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Postby rlee » Wed Jun 26, 2013 1:32 pm

Tiger tandem launched NBA careers with '83 draft
by Dave Matter
St. Louis Post-Dispatch ... 674d1.html

COLUMBIA, Mo. • Stipanovich and Sundvold. Sundvold and Stipanovich.

Paired on the court for four years in college and inexorably linked since then, Missouri basketball teammates Steve Stipanovich and Jon Sundvold came from opposite sides of the state — Stipanovich, the 7-foot skilled giant from St. Louis, and Sundvold, the sweet-shooting guard from Blue Springs. They met in the middle where they made basketball magic at Mizzou.

From 1979-83, they led the Tigers to 100 wins, four straight Big Eight championships and four NCAA tournaments. They finished their careers with All-American honors and on top of the school’s all-time scoring list, Stipanovich with 1,836 points and Sundvold with 1,597. And that was before the college 3-pointer.

“It’s always ‘Jon Sundvold-Steve Stipanovich,’” Stipanovich, 52, said in a recent phone interview, reflecting on the first and only NBA draft that featured two Mizzou players as first-round selections. “Gosh, I still run into people today who talk about those days and how much they enjoyed watching us play back then.”

Thirty years ago this week, as the day that launched their professional careers loomed, it appeared the celebrated college teammates would remain teammates in the NBA. Stipanovich and Sundvold, the Tiger tandem, nearly relocated together in Indiana.

Ralph who?

In the 1982-83 NBA season, the Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers finished with the worst records in their respective conferences. The NBA hadn’t yet instituted the lottery to decide which teams made the early picks in the draft. Instead, the league flipped a coin between the two worst teams to determine who drafted first.

The winner was widely expected to take 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson, the three-time Naismith Award winner from Virginia. Houston won, but Indiana was hardly a loser.

The day after the coin flip, Pacers front office personnel wore T-shirts that said RALPH WHO?, Sports Illustrated wrote later that fall.

“Everyone knew the Pacers loved Steve,” Sundvold, 51, said. “That was a given.”

By the time the June 28 draft arrived, Indiana had settled on Stipanovich, the prep star at De Smet High School who left Mizzou as its career leader in points, rebounds and blocked shots.

Along with his parents, Stipanovich attended the draft at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

As expected, the Rockets took Sampson first.

“People kept telling me I’d be the second pick,” Stipanovich said. “I didn’t really know for sure.”

But the Pacers knew. They planned to build their front line around Stipanovich, flanking him with 6-11 Herb Williams and 6-7 Clark Kellogg, the team’s first-round pick the previous year.

“It was so close to home,” Stipanovich said. “It was a great opportunity for me. But you have a lot of different emotions. You’re nervous, you’re excited. … There was a lot of pressure. You wanted to be found worthy of that pick.”

Reunion in Indy?

In Blue Springs, Sundvold gathered with his parents and older brother Scott to watch the draft unfold on the USA Network. TV stations from Kansas City and Columbia had asked to come into the house to film his reactions during the draft. Sundvold said no thanks.

“I was told I could have been a first-round pick, maybe a second-round pick,” Sundvold said. “You just didn’t know what to believe.”

“I was a great shooter, but I’m 6-2, so I wasn’t a true shooting guard, so to speak,” he continued. “And I wasn’t a true point guard. In Norm Stewart’s (Missouri) offense, we didn’t run point guard or shooting guard. So, I was this mixture guy that they were trying to fit somewhere. The projections were across the board.”

The San Antonio Spurs told Sundvold’s agent they planned to take him with the 19th pick.

The night before the draft, while Sundvold played in a Kansas City summer basketball league, the Pacers called his dad, Robert, and shared their draft plans.

“I came home and my dad said, ‘The Pacers say they’ll take you with the last pick of the first round,’” Sundvold said.

The Pacers actually had the 23rd pick, the second-to-last selection in the first round. But they’d never get a chance to reunite the Mizzou tandem.

Seven picks earlier, two spots after Portland drafted Clyde Drexler, the Seattle SuperSonics took Sundvold at No. 16.

“I was hopeful, like any kid, just to have a chance to go to a training camp,” he said.

‘He could do everything’

In Stipanovich’s first three NBA games, he squared off against future Hall of Fame centers Bob Lanier, Moses Malone and … Sampson. The rookie from Mizzou held his own against his fellow newcomer, scoring 12 points with seven rebounds — well short of Sampson’s 21 points and 18 rebounds. But Indiana won, and with Stipanovich stationed in the middle, the Pacers gradually improved, making the playoffs in his fourth season.

Stipanovich was a consistent force in the paint, averaging between 12.0 and 13.5 points each of his first five seasons. He scored at least 20 points in 62 games and never missed more than three games in any of those first five years.

“He could shoot. He could rebound. He could do everything,” Sundvold said. “And every team in the NBA knew it.”

In 1988, the Pacers drafted Rik Smits, a 7-4 center from Marist College, and planned to play him alongside Stipanovich, who was about to enter his sixth season in the league.

“That was going to free me up to play power forward,” Stipanovich said. “I felt like I was just ready to make a jump in all of my statistical categories and play a more natural position for me.”

But Stipanovich’s left knee began troubling him as the season approached. He’d play one preseason game before going on the injured list. Diagnosed later with a degenerative knee disorder, Stipanovich underwent two surgeries.

‘‘The loss of Stipanovich to our club is exactly as devastating as the loss Boston is experiencing this season without Larry Bird,’’ team president and general manager Donnie Walsh told reporters at the time.

Surgery didn’t help. Stipanovich announced his retirement the following January. He was 29.

Feeling the Heat

By then Sundvold was in Miami, playing for the expansion Heat, his third NBA franchise. After two seasons, the Sonics had shipped Sundvold to San Antonio for a draft pick two days before the start of the season. Playing alongside All-Stars Alvin Robertson and Artis Gilmore, Sundvold averaged a career-best 11.2 points per game in 1986-87 with the Spurs. He played with a cracked shin bone the next season, and the Spurs left him unprotected in the 1988 expansion draft.

The Heat selected him ninth in the draft — they alternated picks with the Charlotte Hornets — and Sundvold found a niche with his new team.

“I was there to help young guys,” he said, “and shoot 3-pointers.”

In 1988-89, his best season in Miami, Sundvold averaged 10.4 points and set an NBA record for 3-point accuracy, making a league-best 52.2 percent.

Heading into the 1991-92 season, Sundvold needed neck surgery. His fingers had been going numb, and doctors fused parts of his hip bone to replace two discs in his neck.

“It was about a week before training camp, and I said, ‘You know, I think I’m done,’” Sundvold said.

Retirement sent Stipanovich and his young family to Medford, Ore., where they lived for seven years. They later returned to St. Louis, where Stipanovich and his wife Terri raised their six kids — five daughters and a son.

Stipanovich, who works for Schneider Industries, spent the last three years coaching daughters Sadie and Hannah at Westminster Christian Academy, winning 65 games in three seasons before he stepped down in April.

Stipanovich no longer plays basketball, having undergone 13 surgeries since his playing days, including six on his left knee and four recent shoulder operations.

“Now I just love coaching and being around my kids,” he said.

After retiring from the Heat at 31, Sundvold turned down offers to work in the team’s front office. Instead, he and wife Tammy returned to Columbia, where they had been living during the NBA offseasons. He opened his own investment firm, and on the side found a courtside seat as one of college basketball’s top TV analysts.

Nearly brought together by the fate of the draft, the forever linked Mizzou teammates now watch the game from a different view — and have come to appreciate their injury-shortened careers.

“I think I was about ready to catapult myself to a whole other level,” Stipanovich said, “but the injuries cut that short.”

“It’s a hard life,” Sundvold said. “And if you’re not a superstar it’s very demanding. But to play nine years is probably much more than anyone thought would happen.”
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