Monday, June 23, 2008

Stroh's Basketball Challenge, 6/18/83

On May 31, 1983, the Philadelphia 76ers completed a dominating post-season by sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers in four games in the NBA Finals. The MVP of the regular season and the Finals, Moses Malone famously predicted before the playoffs that the Sixers would win "Fo, fo, fo," intimating that his team would sweep each of the three rounds of the playoffs. Malone nearly hit the mark, as the 76ers won 12 of 13 games en route to the title.

Remarkably, less than a month after wrapping up the season, Malone, along with 17 other NBA stars, were scheduled to appear in an exhibition game on June 18 at the USF Sun Dome. Officially called the Stroh's Basketball Challenge, the game boasted an impressive list of stars, such as Artis Gilmore, Darryl Dawkins, Darrell "Dr. Dunkenstein" Griffith, and Adrian Dantley. The exhibition game was meant to promote the sport of basketball in Tampa, at the time seen as a possible future location of an NBA expansion franchise.

On the morning of the game, Sally Ride made history by becoming America's first woman in space as a crewmember of the space shuttle Challenger. While Ride described her experience as "definitely an E-ticket," back on Earth a few hundred basketball fans in Tampa would soon be demanding refunds on their own tickets.

Prior to the game, Stephen Greenberg, spokesman for game promoter Leisure Entertainment, announced to the crowd of 7,000 that Malone had backed out of the game and would not play because of a knee injury. In fact, Malone had not even made the trip from his home in Houston to Tampa. Showered by boos, Greenberg offered refunds to anyone wishing for their money back. Nearly 400 patrons took advantage of the offer.

"We tried to get him to at least come in and make an appearance, but he declined," Greenberg said. "We don't want to be known as fly-by-night promoters. This really upsets us from a credibility standpoint in the area."

For his part, Malone said he suffered the knee injury playing in a game of pick-up basketball a few days earlier, and severe swelling prompted his doctor to advise him not to play. Malone expressed regret at disappointing the fans in Tampa, but felt optimistic about perhaps bringing the 76ers down for an exhibition game in the fall.

Malone wasn't the only player, however, to pull out at the last minute. Other no-shows included Calvin Natt, Tom McMillan, Bill Garnett and Eric "Sleepy" Floyd. Leisure Entertainment scrambled at the last minute and were able to bring in Gene Banks, Danny Schayes, and Malone's teammate in Philadelphia, Maurice Cheeks.

Although the game would have to go on without its headliners, fans were still treated to a high-tempo performance featuring end-to-end action showcasing some of basketball’s finest playmakers.

Guard Darrell Griffith of the Utah Jazz, the 1981 NBA Rookie of the Year, led all scorers with 36 points, including three 3-pointers, to spark his West stars to a 154-150 triumph over the East.
"These summer games are definitely made for the guards," Griffith said after the game. "Everyone's trying to get themselves in shape for the regular season so they want to run the transition game during the summer. Quickness was the big factor. (The East) definitely couldn't keep up."

Charles Bradley of the Boston Celtics, who tallied 24 points and played for the West to even up the rosters, said of the fast break-heavy game that he'd never "been involved in anything that required this much running."

The no-shows not withstanding, the event promoters could not have been more pleased with the level of play or the turnout at the Sun Dome, nearly 3,000 more fans than were needed to break even on the event.

Now twenty-five years later, the NBA still comes back to Tampa nearly every October for exhibition games at the St. Pete Times Forum. The league has settled on Miami and Orlando as its permanent outposts in the state, so it remains unlikely that Tampa will ever become anything more than an occasional host. A visit from Moses Malone, however, would still be most welcome.

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