EDINBURG — Since the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing shutdown, nothing has dominated the zeitgeist of the sports world quite like ESPN’s documentary series ‘The Last Dance’ about basketball icon Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls.

The 10-part series, which uses never-before-seen footage from Jordan’s sixth and final championship run with the Bulls, tells the story of Jordan’s basketball career and has captivated audiences nationwide.

The series has drawn an average of more than 12 million viewers per episode in the last four weeks, which eclipses the ratings of every NBA Finals and World Series game in the last year.

In anticipation of the release of Episodes 9 and 10 of ‘The Last Dance’ this evening, The Monitor caught up with former UT-Pan American forward Tom Fiepke, who played for the Broncs from 1982-87 and recalls facing Jordan and the North Carolina Tar Heels on the hardwood during his freshman season.

“I graduated (high school) in ‘82 and Lon Kruger became the coach that next year and recruited me from Kentucky,” Fiepke said. “I visited down there during my senior year of high school. I liked the Valley and I really liked coach Kruger, so I ended up deciding to go there and ended up staying five years in all. I enjoyed my stay there in the Valley.”

Kruger, currently the head basketball coach for the Oklahoma Sooners and one of only two DI coaches ever to lead five programs to the NCAA Tournament, was working as an assistant at his alma mater, Kansas State, before UTPA gave him his first head coaching opportunity in 1982.

Kruger successfully convinced Fiepke to relocate to the RGV and join the Broncs’ program, but the team got off to a sluggish 1-5 start to the 1982-83 season. 

“What I recall is the previous year they had a pretty bad year and obviously with coach Kruger coming in there, we were really just starting to build a better program,” Fiepke said. “I think the first year was clearly that rebuilding effort. I think we ended up 7-21 or 8-21 that first year, but it was part of the process to become a better team and I think we did over the four or five years that I was down there.” 

Lon Kruger, who was the head basketball coach at UT-Pan American from 1982-86, coached the Broncs against Michael Jordan and the North Carolina Tar Heels during an early season tournament game in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday, Dec. 18, 1982. Courtesy Photo UTRGV Athletics.

Jordan and the Tar Heels, however, were on a different trajectory.

Eight months earlier, a freshman ‘Mike’ Jordan as he was listed in the team’s media guide, buried a clutch buzzer-beating baseline jump shot to top Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas for the 1982 NCAA Championship.

The shot not only clinched a championship for North Carolina, but helped put Jordan’s name on the map on a national scale.

“Clearly he was well-known. He was one of the better college players in America. He hit the winning shot against Georgetown in the NCAA Championship game, but I don’t think he had the reputation that he would soon get in the NBA as shown in the series, ‘The Last Dance,’” Fiepke said. “He was a very, very good college player — much better than anybody on our team — but he didn’t have the reputation he would soon have. I think he only averaged like 15 or so points per game at North Carolina, but I think that was more because of the Dean Smith system and all the great players that North Carolina had above and beyond Jordan.”

Despite the loss of James Worthy, the Lakers No. 1 overall pick in the 1982 NBA Draft, head coach Dean Smith and the Tar Heels brought back a team that included Jordan as well as Sam Perkins, who enjoyed a 17-year NBA career, and Brad Daugherty, a future five-time NBA All-Star.

“Clearly Jordan stuck out as their best player, but you could pick any one of those players and as a group from Pan-Am playing them, they were on a pedestal a bit above us,” Fiepke said.

The Broncs were hoping to get things on the right track when they traveled north to play in the Oil Capital Classic at the Mabee Center on the campus or Oral Roberts in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in December 1982.

The ‘82 Oil Capital Classic was a four-team tournament with a championship and a third-place game.

The teams? North Carolina, Oral Roberts, Tulsa and UTPA.

The price of admission to see Jordan and the defending-champion Tar Heels? Six bucks. 

The Broncs drew the host Golden Eagles in their opening game of the tournament and battled valiantly before falling to Oral Roberts 85-76, presumably setting up a third-place game against Tulsa.

Except the Golden Hurricane stunned the Tar Heels in a 10-point upset win that gave Jordan and Carolina a date with Fiepke, Kruger and UTPA on Saturday, Dec.18, 1982.

“Obviously we were pretty excited about playing them,” Fiepke said. “We were a bit nervous knowing that our program probably wasn’t near what North Carolina’s program was, but I think we looked at it as an opportunity to play against the best and try to do the best that we could.”

A snippet of the official box score from North Carolina’s 106-50 win over UT-Pan American on the campus of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday, Dec. 18, 1982. It was one of only two games during Jordan’s college career when UNC was not ranked inside the AP Top 20. Courtesy Photo UTRGV Athletics.

The matchup between UTPA and UNC was one of only two out of 101 games in Jordan’s three-year Carolina career when his team was ranked outside the AP Top 20. 

But nevertheless, the Broncs found themselves outgunned and outsized by the Tar Heels, who rolled to a 106-50 victory which sportswriter Tom Kensler described in The Oklahoman the following day as, “an appropriate ‘N.C.’ — no contest.”

UTPA stayed close for the opening 5 minutes before North Carolina broke away with a 16-2 run. 

Fiepke, a 6-foot-5 forward, and the Broncs were overwhelmed by the size of 6-foot-9 Perkins, 6-foot-11 Daugherty and the Tar Heels’ depth. UTPA’s tallest player? Bill Moser, a 6-foot-7 center.

Carolina shot 61.2% (41 of 67) from the floor while limiting the Broncs to 33.9% (21 of 62), as Perkins scored a game-high 20 points and Daugherty added 16.

Jordan and Fiepke led their respective teams in shots that contest. Fiepke tallied a 3-of-13 shooting night against bigger UNC defenders, while Jordan converted seven of his 13 shot attempts and went 3-for-3 at the free throw line.

“They were pretty good,” Fiepke said. “We didn’t go into the game with any overly-optimistic perception of how the game was going to turn out. I think we probably hoped that we didn’t get beat by as many points as we did. But we sort of came out of it and still had a whole lot of work to do to get anywhere close to being the kind of team we wanted to be.

“It’s something I always talk about with people who are interested in it, but quite honestly I try to forget it as well after getting beat by so many points.”

Jordan went on to lead North Carolina in scoring as a sophomore averaging 20.0 points per game and won the NCAA National Player of the Year award for the 1982-83 season and later repeated as a unanimous winner during his junior year in the 1983-84 season. He then declared for the 1984 NBA Draft where he was selected third overall by Chicago.

Fiepke, meanwhile, played a five-year career after using a medical redshirt his senior season and became one of UTPA’s all-time program leaders in minutes played (2,448). 

amcculloch@themonitor.com