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the episodes have brought debate and conversation to a sports-starved audience as well as record ratings for ESPN.
But before he won six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan in 1982 was a blooming sophomore star attempting to establish a name for himself. And for that single night in November, Missouri basketball got the better of the man who would become Air Jordan.
From those that were there at the Checkerdome that night, this is the story of when the Tigers tamed the Tar Heels nearly four decades ago.
Leading into the 1982-83 season, there was little doubt that Jordan possessed special talent.
A 1981 McDonald’s All-American out of Wilmington, North Carolina, the Tar Heels wouldn’t have won the 1981-82 national championship without him. This wasn’t just true in a figurative sense — his 13.5 points per game were third on the team — but literally, too: Jordan’s go-ahead jumper with 32 seconds left in the title game against Georgetown is the defining moment of his college career.
But the immense leaping ability, sheer athleticism and dazzling repertoire Jordan used to carry him to superstardom in the pros either wasn’t quite there yet in college or, if you ask now-retired St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Sports Illustrated college basketball writer Dave Dorr, purposely limited by coach Dean Smith.
Dorr, a 40-year sportswriting veteran and former president of the United States Basketball Writers Association, got to know the two-time national champion thanks to Smith’s sister (who lived in St. Louis at the time) sharing Dorr’s articles often with the coach. Smith’s “tight hold” on the UNC program, Dorr said, discouraged flashiness and forced Jordan’s game to be more rigid.
Those involved with North Carolina basketball, including former Smith assistant and current head coach Roy Williams, could not be reached for comment.
“The Michael Jordan that we saw in college is not the Michael Jordan that we saw when he came to the NBA,” Dorr, who covered the Missouri-North Carolina game for the Post-Dispatch, said. “The North Carolina system was such that all of the players were required to stay within that system. Michael was a guy that had all of these abilities that we saw later, but he was not allowed to showcase those under Dean Smith.”
As for Missouri, the Tigers were in the midst of what would be some of the finest years of the Norm Stewart era. Including the 1982-83 season, Stewart took the program to four consecutive Big 8 championships, but was never quite able to prove MU’s might against the nation’s best.
In what would be tied for the fewest losses in any season of Stewart’s tenure, Missouri’s 1981-82 team went 27-4 and were only halted in the postseason by Houston in the Sweet 16, who had future Hall of Famers Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon as part of its famous “Phi Slamma Jamma” lineup.
But the buzz in and around Columbia for the Tigers remained high for 1982-83. Leading scorer Ricky Frazier had graduated, but two of Stewart’s finest players remained for one last hurrah — Jon Sundvold and Steve Stipanovich.
Sundvold did not respond to attempts to be reached for comment by the Missourian, but Stipanovich knew Missouri had itself an experienced core that could take the Tigers to new heights. And what better way to showcase that than by playing the defending national champions on national television in the season-opener?
“Typically you have a couple easier opponents to kind of ease into the basketball season,” Stipanovich said. “This was before ESPN for the most part. When you were chosen to be on CBS or NBC for the weekend games, it was a big deal. And that was pretty much the end all back in those days.”
A decidedly partisan Tigers crowd filled a sold-out Checkerdome to the tune of 15,228 people. With Nov. 27, 1982, being a Saturday, CBS descended upon St. Louis to pick this game for its weekend showcase, with Gary Bender and Billy Packer, the duo who called the national title game that March, on commentary.
In terms of a regular season game, the setting couldn’t get much bigger.
“We had some big games at the Checkerdome, and that was kind of like a home game for us,” Jones said. “Norm and the coaching staff, they did their job (to prepare). Because even in practice, I remember Norm blasting the music loud with us playing scrimmage games ... getting us prepared for a hostile crowd.
We were ready for the Checkerdome and North Carolina. You just don’t know until you get there how big and fast they were.”
Jordan was the main focus, but junior forward Sam Perkins, who would become a three-time All-American and have an 18-year NBA career, was a stud in his own right. While Jones was assigned to His Airness, it was the job of Stipanovich to ensure Perkins didn’t get going.
Missouri’s game plan was to play an inside-out game on offense with Stipanovich and Sundvold kicking it in and out to each other while smothering North Carolina with pressure defense. For about 16 minutes of the first half, that plan worked to near-perfection.
At the final media timeout before halftime, the Tigers led the Tar Heels 28-17 thanks to MU hitting its first seven shots while simultaneously forcing UNC to turn the ball over seven times. A quick 8-0 run by North Carolina out of the huddle made the momentum sputter somewhat, but Missouri still held a 30-25 lead at the intermission as its stars were producing — Sundvold and Stipanovich had 10 points each — and Carolina’s weren’t, as Perkins had six points and Jordan five.
“We were just going to be aggressive,” Stipanovich said of the first half. “The first half was a great first half for us, but we knew that there was a lot of basketball left to play. We knew that they were going to make a run and that there was still a long way to go. I remember going to halftime ... we were happy at halftime, but at the same time, we weren’t celebrating.”
Stipanovich was right, because that UNC run came in the second half. Within the first four minutes after the intermission, the Tar Heels had cut the lead to 32-31, but a streak of six made field goals by the Tigers after the under-16 media timeout helped Missouri stay in front.
But the pressure was real. By the time the under-eight timeout hit, Missouri was still shooting a white-hot 73%, but had turned the ball over nine times and let North Carolina get into the bonus with foul trouble. Starting Tigers guard Mark Dressler had four fouls, while Stipanovich and Sundvold had three, each.
It was the athleticism of North Carolina especially that was eventually getting to Missouri. Jones was at a size disadvantage guarding Jordan, and though the 6-foot-11 Stipanovich was taller than Perkins (6-foot-9), the Tar Heels had three other players taller than him on the bench to back the big man up. On the other hand, no one on MU was as lanky as Stipanovich.
“You don’t realize until you get to the game and they throw the ball up, but they were long at every position,” Jones said of North Carolina. “Michael Jordan was a legitimate 6-foot-6, quick first step and long arms and everything. Another thing that kind of surprised me was their wingspan ... even though you get your shot blocked, you still want to go at them and try and draw a foul. We were not going to back down from them or anybody else we played.”
A deep lineup is crucial in these situations. And as much as Missouri centered its first half around its stars, its second half performance was punctuated by unsung heroes.
Backup Tigers guard Barry Laurie, who had missed significant portions of the previous two seasons due to injuries, only knocked down two field goals that game. But his second one, a jumper with 3:19 left to go after UNC took its first lead of the game at 54-53, was arguably the game’s biggest shot.
At the final media timeout with Missouri up 55-54, the Tigers weren’t quite out of the clear yet. At that point stepped in sophomore forward Greg Cavener, who at a career 62.3% mark at the free throw line buried the Tar Heels with 8-for-11 shooting from the foul line in the second half, helping MU pull away for good and giving North Carolina its first back-to-back losses to start a season since 1919 (UNC had lost in overtime to St. John’s a week earlier.)
Stipanovich (22 points) and Sundvold (18) garnered the attention with their scoring prowess. But without help from their supporting cast, the trip back down Interstate 70 to Columbia would’ve been far less joyous.
“Norm wouldn’t let you celebrate that much, but it was a good moment in the locker room,” Jones said. “Everybody was high-fiving ... there was time to celebrate, but after that, it was time to go back and get ready for the next game and get down to business. It wasn’t very cocky or anything, we were a veteran team and we knew when to celebrate and how long to celebrate. And we knew it was time to put the hard hat back on and go to work.”
Both teams would eventually earn bids to the 1983 NCAA Tournament, with Missouri losing in the second round to Iowa and North Carolina in the Elite 8 to Ohio State. Stipanovich and Sundvold both were picked in that year’s NBA Draft, Jordan left for the league after his junior year and each’s journeys varied from there.
Stipanovich and Sundvold, both retired early in their pro careers due to injuries, while Jordan took the league by storm to become a global sensation and become the richest athlete in the world.
Stipanovich looks back at his time playing collegiate and pro ball fondly, and though he was “long gone” from the Indiana Pacers by Jordan’s final Bulls season of 1997-98 dramatized in “The Last Dance,” the series still does tie in footage from what he called “his” era. He even makes a couple of background appearances.
“I think I saw myself in a couple of highlights,” Stipanovich said. “There was one move I made that they keep showing on the highlights where Jordan fouled me, I had a three-point play. I saw that highlight recently, and I said to myself, ‘That was probably the last time I got the better of him.’ We would play Chicago six times a year, and we played him a lot.”
Jones never played in the NBA, meanwhile, but he was good friends with several players that did go pro, including former All-American Wayman Tisdale. At a preseason game in Kansas City where Tisdale’s Pacers were playing Jordan’s Bulls, Jones was on the floor chatting with Tisdale before tipoff when Chicago came out for its pregame warmups.
Jordan, now a bonafide megastar at this point, saw Jones and called him by name. Jones was awestruck; His Airness remembered him?
“Michael came running out of the tunnel and saw me and said ‘Jonesy!’” Jones said. “(He was) asking me how was I doing, and we had a pretty good conversation. I was hyped after that, I was walking around with a big head ... realizing that, hey, this guy just realized who I was and remembered me.”
As he, too, sits at home working remotely while watching “The Last Dance” weekly, Jones is reminded of all the features that defined Jordan’s legacy and how he experienced them himself.
And when Jones thinks back of that night in November 1982, especially when watching the series, the “chills” he says crash upon him.
“You could tell that Michael was going to be special,” Jones said. “His size and his hands and his arms was long, and he could jump forever. But you didn’t know that he was going to be the best player in the world. You knew he was a hard worker, because he worked hard out on the court. He didn’t take off from any play. None of us knew that he was going to be the best player in the world, but we knew that he was going to be a special player.”