Before the six NBA championships, Olympic gold medals, MVP awards, scoring titles and becoming the greatest player ever to lace up a pair of sneakers, Michael Jordan was just a college kid.
Albeit not just any college kid. Jordan was considered the best college basketball player in the country in 1983 when he came to Salina in late July as a member of the United States Pan American basketball team.
Jordan and his 11 teammates comprised a Pan Am team coached by Kansas State's Jack Hartman. The team would win the gold medal in August 1983, at the Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela. The Pan Am Games, featuring countries from North America, South America and Central America, are held every four years in the year prior to the Summer Olympics.
How the Salina Bicentennial Center became the site for the July 30, 1983, game between the Pan Am team and a group of NBA players coached by Cotton Fitzsimmons of the Kansas City Kings — the only appearance by the team in the United States that year — is a story in itself.
More than two months earlier, Hartman had been in Salina for the local Wildcat Club's spring banquet. While addressing a crowd at the Salina Country Club, the K-State coach mentioned he wanted to bring his Pan-Am team to Salina to play an exhibition game against a group of area NBA players.
Hartman's main reasoning, according to a column written in the Salina Journal, was that Ahearn Fieldhouse did not have air conditioning, and the Bicentennial Center did. (For the record, every single day of the Pan Am team's two-week training camp in Manhattan, before the team shipped off to Venezuela, broke 90 degrees except for one. On Aug. 2 and 3, the thermometer hit triple digits before dipping into the 90s for a day and then flirting with 100 again on Aug. 5. On July 30, the high temperature was 97.)
Former Salina banker Dick Renfro, a close friend of Hartman's and chairman of the Salina Chamber of Commerce's Sports and Entertainment Committee, got the official phone call from Hartman on June 1, asking him if Salina would be interested in hosting the game.
Although the Bicentennial Center had to eventually win out over competing offers — from Wichita; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Bloomington, Ind. — Hartman was always in favor of bringing his team to Salina.
"We're very happy to be coming to Salina," Hartman said to the Journal at the time. "I have a lot of friends in Salina and I play a lot of golf there."
Suddenly, Renfro was in charge of one of the biggest sporting events to ever come to town.
Thirty-seven years later, it still ranks as one of the two or three biggest. At the time, it was a daunting task.
"Heck, I'd never organized a fourth-grade basketball game at the YMCA, let alone a Pan Am team, which had some of the best college players in the country," said Renfro, now 85 and retired, but who remains a strong supporter of Salina and Kansas State.
"Little did I realize there were things like insurance, security, ticket sales, marketing and paying the bills — things you don't think of when you say, 'Yeah, let's do it.' "
Be Like Mike
Michael Jordan was the best player on the Pan Am team's star-studded roster, but was not the icon then that he would become later with the Chicago Bulls. Interest in Jordan has skyrocketed recently with him being the main focus of a current 10-part documentary called "Last Dance," which winds up its five-week run with Parts 9 and 10 Sunday night on ESPN.
But during his two weeks in Kansas at the Pan Am camp, the All-American from North Carolina was already showing that competitive fire, work ethic and unwavering drive for success that put him on the path to greatness.
On the Tuesday morning of game week, July 26, local media gathered in Ahearn Fieldhouse to watch the team go through practice. Jordan was slowed with a sore ankle and didn't enjoy watching the morning practice from the sideline.
"I don't like sitting one bit," Jordan said later. "It's very hard for me to sit on the sidelines.
"When I do, it's tough."
Whether he was the best player for the Chicago Bulls or the North Carolina Tar Heels, or the 15-year-old who was cut from the varsity as a sophomore at Emsley A. Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C., Jordan always believed in proving himself on the court. It was no different at the Pan Am camp.
"When I start playing on a team, I feel I'm the lowest guy on the totem pole, and the only way I can get to the top is to work hard," Jordan said during an interview with the Journal that took place in the Manhattan Holidome lobby. "That's how I approached playing on this team."
At the time, Jordan's plans were to keep the NBA on hold and stay in college for four years, something unheard of these days in an era of one-and-dones.
"A lot of people thought I would turn pro after my sophomore year, but just because I had one good year doesn't mean I'm ready for the NBA," he said. "I've set a goal to play pro ball, but I also enjoy college life."
The Bulls are thankful Jordan didn't enjoy it that much. He left college after his junior year and they selected him in the 1984 NBA Draft.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Jordan was the headliner of the team that came to Salina, but there was an array of talent on that 12-man roster, arguably the best-ever for a Pan Am team.
The 1983 team featured two future Hall of Famers (Jordan and Chris Mullin, who would miss the Pan Am Games after fracturing a foot in a later exhibition game in San Juan, Puerto Rico), and seven players (Jordan, Mullin, Michael Cage, Sam Perkins, Ed Pinckney, Mark Price and Wayman Tisdale) who would play more than a decade in the NBA. Five were selected as members of the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team — Jordan, Mullin, Tisdale, Leon Wood and Perkins, who was Jordan's teammate at North Carolina.
Half of the team members could legitimately be called the greatest player of all-time at their respective colleges — North Carolina (Jordan), St. John's (Mullin), Villanova (Pinckney), Georgia Tech (Price), Oklahoma (Tisdale) and Cal State Fullerton (Wood).
"We watched maybe the greatest superstar of all time, of any sport," Renfro said. "But look at all the talent that surrounded him — Tisdale, Price, Mullin, Perkins and others. You look back and, of course, a lot of their fame came afterwards, but to see who was there at the time, what happened and what they became is pretty awesome."
That U.S. team would go on to win the gold medal in Caracas. During a 12-day period, it won eight straight games against the best competition from across the Americas. The Americans outscored their opponents by an average of more than 12 points a game.
Jordan led the Pan Am team in scoring (17.3 points per game), followed by Tisdale (15.5) and Perkins (13.1), who also averaged 7.1 rebounds.
But, before they flew to Latin America, they had an exhibition game to play in Salina. Just who would be on the NBA roster was a question that wouldn't be answered until a day or two before the game was played.
Four NBA players who had previously committed to play — former Kansas State stars Rolando Blackman and Mike Evans, Scott Wedman of Colorado and Mike Woodson of Indiana — missed the game for various reasons.
Blackman was in Dallas, where his wife had given birth to their first child on the Thursday before the game. Evans had severely sprained his ankle on the same day while working out in Denver, and the Boston Celtics, at the last minute, didn’t allow Wedman to play in the game.
Woodson wanted to be in Indianapolis on the morning after the game to watch his mother give a church recital, and Fitzsimmons couldn't find a flight to get Woodson back there in time.
The four no-shows had Fitzsimmons scrambling for players. He did pick up a big name the day before the game when Alex English of the Denver Nuggets agreed to play. It should be noted that English, the NBA's leading scorer in 1982-83, flew from his home in Columbia, S.C., to Kansas City and then rode with his teammates to Salina, all on Saturday, to play in the game.
In addition to English, the NBA team featured Clay Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Drew, Joe C. Meriweather and Eddie Johnson of the Kansas City Kings. Former K-Stater Jari Wills and ex-KU player Art Housey also were on the roster.
Tickets — 7,000 of them — went on sale July 14 at outlets in Salina, Hays, Junction City, Manhattan and Wichita. All but 600 of them were sold at $7, $5 and $3. It would be the largest crowd ever to watch a basketball game in Salina, excluding the Harlem Globetrotters.
But the game didn't go off without a hitch. A few minutes before tipoff, with the crowd of 6,400 getting settled in, NBA team coach Fitzsimmons noticed something missing. Actually, two things.
"I'm standing there with Cotton and Jack, at courtside watching the pregame, and Cotton looked at Jack and said, 'Jack, where are the 30-second clocks?' " Renfro recalled. "Jack said, 'Oh my God, the staff didn't bring them.' "
There was no scorebook, either.
"So I am looking around and I see Daryl Hoelting," Renfro said. "He's right there pretty close to courtside.
"I run over and said, 'Daryl, we're in trouble. Can you help us out?' "
Hoelting, who was the Marymount College women's basketball coach at the time, did help, making a quick trip to Smoot Gym to bring back two 30-second clocks and a scorebook.
"He got here right before tipoff and got them set up," Renfro said.
The game was competitive for the first 15 minutes before the Pan Am team opened up a 14-point lead at halftime. They would eventually wear down the NBA team and win by 35 points, 112-77.
Jordan led the way with a 30-point effort — 20 in the first half — delighting the crowd with a variety of acrobatic moves and dunks. He also gave the large crowd, and Hartman, a scare when he slipped and fell to the floor with 5:01 remaining in the game.
"I hit a wet spot, that's all," Jordan said afterwards. "I knew right away it wasn't serious."
Imagine how the future of basketball could have changed if it had been.
"I knew he had a lot of points. I didn't realize he had that many," said Clark Renfro, one of Dick Renfro's three sons, who was a freshman at Kansas State at the time. "He was just a special player to watch."
Tisdale, also a crowd favorite, scored 22 points, while Pinckney added 14 and Kentucky's Jim Master 12 as the Pan Am team shot 55% from the field. Eddie Johnson scored 23 points for the NBA team and English had 18.
After the game at a postgame meal in the Bicentennial Center, Clark Renfro was seated at a table with Jordan, Greg Stokes of Iowa and Wood of Cal State Fullerton.
"He was just like one of the guys," Clark Renfro said of Jordan. "And granted, it was a whole different era and he was basically a junior in college, but he was nice. He said he was majoring in geography at North Carolina.
"We talked about Manhattan, Aggieville and the atmosphere in Manhattan and Chapel Hill. I just remember him being the nicest guy, but the other players knew; you could tell, they knew he was the man."
Dick Renfro said that after expenses, a check for $14,300 was sent to USA Basketball, which had agreed to make some local donations — $100 to Marymount "for the shot clocks," and $500 each to the Salina YMCA, Salina Special Olympics, Salvation Army and the Salina Recreation Commission.
"And, I got a shirt and a Christmas card," Renfro said with a smile.
Hartman, who died in 1998 at the age of 73, was certainly appreciative. Following the game, he turned to a Salina Journal reporter and said, "I want people in Salina to know how I feel.
"I really want to express my appreciation to them, to Dick Renfro and to the Bicentennial Center officials. I couldn't be more grateful for their support."
One of the greatest
When discussing the greatest sporting events in Salina history, the basketball game between Marymount and the USSR Olympic team in November 1975 is usually mentioned first. The U.S. Pan American team coming to town in 1983 ranks right up there as well.
Has it actually been 37 years?
"No, it does not seem that long ago," Dick Renfro said. "But, I look back and look at my notes, and those notes make absolutely no sense now.
"Looking at everything that went on and the help we had and how Salina responded and how it was covered, it was a great experience. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and one of those things you know is going to take a lot of work, but it's going to be worth it."
And having a player on the Salina court who would eventually become one of the world's most recognized athletes makes those memories that much better.
"Just thinking of someone like that who is so iconic, who was here, and we've all had experiences with him," said Clark Renfro, now the president of Exchange Bank in Salina. "You know, they talk about (Babe) Ruth and (Mohammed) Ali ... Michael Jordan is in that same breath. He was an amazing player and to be able to tell your kids that story is kind of special."