Jordan soars in Memorial Gym

Feb. 15, 2012

Nashville sports historian Bill Traughber has recently written another book, Vanderbilt Football: Tales of Commodore Gridiron History. The 160-page paperback book can be ordered on for $19.99.

Michael Jordan Commodore History Corner Archive

There was much anticipation for a special basketball game held on October 23, 1986, in Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym. The NBA had come to Nashville for an exhibition game. The Chicago Bulls played the Atlanta Hawks, a game that featured two great players.

Michael Jordan was the showpiece for the Bulls as he was beginning his third professional season. Jordan was the third overall selection by the Bulls in the 1984 draft behind Akeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie.

The North Carolina great was named the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1985. Jordan led Chicago during his rookie season in scoring (28.2 ppg), rebounding (6.5 rpg), assists (481) and steals (198), but played only 18 games the previous year after breaking his foot.

Leading the Hawks was a scoring machine in Dominique Wilkins. Wilkins was no stranger to Nashville fans having played in Memorial Gym as an All-American for the Georgia Bulldogs. Wilkins was entering his fifth season in the NBA and selected third overall by Utah (traded to the Hawks a few months later) in the 1982 draft behind James Worthy and Terry Cummings. He averaged 30.3 points per game the year before to lead the NBA while averaging 7.9 rebounds per game.

Another popular player for the Hawks was Spud Webb. The 5-foot-7, 133 pound guard gained attention the previous year when he defeated Wilkins in the NBA Slam Dunk Championship. Wilkins stood at 6-foot-8, 230 pounds.

Vanderbilt athletics director Roy Kramer said, “This game will bring an exciting opportunity for the basketball fans of the Nashville area to see some of the most outstanding athletes in the NBA. The proceeds from the game, after expenses, will be used to supplement the athletic scholarship fund at Vanderbilt, so we are hopeful of filling Memorial Gym for the game.

Over 12,000 fans paid $10.50 and $12.50 just watch the two teams practice the day before. The game itself was a sellout as fans packed Memorial Gym. Doug Collins coached the Bulls while Michael Fratello led Atlanta.

The Tennessean reported, “In an exhibition, it matters not whether you win or lose but how you played the game. And, oh, how they played it last night in an NBA rehearsal between the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls. For the record, Atlanta won the shoot-’em up 122-112, keeping its exhibition record perfect at 5-0.

“But for the capacity crowd of 15, 626 that jammed Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym to the rafters, the outcome probably wasn’t as intriguing as the output. They saw what they came to see—pros in poetry. They saw Michael “Air Jordan” gliding, Spud Webb weaving his 5-7 frame through the forest to dish off assists, and ’86 scoring leader Dominique Wilkins showing his stuffs—once after a 360-degree spin that wowed the crowd.”

Wilkins led all scorers in the game with 36 points and Jordan led Chicago with 29. Webb limped off the court with a minor injury in the first quarter, but returned in the final period to finish the game. He scored eight points to go with his eight assists. Mike McGee chipped in 22 points for Atlanta and the Bulls’ Charles Oakley added 22 points and 15 rebounds.

D WilkinsWilkins was asked to grade his dunks:

“I’d give most of them about a 9,” he said with a wink. “Oh, a couple might’ve made it to 10.”

During the game, Jordan was charged with a technical foul after attacking the basket by going through a few Hawks players. In protesting the call, Collins himself was hit with a technical foul. Later in the game a double technical was called on Webb and Chicago’s John Paxton after an altercation.

Said Fratello about the crowd, “It’s wonderful. I’m happy that C.M. Newton [Vanderbilt basketball coach] has this kind of basketball support here. I’ve known C.M. for a long time and he’s one of the finest in the country. If his program gets this kind of support, he’s going to have some great players coming in.”

The 6-foot-6, 215 pound Jordan would lead the league in scoring (37.1) that season while Wilkins was second (29.0). Atlanta finished that season with a 57-25 record in the Central Division of the Eastern Conference. They beat Indiana three games to one in the first round of the playoffs, but fell to Detroit in five games in the semi-finals. The Bulls finished their season with a 40-42 record in fifth place. In the Eastern Conference they lost in the first round of the playoffs to Boston in a three-game sweep.

Wilkins, nicknamed “The Human Highlight Film,” played for the Hawks (1982-94), Los Angeles Clippers (1994), Celtics (1994-95), Spurs (1996-97) and Orlando (1999). He was a nine-time NBA All-Star and averaged 24.8 ppg (26,668) and 7.6 rpg (7,167) in his career. Wilkins retired from basketball in 1999 and was selected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.

Michael Jordan played for the Bulls (1984-93, 1995-98) and Washington Wizards (2001-03). He was a five-time league MVP, played in 14 All-Star games, 10-time NBA scoring champion and earned numerous other accolades and records. Jordan’s career stats include 30.1 ppg, (32,292), 6.2 rpg (6,672) and 5.3 apg (5,633). On October 6, 1993, Jordan retired from basketball to pursue his dream of playing professional baseball, which he did with the Double-A Birmingham Barons. “His Airness” rejoined the NBA and the Bulls on March 18, 1995.

Chicago assistant coach Phil Jackson replaced Collins in 1989. Jackson would lead the Bulls to six NBA championships (1991-93, 1996-98) with Jordan the NBA Finals MVP all six times. Jordan retired again from the NBA on January 13, 1999, but activated himself on September 25, 2001, to sign as a free agent with Washington. He played two seasons for the Wizards (2001-03). Jordan, arguably the best basketball player that ever lived, was selected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.

Jordan also visited Memorial Gym in another NBA exhibition game against Utah a few years later. His teammate at that time was former Vanderbilt All-American Will Perdue.

If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email



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