Despite Gold-Medal Loss, 1983 World Championship a Fond Memory for U.S. Women
The upstart Americans took on the mighty Soviet Union and came oh so close to gold.
Some of the details have faded from the minds of the extraordinary women who made up the 1983 USA Basketball Women’s World Championship Team, but the most prominent storyline of their charge toward the gold-medal game at the FIBA World Championship that year forever will remain strong and clear.
It was a different era of women’s basketball, one in which the Soviet Union reigned supreme and Americans were the young upstarts. The Soviets had boycotted the 1979 World Championship when the U.S. won the gold medal, and then the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics, where USSR won its second Olympic gold medal in a row.
The 1983 tournament in Brazil was an opportunity to finally see if the up-and-coming U.S. program truly was a match for the Soviet Union.
“It was a team that was excited to wear the USA uniform,” said Kim Mulkey, who played guard on that team and went on to a legendary college coaching career first as an assistant at her alma mater Louisiana Tech and then at Baylor University, where she is the head coach. “There were a few of us who had spent a couple of years playing for USA Basketball in the summers, but we really hadn’t embraced what it would be like to play against Russia, just because we were so young.”
The 1983 U.S. women were coached by Pat Summitt, who already was nearly a decade into her Hall of Fame coaching career at the University of Tennessee. Summitt barked at her players in practices leading up to the tournament, trying to get them to understand how hard they would have to play and how disciplined they would have to be to overcome the older and more experienced Soviets.
“I’m sure most people didn’t get to see the best part, because the best part was every day in practice when we battled, and learned and figured out how we were going to attack the opponent,” said Lynette Woodard, who also became a college coach and now directs the program at Winthrop University. “It was a beautiful time.”
The Americans might have been too eager to play the Soviets, because they nearly lost their first game in the tournament against China, eventually prevailing in overtime. They were much better prepared for game two, a blowout win over Yugoslavia.
“We were nervous,” Woodard said. “China, they were on the scope, but we were looking forward to the Soviet Union. (China) had a style of play that was much different from ours. They were always moving, and it seemed like you were playing against a marching band sometimes. Korea played that way, too.”
The first meeting with the Soviet Union arrived on July 30, 1983, during pool play. The U.S. started well and established a nine-point lead at halftime. However, the Soviets’ relentless approach and disciplined style brought them back to take the lead. A last-second shot by the Americans was unsuccessful, and after months of anticipating the opportunity, the young American squad was disappointed following a one-point loss.
The presence of 7-footer Uljana Semjonova in the Soviet lineup was another reason the Americans were so excited to play the Soviets. Semjonova was considered one of the best players in the world at the time and certainly the most intimidating. She lived up to that billing in her meetings with the U.S., scoring 31 points in the first game and 23 in the second encounter.
“I had never seen such big women,” Mulkey said. “We played against China, and they had a big girl, and then I had never seen the Russian team and how big they were. I had heard about them, but until you actually go and play against them, you don’t realize how big they really were.
“I remember how physical it was,” Mulkey added. “I remember how they were very methodical with the things they did. They didn’t show much emotion. They were just like trained to be these great basketball players and the dominant players that they were.”
At 6-foot-8, the late Anne Donovan was the only player on the U.S. team taller than 6-foot-5. And when she couldn’t be on the court against Semjonova, the U.S. was at a big disadvantage.
Woodard said occasionally one of the smaller American players was able to outmuscle Semjonova for a rebound, and that usually brought the entire bench to its feet.
“That was the giant,” Woodard said. “That was the greatest player in the world. You always want to knock that player off. She was so big. We were so fearful of her at the time. She was flatfooted but 7-foot-2 not counting if she raised her arms. It was a challenge.
“We were running around there at 5-foot-11 and 6-foot trying to figure it out,” Woodard remembered. “She could get up and down that floor. Anywhere around the basket from 15 feet and in, you might think you were past her, but you may not have always been, ‘cause this hand comes out of nowhere.”
The Americans regrouped after the loss and ran off four consecutive victories — each by double-digit margins — to reach the gold-medal game and a second chance to beat Soviets.
Once again, the U.S. started strong and established a lead going into halftime. The Americans relinquished that lead with six minutes left in the game but fought hard the rest of the way to a tie game 82-82 with six seconds remaining.
The USSR inbounded the ball in the waning moments, and it came to Elena Chausova, who made the winning shot, giving the Soviets an 84-82 victory. U.S. star Cheryl Miller had her two highest scoring games of the tournament against the Soviet team, but it wasn’t enough. She led the Americans with 23 points in the final.
Woodard and Denise Curry were the second- and third-leading scorers in the tournament for the U.S., respectively.
Woodard, who scored 14 points in the gold-medal game, remembers feeling crushed by the loss, but Mulkey, who added three points off the bench, remembers it a different way.
“It didn’t devastate us,” she said. “I can tell you that, because in our minds at that time we were going to see them the next year anyway at the Olympics, and we thought, ‘OK, y’all better reload and regroup, because we’re pretty darn good, and we’ve proven it now and we’ll see you next year.’
“Little did we know at that time, we would not see them. But, I don’t recall us leaving the floor thinking that they were just that much better than we were, because they were not.”
The Soviet Union opted to boycott the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles, where the U.S. women won the gold medal for the first time in history. Eight members of the 1983 world championship squad were part of that Olympic team.