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Maryland basketball coach Lefty Driesell dangled one scholarship in front of three players in 1981—Buzz Peterson, Jeff Adkins, and a high school player from North Carolina named Michael Jordan—saying the first one to respond “yes” could take it. Known for his swift movements on the court, Jordan was slow to react, and well, you know the rest of that story.
Jordan would go on to play for Dean Smith at North Carolina, leading them to a national championship in 1982 before winning six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls.
But the Hall of Famer had a strong interest in Maryland and played with heightened motivation against the Terps while at North Carolina.
Just ask Peterson, who has maintained a strong connection with Jordan for nearly four decades.
He was Jordan’s roommate at North Carolina while both played for the Tar Heels and works as an assistant general manager for the Charlotte Hornets, owned largely by Jordan.
“He was interested in Maryland,” Peterson says. “Maryland was one that he would talk about.”
Peterson was named North Carolina’s high school player of the year in 1981 by the Associated Press, ahead of Jordan. He met Jordan for the first time in the early summer the previous year at a basketball camp at the University of North Carolina. Later that summer they attended the Five-Star Basketball Camp near Pittsburgh, where Jordan was voted MVP one week. As Peterson recalls, Jordan and his parents stopped by the University of Maryland for a visit on the way home to North Carolina from the camp.
Driesell, Maryland’s head coach at the time, vaguely recalls Jordan’s visit to College Park. Still, Driesell says in a phone interview that he wanted Jordan “badly” and Peterson insists Maryland was high on Jordan’s list. Driesell pressured Jordan, Peterson, and Adkins to accept the offer in 1981.
“He says, ‘I’ve got one scholarship left, and the first one who takes it gets it,’” Peterson tells City Paper. Peterson and Adkins were selected Parade Magazine High School All-Americans in 1981, an honor Jordan did not achieve.
Driesell could not recall the offer to the three players, but says it was likely that he made that pitch.
“I used to do that,” he says. “I tried not to over-recruit.”
Adkins would end up taking the scholarship.
Jordan and Adkins did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
What Driesell, who entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018, does vividly remember is visiting Jordan’s North Carolina home on a recruiting trip.
“I went up in his bedroom and saw all those Carolina flags and banners,” he says. “I said, ‘I ain’t going to get him.‘”
At North Carolina Jordan maintained an intense interest to play against Maryland more than any other team in the ACC, Peterson claims. It originated from what Jordan considered a slight against him at the 1981 McDonalds’ All-American game in Wichita, Kansas. In the game, Jordan scored 30 points, including game-winning free throws with 11 seconds remaining to help the East All-Stars beat the West All-Stars, 96-95. Jordan converted 13-of-19 field goals, made all four of his free throws and recorded six steals and four assists.
But Maryland commit Adrian Branch, who grew up in Seat Pleasant and attended DeMatha Catholic High School, was voted a co-MVP of the game in Wichita along with Aubrey Sherrod. Jordan used the incident as a consistent motivational force against the Terps.
“When he didn’t get MVP, he was hot,” says Peterson, accentuating the word “hot”. “Michael’s always looking for something to get an edge, to get motivated about. He never had to get motivated to play Maryland. If I was in a room with him, and I’d say, ‘Wichita,’ he knew what I was talking about.”
“Even more than Duke. Maryland … he wanted to really go at them,” Peterson continues. “Go up against Branch? Of course.”
Branch looked at the McDonald’s all-star game in Wichita as a way to help him forget about a nine-point performance earlier that year at the Capital Classic All-Star game in the old Capital Centre. In Wichita, Branch scored 24.
“Coming into that game, I said, ‘I’m going to show those dudes I can play,” Branch tells City Paper.
Driesell does not recall Jordan expressing enhanced motivation to play against Branch or Maryland. But Branch has not forgotten. When reached by phone at his home in Phoenix, Branch immediately begins with a bold, chest-beating response, mentioning Jordan with elevated passion throughout the call.
“We wanted that punk as badly as he wanted us,” he says.
Of the six times Branch and Jordan faced each other in college, North Carolina won five. Before the only Terps win of those games in February 1983, when both Branch and Jordan were sophomores, Carolina was ranked third in the nation. The Terps had lost six games and were 4-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Jordan scored 16 points in the first half and North Carolina held a 46-40 lead at halftime before the Terps won, 106-94. Jordan and Adkins both scored 25 points in the game.
Perhaps the only player more impactful in that game was Branch, who scored 24 points in 27 minutes before fouling out. Washington Post writer Michael Wilbon described Branch’s effort in a game story as “the most electrifying points ever posted in Cole Field House.”
Still, Jordan outscored Branch by a point, and both players led the game with five three-point field goals.
Branch offered both admiration for and bravado against Jordan when reflecting on the times they played each other in college.
“We had something for that alpha dog, woof, woof,” he says with a laugh. “You can’t knock his success, God bless him and his family. But all that super-suit, Jordan stuff don’t fly over here. We wanted them as badly as they wanted us. We’d shake their hands win or lose. It was a healthy competitive respect. But no love lost. When he came to town, we were ready with one foot down, and another foot up. We weren’t no passive dudes.”