Monday, May 12, 2008

Team Florida vs Soviet Union, 5/13/83

Gordon Gibbons, head coach of the men's basketball team at Clayton State University in Georgia, still recalls details of the game as if it were played yesterday. In a lifetime of memorable championship games, this exhibition basketball contest still stands out twenty five years later.

"Their overall size. Five seven-footers. Every guard six-foot-six or six-foot-seven," Gibbons says. "They were a huge team."

On May 13, 1983, the Soviet Union Junior National Team made Tampa its fourth stop on an 11-city, 15-day tour of the United States. Their opponent for the exhibition at the USF Sun Dome: Team Florida, a 19-and-under AAU team helmed by Gibbons and stocked with some of the state's top prospects.

"When we put the team together, we wanted to do it big time," Gibbons recalls. "Expose basketball in the state and get the top players. It snowballed from there."

The coach points out that in the 1980s, long before the University of Florida won back-to-back NCAA basketball championships, basketball in this state wasn't taken seriously.

"Florida basketball hadn't been anything prior to Team Florida," Gibbons says. "Team Florida made basketball in this state. We felt like the quality of basketball here had been underexposed, and was one of the best kept secrets in the country. There was no question though about the talent on our roster."

The roster included six players whose distinguished college careers would help them earn selection in the NBA draft: Ronnie Murphy, Randy
Allen, Ricky Blanton, Andrew Moten, Frank Ford, and Will Perdue.

The Soviets, no slouches themselves, featured a talented team that included future NBA draftees and 1988 Olympic gold medalists Valery Tikhonenko and Aleksandr Volkov.
Joel Canfall, who played guard for USF, believed wholeheartedly that Team Florida could match up with the Soviets.

"I bet we have just as much skill, if not more, than (they) do," Canfall said prior to the game. "We don't know that much about what we're getting into here, but we're not intimidated by them."

If they weren't intimidated, Gibbons still made sure that his team respected the Soviets going into the game.

"Our biggest challenge was at that point in time, American kids didn't respect the quality of international basketball," Gibbons says. "They didn't think that a bunch of big white guys from Europe would be very good."

Prior to the team's arrival in Tampa, Gibbons and his coaching staff scouted a game in New York between the Soviets and the New York Riverside Hawks, a renowned team that featured future NBA stars Kenny Smith and Olden Polynice. Although the Soviets lost by 17 points, they left quite an impression on the Team Florida staff.

"They were quick and fast," Gibbons says. "It really surprised me how well they passed and handled the ball. They were physical and could fast break better than I expected. I told the team when we got back, 'Hey, these guys are real good.' So there's no way I was going to let us take them lightly."

A crowd of 3,500 at the Sun Dome watched the Soviets race out to an early 22-10 lead. While Team Florida struggled to find its rhythm on offense, the Soviets were patient and controlled the tempo of the game. Eventually, Team Florida's full court attack would wear down the Soviets.

Trailing 56-48 with just over 13 minutes left in the game, Team Florida mounted a comeback behind the strength of guard Frank Ford. The future Auburn University standout scored eight points on a 13-0 run that propelled Team Florida to a 61-56 lead. Team Florida would never trail again in the game.

Ford scored a game-high 31 points and registered 11 rebounds in a performance neither the Soviets, nor Gibbons, would forget.

"Ford was unbelievable," Gibbons recalls. "He out-quicked their big guys around the basket and was such a great offensive rebounder. He was the difference in that game."

The game remained in doubt until the final minute, but guard Jimmy McCrimmon stole a pass from Igor Kornishin and finished off the game with a slam dunk to provide the final margin in a 82-76 victory.

Ford earned Most Valuable Player honors for leading Team Florida to the win over the Soviets. Battered and bruised after the game, Ford said that he had "never played against any team that big. It was very physical, but I just think we had more adrenalin flowing."

If Ford seemed like a player on a mission, it’s because in order to play in the game Ford had to miss out on another very important event.

"I had to miss my senior prom and was kind of upset," Ford recently said. "I’d just started dating a young lady and it was all set up. Then the game came along, and you just couldn’t miss it because it was the Russians coming to town. Who wouldn’t want to play for the pride of the U.S.A.?"

Despite being played prior to the end of the Cold War, the game featured no animosity or ill feelings by either team. On the contrary, Gibbons remembers a feeling of sportsmanship by both sides that transcended ideology.

"The neatest thing I remember about the experience was the respect the players had for each other. It wasn't like 'They're Russians! They're Commies!' Sports transcends that a bit."
"After the game, our teams got together at their hotel. The players hung out watching television, and our coaching staff met with theirs to talk, with help of their interpreter of course. It was kind of cool."

The Soviet team's brief exposure to Florida included such quintessentially American activities like lunch at McDonald's and a day trip to Disney World. Later that summer, Gibbons returned the favor and embarked on a 15-day tour of the Soviet Union with an AAU All-Star team. In a career that is fast approaching the 400-win mark, where does his stint as coach of this international team rank?

"It was a really great experience for all of us and something I know I'll never forget."

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