About Basketball Players & Professional Scouting • Sobre Jugadores de Baloncesto & el Scouting Profesional Collegians Were the Olympic Basketball Show in 1960
Let me tell you about the original Dream Team, the 1960 United States Olympic gold medalist basketball team coached by Pete Newell, with Jerry West and me as the co-captains.
Fifty years after our triumph in Rome, that team will assemble again on Friday in Springfield, Mass., for enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — along with the 1992 gold medalists, who had the Dream Team name bestowed upon them when they competed.
Our team represented a changing of the guard for the United States in Olympic competition, just as the 1992 team did when N.B.A. players represented this country for the first time. Instead of Amateur Athletic Union players, our team came primarily from the college ranks.
As young as we were, with no professional experience and only three of us having previously played together, we represented the United States as well as any other team in history.
In Newell, we had one of the greatest teachers and coaches ever. He would generally figure out a way to beat you, regardless of the talent on his teams.
We had speed, quickness and stamina, played stifling defense, and rebounded at both ends of the court. We averaged 102 points and held our opponents to fewer than 60. We played textbook basketball, blocking out under the boards, setting picks for each other, moving without the ball to get open for good shots. Everyone played his role. (The importance of a strong bench with unselfish role players is lost on many teams today.)
I didn’t need to score 33 points a game, as I had at the University of Cincinnati, and I preferred looking to pass first, anyway, and get everyone involved in the offense. Terry Dischinger, Jerry Lucas and West were particularly adept at getting open. Five players averaged in double figures (17 for Lucas and me, West at 13.8, Dischinger at 11.8, Adrian Smith at 10.9).
Our nightly “clinics” in Rome accelerated the development of basketball programs in other countries. Newell later taught the game around the world, generally without pay.
We were seriously challenged only once, in our sixth Olympic game, when the Soviet Union drew as close as 7 at halftime. (This was at the height of the cold war, with huge pressure on both teams to win.) Newell did not trust the officiating in a close game, so we opened the second half by smothering the Soviets with a full-court press and simultaneously went on a 25-1 tear. We won, 81-57. Then we beat Italy, 112-81, and then Brazil by 90-63 for the gold.
How this team got to Rome was a story in itself. In 1960, USA Basketball did not exist to coordinate the selection process. A.A.U. officials had made the selections since 1936, when basketball became an Olympic sport. The A.A.U. players were amateurs in name only. They worked for companies — like Goodyear, Vickers Aviation, Caterpillar or Phillips 66 — that had National Industrial Basketball League teams. The N.B.A. did not pay well and offered no benefits. For many college graduates, A.A.U. basketball was the better option.
In the Olympic tryouts, Newell’s team of N.C.A.A. all-stars ended A.A.U. domination. We routed their strongest teams — Goodyear, Phillips and Caterpillar — but even then, Newell was not permitted to choose all the collegians he wanted. There was no room for John Havlicek, Tom Sanders, Lenny Wilkens or others who went on to N.B.A. stardom.
Besides me, our team’s collegians were the seniors West (West Virginia) and Jay Arnette (Texas), all of whom could play guard or forward; the sophomores Dischinger (Purdue), at 19 our youngest player, and Lucas (from Ohio State’s 1960 national championship team) at forward; and the junior Walt Bellamy (Indiana) and the senior Darrall Imhoff (the anchor of Newell’s 1959 California champions) at center. Lucas also periodically played center.
Smith, a speedy guard from Kentucky’s 1958 championship team who could score from 30 feet, represented the Armed Forces all-stars. He, West and I played on the 1959 Pan American Games team. Smith was most valuable player of the 1966 N.B.A. All-Star Game, and he still has the car he won for that honor.
From the A.A.U. came forwards Bob Boozer (Peoria Caterpillars), an all-American at Kansas State who delayed his N.B.A. career for Olympic eligibility, and Burdette Haldorson (Phillips Oilers, University of Colorado), who had also played for the 1956 gold medalists; the starting guard Les Lane (Wichita Vickers), also a former defensive back for Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma; and Allen Kelley (Peoria), a guard from Kansas’ 1952 national champions.
The 1960 Olympic team sent nine players to the N.B.A. Boozer, Smith, Arnette and Lucas were my teammates on the 1964 Cincinnati Royals, the only franchise ever with five Olympic gold medalists. Boozer later joined me on the 1971 N.B.A. champion Milwaukee Bucks. West won an N.B.A. title with the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers and Lucas with the 1973 Knicks. I was N.B.A. rookie of the year in 1961, Bellamy in 1962, Dischinger in 1963 and Lucas in 1964. Imhoff played 12 seasons in the N.B.A. Lucas, Bellamy, West and I are in the Hall of Fame as individual players, as is Newell as a contributor.
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Unfortunately, Newell will not be with us Friday; he died in 2008 at age 93. Neither will Lane, the assistant Warren Womble, the team manager Dutch Lonborg and the trainer Dean Nesmith, who are also deceased. We honor their memory as we celebrate that unforgettable September at the Rome Games.
By Oscar Robertson, a 12-time N.B.A. All-Star, was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2009.
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