Robertson: 1960 Team USA set standard
The way Oscar Robertson remembers it, the athletes' village at the 1960 Olympics in Rome was a nice enough place.
The accommodations for himself and roommates Walt Bellamy and Terry Dischinger were quite comfortable, although the hot water only worked in the afternoon, and the balcony once became the scene of a minor crime.
"Someone stole one of my jerseys that I hung out on the railing to dry," Robertson recalled. "So after that, I kept them all inside the room. They only gave us four -- two blue and two white. So after that I kept them close to me."
Clad in one of those blue jerseys, Robertson and the Americans survived the ejection of Bellamy for elbowing a Brazilian player en route to winning their final game, 90-63, to capture a gold medal for a squad that has sometimes been referred to as the "Original Dream Team."
That 1960 team, along with their more-famous brethren, the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, will achieve one of basketball's highest accolades later this week when they are inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
Robertson, in an interview with ESPN.com, said there is really no fair way to compare the two teams, whose dominance was remarkably similar, because the 1960 team was comprised of amateurs, most straight out of college, while the 1992 team was the first in which NBA professionals were allowed to compete.
One team was a group of kids who averaged 101.9 points per game and won by an average of 42.4. Prior to medal round play, they followed up a 62-point victory over Yugoslavia with a 58-point thumping of Uruguay. They had five players, four of them future Hall of Famers, average double digits in points (led by Robertson and Jerry West at 17.0 ppg).
The other team was a group of grown men who averaged 117.3 points and won their games by an average of 43.8. Prior to medal round play, they defeated Angola by 68 points, and in the semifinals they put a 51-point beating on Lithuania. Like the 1960 squad, they had five players (led by Charles Barkley at 18 ppg) average in double figures.
"We had Hall of Famers, they had Hall of Famers. We scored a lot of points, they did. We did what we had to do, and so did the '92 team, so there's no comparison," Robertson said. "If you look at the stats, they're all even."
Coached by Pete Newell, who died in 2008 at the age of 93, the 1960 team was comprised of Robertson, West, Dischinger, Bellamy, Jerry Lucas, Adrian Smith, Lester Lane, Darrall Imhoff, Robert Boozer, Jay Arnette, Burdette Haldorson and Alex Kelley.
Newell was allowed to select only six of the players, a byproduct of a convoluted selection process at the time that reflected the evolving power brokerage between the NCAA, the AAU, the semi-pro NIBL and the National Association of Basketball Coaches. An eight-team tournament was held, and Newell's NCAA All-Stars won it over a field that included the NCAA champion Ohio State Buckeyes, whose team included Lucas and John Havlicek.
Newell told author Carson Cunningham in the 2009 book "America Hoops" that he had to fight to get Lucas added, losing his side arguments that Havlicek, Zelmo Beatty and Lenny Wilkens be included, too. (Wilt Chamberlain had become ineligible for the Olympics in 1959 when he turned professional by signing with the Harlem Globetrotters.)
The U.S. Armed Forces was allotted one roster slot, which went to Lane, and Newell decided to use Lane as the starting point guard alongside West in the backcourt, moving Robertson to forward along with Dischinger.
The 1960 team held its training camp at West Point, staying in dormitories and eating in the mess hall before flying to Switzerland for exhibition games in Geneva prior to their train ride to Rome.
It was Robertson's first trip overseas, travelling along with most of the American athlete federation on an overcrowded propeller plane that had to fly over Greenland for both safety and refueling reasons.
"You had guys with pole vaults on the floor, and there were certainly some kids with big shoulders, and physically everyone was squeezed and it was a difficult flight, but you were young, and it doesn't really matter when you're young and excited," Robertson said. "When I look back on it, I could never understand why the Olympic committee would have all those athletes -- all those athletes -- on one airplane. What if something would have happened?
"We could have flown in the basketball team by itself, the track team itself. They should have mixed it up, not all get on the same plane. But, boy oh boy, I thought about that years and years after that flight. But not at the time, I must say."
Coming both at the height of the Cold War and the beginning of the civil rights movement in America, the 1960 U.S. Olympic team included sprinter Wilma Rudolph and boxer Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay ("He was always surrounded by a lot of people, but I got to meet him. Real nice guy," Robertson said), and Rafer Johnson, who became the first black athlete to carry the American flag in the opening ceremony. Robertson recalled sleeping more than socializing in the athletes' village, which he described as "kind of chaotic. There were no guards, you could go in and out any time you wanted to."
FIBA had changed the rules for the 1960 Games, going from a narrow lane to the trapezoid lane still in use today in an effort to equalize the playing field for the Americans' competitors after Bill Russell had led the 1956 team to a gold medal in Melbourne, Australia. (In one game, the U.S. defeated Thailand 101-29, followed by a 68-point victory over the Philippines.)
There were no universal standards for basketballs at the time, and FIBA rules called for the games to be played with whatever type of ball the host country provided.
"I have one at home right now," Robertson said. "It's almost like a heavier, thicker soccer ball. It had the same kind of stitching, and it was much smaller than a basketball, so the problem was over-gripping. It was like a WNBA basketball or a tiny bit smaller. But again, everybody played with the same ball so it didn't really matter. We just made adjustments from that point."
In what was known as the semifinal round (FIBA's rules were so strange back then, the Americans went into their final game against Brazil already assured of the gold medal; and the only way they could drop to silver was by losing to Brazil by 60 points or more), the U.S. team led the Soviet Union just 35-28 at intermission.
But they came out for the second half using a full-court press and scored 20 points in the first five minutes to put the game out of reach. A 31-point victory over the host nation, Italy, in the next-to-last game all but locked up the gold medal.
One of the team's few encounters with adversity happened after that game, when the U.S. team discovered that AAU officials had commandeered their bus, leaving them with no transportation to the athletes' village.
They waited while a replacement bus was procured, and the driver stopped eight blocks away and told them that was as far as he was going. They would have to walk the rest of the way.
"A night in Rome. What could be better?" Robertson reminisced with a chuckle.
Robertson recalled that he and West, the co-captains, were the only players invited to stand on the podium to receive their medals. He keeps his medallion enclosed in a plexiglass case at his home near Cincinnati, where he starred both collegiately and in the NBA.
He said he will not be bringing his medal with him to Springfield, but he will be bringing a few stories to tell. And if anyone wants to debate him as to which was the real original Dream Team, one can expect a lecture on comparing eras along with a history lesson that includes the still-unsolved mystery of who stole that Team USA jersey from the balcony railing in Rome some 50 years ago.
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