Canada pulled off a Miracle on Hardwood at the 1983 University Games
While many people are familiar with the “Miracle on Ice,” not so many are aware of Canada’s version on the hardwood.
The 1980 Winter Olympics saw an underdog group of Americans amateur hockey players upset a powerhouse group of professionals from the Soviet Union en route to winning gold on home ice in Lake Placid.
The Canadian men’s basketball team pulled off something similar at the 1983 Summer Universaide in Edmonton.
While the biennial event (also known as the World Univeristy Games) is specifically for student-athletes, the competition wasn’t filled with your ordinary collegiate athletes. Canada shocked a heavily favoured United States team that featured a pair of future hall of famers in the semifinals before defeating Yugoslavia in the gold-medal game.
Star-studded American squad
The Americans were led by two stars who are now household names — Charles Barkley and Karl Malone — and also featured Johnny Dawkins and future Toronto Raptors Ed Pinckney and Kevin Willis.
Dawkins went on to become Duke University’s all-time leading scorer and won the Naismith College Player of the Year award three years after the World University Games.
Pinckney had already made the first-team all-Big East conference team two years prior and would later be named the NCAA’s most outstanding player after leading Villanova University to a national championship.
Charles Barkley went on to have a Hall of Fame career in the NBA after representing the United States in the 1983 Summer Universiade. (Lutz Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Willis was drafted 11th overall a year later and played 21 seasons in the NBA.
Just as the Soviets dominated the Olympic hockey scene — winning six of the past seven gold medals heading into Lake Placid — the Americans were the class of the basketball world and seeking a fifth straight Universiade gold medal in Edmonton.
Heading into their semifinal matchup against Canada, the United States lived up to the hype and looked unbeatable. The Americans were 5-0 while scoring just under 120 points per contest with an average margin of victory of 59 points.
Meanwhile, the Canadian squad had a respectable 4-1 record under the guidance of the late Jack Donohue.
The American-born head coach was at the helm of Canada’s national team for 16 years before calling it a career in 1988. He even coached Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in high school.
Since then, no other head coach has been as successful as Donohue.
Canada won its only Universiade gold in 1983 and had a pair of fourth-place finishes at the 1976 and 1984 Olympics with the New Yorker in charge.
With Jack Donohue as head coach of the men’s national basketball team, Canada won its only Universiade gold in 1983 and had a pair of fourth-place finishes at the 1976 and 1984 Olympics. (Gary Hershorn/Canadian Press)
The World University Games team was the core of the 1984 Olympic squad and mostly comprised of players from Canadian collegiate schools — including a healthy representation from the University of Victoria, which was in the middle of seven straight national championships.
Some notable members included future national team head coach and team captain Jay Triano and three-time NBA champion Bill Wennington.
“I joke with the players, I played in four World University Games [1979, ’81, ’83 and ’85] and they’re every two years, so I was a student for eight years,” Triano told The Canadian Press.
Eight players from the team were drafted to the NBA, but perhaps even more shocking were the omissions of future first-round picks Leo Rautins and Stewart Granger from the roster.
Upset of the ages
In front of 10,000 fans at the Universiade Pavillion in Edmonton, Canada rode the support of the home crowd to defeat the United States 85-77 and punch its ticket to the final.
Right from the get go, the fans made their presence felt, booing the Americans every time they had possession and roaring with each Canadian basket made.
Canada bolted out of the gate behind strong starts from Danny Meagher and Triano — crashing the offensive glass and pushing the pace off turnovers to score easy transition points.
Donohue’s mix of zone and man-to-man defence along with a full-court press worked to perfection.
But the Americans responded by cutting the deficit to one to make it 36-35 with just over 3.5 minutes remaining in the first half.
Barkley was held in check, scoring most of his points at the charity stripe but established his presence in the paint as a shot blocker and rebounder.
Meanwhile, Malone made his only appearance late in the first half, scoring just a single point.
The Canadians ended the first half on a 17-7 scoring run topped by Triano’s buzzer-beater that brought the crowd to their feet.
The host nation took a 53-42 lead into halftime with Triano scoring a game-high 24 points and Meagher adding 14.
The United States came out of the locker room taking a page out of Canada’s playbook. They turned up the defensive intensity and scored on the fast break to close within 69-64 in the last 10 minutes of the game.
But that’s as close as the Americans would get.
Foul trouble took first-half stars Barkley and Meagher out of the game and it was Canada’s Eli Pasquele who shined the brightest in the second half.
The guard scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half including a lay-up with 32 seconds left to seal the victory and prompt the crowd into chanting “Na, na, na, na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye!”
Triano scored the game’s final points to finish with 29.
Meagher was also Dawkins’s teammate at Duke.
“They had Barkley and Dawkins, who I played with,” Meagher told the St. Catharines Standard. “When you look at the list, it was crazy.”
Nothing compares to it
Meagher and the Canucks played Yugoslavia next — another respected basketball nation and winners of the 1978 world championship and 1980 Olympic Games.
Yugoslavia had yet to be separated by civil war and the foundation for its international success in the late ’80s and early ’90s was being established.
The European power was led by sharpshooter Drazen Petrovic, who Michael Jordan described as a “thrill” to play against because of his aggressive nature and ability to match his intensity level.
But none of that mattered as, on that day, Canada wrote its own history defeating Yugoslavia 83-68 to win gold
Meagher played four seasons as a Blue Devil for legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski and played overseas in Europe for eight seasons.
But nothing compared to winning Universiade gold for his country and Donohue.
“The Olympics and playing for Duke were fantastic, but winning that medal for him just took us so far beyond where we had been as a team and for Basketball Canada,” Meagher said.