Tough Competition

It was a Who’s Who among college players. A total of 72 athletes from around the country, players from Charles Barkley and Joe Dumars to Chuck Person and John Stockton.

Karl Malone? He was on the list.

Dell Curry, Johnny Dawkins, A.C. Green, Danny Manning, Mark Price, Ed Pinckney … and those were among the many that didn’t make the cut.

Can you imagine the competition for the 12 spots if those guys didn’t make it?

In 1984 the Olympic Games were coming to Los Angeles. It had been 93 years since James Naismith invented the game in Springfield, Mass., but Olympic basketball had never been played on the founding nation’s home soil. Americans had won all but one Olympic gold medals for which they had competed, and that one in 1972 was so rife with controversy that the U.S. players refused to pick up their silver medals. But that’s a story for another day.

ABAUSA, the precursor to USA Basketball, announced on Dec. 9, 1983, that Olympic trials would be held April 17-22, 1984, at Indiana University in Bloomington, home of 1984 U.S. Olympic Team and Indiana head coach Bob Knight.

It was anticipated that approximately 48-60 athletes would be in attendance and the numbers would be reduced on April 21 to about 30 for the final two days of trials. From there, the list would be whittled to 16 finalists with the eventual 12-member roster decision having to be submitted by July 14.

There were some who turned down invitations.

Then-Phoenix Suns general manager and current USA Basketball Chair Jerry Colangelo was quoted in USA Today as saying that those who didn’t show up, “raised a red flag (in the eyes of the NBA). Why aren’t they here? I think it’s astounding someone would not take advantage of this opportunity. The NBA teams are much more impressed with the people who showed up.” 

Barkley who, along with Stockton, was one of the final players cut, arrived in camp weighing in at 284 pounds.  He fielded the wrath of Knight with his usual humor.

“They say if a coach screams and hollers at you all the time, he likes you,” Barkley was quoted by David Leon Moore in USA Today. “I guess he likes me a lot.”  Even back then, Barkley was a quote machine, but he still didn’t make the final 12.

Originally expected to be down to 16 players at the end of trials, the ABAUSA Player Selection Committee had too difficult of a time paring that many players, and the roster of finalists was set at 20.

According to a New York Times story, Knight said that ''the play was so strong, particularly in the guard area, 'that instead of trying to establish guards through debate, we would establish guards through play. That's why we're at 20.''

By now everyone knows about the team that won the gold medal in Los Angeles. It included future 1992 Dream Teamers Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan and Chris Mullin, as well as Steve Alford, Vern Fleming, Joe Kleine, Jon Koncak, Sam Perkins, Alvin Robertson, Wayman Tisdale, Jeff Turner and Leon Wood.

Looking at the talent that was left of the ’84 roster and those that made it, one can only imagine how fierce the competition was. Three of the players who tried out but didn’t compete in ’84, but who eventually won their Olympic gold medal in ’92 were Barkley, Malone and Stockton.

Of the list of 72, a stunning five eventually were named as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. And only two of those five were on the ’84 squad – Ewing and Jordan.

It seems incredible to think about it now, knowing how these players developed and grew stronger through the years, that so many great and talented All-Americans were left watching the Olympics from their living room couch.

As USA Basketball looks toward another year of competition, another year of training camps where large groups of talented athletes will be pared down to an eventual 12-man team, it’s important to recognize that everyone doesn’t develop at the same speed. Just because an athlete doesn’t make one team, that doesn’t mean he can’t make another one in the future.  For a perfect example of this, see how the careers of Barkley, Malone and Stockton unfolded after the spring of 1984.