Michael Jordan already won over Bobby Knight, who was starting to confide that Jordan was the best player he’d ever seen. But minutes before the gold-medal game at the 1984 Olympics, where Knight was the head coach and Jordan the star of stars, the player did something else to impress the General.
As recounted in Knight’s autobiography and “Playing for Keeps,” David Halberstam‘s book on Jordan: Knight was preparing the pre-game points to make to the team. He found a note smack in the middle of the locker-room blackboard. It was a yellow piece of paper from a legal pad.
“Coach: Don’t worry. We’ve put up with too much s— to lose now.”
There was no attribution.
“I still have the paper,” Knight wrote in his book, first published in 2002. “And I don’t have any doubt about its author. By then, I knew what Michael Jordan’s handwriting looked like. I looked at that note, and everybody was watching. Michael had his head down, but he couldn’t resist looking to see what I was going to do. All I said was, ‘Okay, let’s go play.'”
The U.S. led by 23 points over Spain at halftime, eventually prevailing 96-65. Jordan scored 20 points.
Knight, left speechless by Jordan’s first-half excellence, struggled to think of what to tell the team to motivate them at the half. The first player he saw upon entering the locker room was Jordan. Knight, in retelling this story to David Letterman in 1993, said that Jordan had 19 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists in 11 first-half minutes (the box score refutes this).
Knight walked over to Jordan’s locker.
“Mike, when the hell are you going to set a screen?” Knight yelled. “All you’re doing is rebounding, passing and scoring. Dammit, screen somebody out here!”
“Coach, didn’t I just read last week where you said I may be the quickest player you’ve ever been around?” he asked.
“What the hell has that got to do with you screening?” Knight replied.
“Coach,” Jordan closed, “I think I set ’em quicker than you can see ’em.”
The men’s basketball final was not the most memorable event that day in Los Angeles. Around the time of tipoff, the right foot of American favorite Mary Decker made contact with the heel of 18-year-old British barefoot runner Zola Budd during the 3000m final. Decker went down, injured and in tears, and did not finish.
Earlier in the Olympics, Knight moved Jordan to tears, ordering him to apologize to his teammates for a six-turnover performance in a win over West Germany.
“You should be embarrassed by the way you played,” he yelled at Jordan, according to “Michael Jordan: The Life,” by Roland Lazenby. Sam Perkins, a teammate at North Carolina and at the Olympics, confirmed the story in 2016.
“He told Michael that’s the worst he ever played,” Perkins said in radio interview. “Now, Michael’s going to deny this, but he cried.”
That memory must have stuck with Jordan, a man so competitive he was known to invent slights for motivation.
“I don’t know if I would have done [the 1984 Olympics] if I knew what Knight was going to be like,” he said in March 1991, according to Sam Smith‘s book, “The Jordan Rules.”
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