During his freshman season at Indiana University, star basketball player Steve Alford would check his mailbox at Read Hall once a week.
Only one person sent Alford letters at college — his mom. But in the winter of 1984, an envelope from a different source hit his mailbox.
"I got a letter from the Olympic committee that I had been invited to the Olympics trials," the Wolf Pack basketball coach said in a sit-down this week with Nevada Sports Net. "There's 77 people invited to those trials. Two high school kids in Delray Brooks and Danny Manning, and the rest of us were college."
Alford was a long shot to make the team but eventually did and was one of four U.S. players to average double-figures in the 1984 Los Angeles Games. He was in the starting five for Team USA's blowout win over Spain in the gold-medal game. Thirty-seven years later, Alford has been tuning in to watch the U.S. team try and win another Olympic gold in basketball, and there's a Wolf Pack link with Nevada alum JaVale McGee on the American roster as the U.S. faces France in the championship game in Tokyo on Friday at 7:30 p.m. Pacific.
"When they put (the medal) around you neck, it's very surreal," Alford said. "You don't really know what's happening. You know you just won a gold medal. It doesn't really sink in. I think it sinks in when you're standing on that stage and the anthem is played. There are a lot of special moments throughout the Olympics."
Alford said officially making Team USA's roster was his biggest "pinch me" moment at the Olympics. At 19, Alford was the youngest player on the 12-man team. And also the most controversial addition because Bobby Knight, his coach at Indiana, was the Olympic coach. Allegations of favoritism toward Alford were lobbied as the reason he made the cut.
A year prior to playing in the Olympics, Alford had been playing in high school. He went from representing his state in the annual Indiana vs. Kentucky All-Star Game, which is a big deal in the Hoosier State, to playing against in the Olympics, which is a big deal for the entire world.
"It was hard because I was only 19 years old," Alford said. "I was the youngest Olympian on the team and my coach was the head coach. I had to hear all the noise. 'Hey, John Stockton didn't make it. Joe Dumars didn't make it. Johnny Dawkins didn't make it. Karl Malone didn't make it. Roy Tarpley didn't make it. Danny Manning.' When you look at all the great players and Hall of Famers who didn't make it, I was the one who heard all that noise.
"'You're just on the team because of Coach Knight.' There was probably a lot of validity to that in the beginning, but it was good I was just able to prove myself and have a really good Olympiad. I was on that team to shoot it, and I shot it well. Anytime you're on a team, whether it's Olympic or otherwise, but Olympics especially, you want to play your role, and I was fortunate I was able to do that."
Alford averaged 10.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.5 steals in the Olympics, joining future Hall of Famers Michael Jordan (17.1 ppg), Chris Mullin (11.6) and Patrick Ewing (11.0) as the only Americans to average double-figures as Team USA swept its eight games, including a 96-65 win over Spain for the gold medal. Alford's 8-of-8 shooting effort against France remains the most field-goal attempts in an Olympic game without a miss.
"There were a lot of great players, some Hall of Fame-type players who didn't make it, but I think I did a good job of proving myself over that time," Alford said. "There were only four double-figure scorers in the Olympics, and I was one of them. I remember starting the gold-medal game and to this day it's one of the highlights of my career being one of five in the starting lineup for a gold-medal game. Those were exciting times. That whole experience of representing your country and what it stood for then was very, very special to me."
Alford has many fond memories from the Olympic trials process, which was far more drawn out than the current model, which includes selecting a handful of NBA stars and playing a couple of exhibition games. Alford had to beat dozens of college standouts to make the team, and after that Team USA's college roster played seven exhibition games against a team of NBA All-Stars that included players like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Isiah Thomas.
"People forget we played seven games against NBA All-Stars in our exhibition season," Alford said. "We won all seven of those games. In fact, one of them was at the Hoosier Dome and almost 70,000 people showed up for that game. We were never beaten and then we go through the Olympics and win all eight in the Olympics. We win the final game 96-65 over Spain, and that was really our win margin. We averaged right around 96 and gave up right around 64, 65. To culminate that by standing on the stage and see your flag be raised the highest and the national anthem is played, that's what really sinks in that you're a part of something that's the best in the world, not just part of the best in the United States."
Alford recalled his roommate during the Olympic trials being Charles Barkley, who was controversially cut from the team, allegedly because his strong personality clashed with that of Knight. Barkley was believed by most to be the second-best player on the trials roster after Jordan.
"At the trials, Barkley was my roommate," Alford said. "We did it alphabetically and we were A-B. That was interesting. I knew I was in something different because — I don't know if Dominos was a sponsor or not — but we got two Dominos pizzas delivered to our rooms at the Indiana Union where we were staying. Two large pizzas would usually mean you get one and I get one. If you're rooming with Barkley, he gets two and you're lucky if you get a slice."
While at the Olympics, Alford got to meet a number of U.S. stars in the Olympic Village. He specifically remembers taking the same shuttle as gymnast Mary Lou Retton, who would win five medals in those Games, and having lunch with boxer Pernell Whitaker, who also took home gold. But some of the biggest stars of those Olympics were on his team, especially Jordan. Alford said there was no star-struck feeling because Alford's Indiana team had just beaten Jordan's North Carolina team in the NCAA Tournament a few months prior in Jordan's final college game.
"I didn't look at Sam (Perkins), I didn't look at Michael, I didn't look at Patrick (Ewing) like I look at them today," Alford said. "They were just starting their career. We were all amateurs. We were all young. it's not like we were part of the Dream Team. If you were on the Dream Team in '92, you could say, 'Oh, my, gosh, this is such and such.' We knew Michael was the guy, our leader, our best player, that type of thing, but he hadn't done the Jumpman yet, he hadn't signed with Nike yet, he didn't have his own shoe and tongue out and everything else. That hadn't happened yet.
"I do remember a time we were training in San Diego and had a water break and were coming back in from a water break, and it was out in the hall. There was a wet towel as you enter the gym and Jordan wiped his feet on the towel. I was the next guy to come in and I wiped my feet on that towel. Coach Knight stopped things and said, 'Hey, how about that, MJ?' MJ kind of looked at him and said, 'What's wrong?' and he said, 'Alford saw you wipe your feet on that towel so he did the same and now he thinks he can jump like you.' That was never in my mindset. I knew I could never jump like him."
The 1984 U.S. team was the country's second-to-last to use amateurs at the Olympics. Alford said he is lucky to have that Olympic experience in addition to playing for his father and coaching idol, Sam, at New Castle High; winning a national championship under Knight at Indiana; and playing four seasons in the NBA.
"I've been very, very fortunate," Alford said. "I've had New Castle across my chest. I've had Indiana across my chest. And to have USA across my chest, those are three very special uniforms."
You can watch our full interview with Steve Alford below.