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Ah, where have all cowboys, gone, right?
Those who live in the ESPN generation undoubtedly think Olympic basketball began with the loaded 1992 Dream Team. There are few stories about that team's luxury hotel stay, or the career-long injuries facing Bird and Magic. Of course, Barkley, not yet the more saged voice of reason he is today, ( OK , that was a reach ) was spreading good will while putting a headlock on an Angolan. Man, those where the days ... The Dream Team had all the great names, all in various stages of wear and tear. The 1996 team followed the same recipe, no doubt impressing dozens of semi-impoverished nations with their limo service, if not their game.
Since then, well ... Larry Brown had a plan, but few today know what it was. Coach K had a special squad including the king of diplomacy, Stephon Marbury. Shaq stayed home, and anybody who sees him try to get around now knows why. It's just America and the Olympics, you know, not a movie or something.
I've seen all the squads since 1968, at least on TV during their respective tournaments. 1968 could have been an all-time monster. But Lew Alcindor, Bob Lanier, Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes all stayed home. So, Spencer " Please Pay Me " Haywood got his shot, and it did somehow literally pay off. In 1972, it was Bill Walton who opted out to listen to Grateful Dead records. I remember Doug Collins did a hell of a job, an underrated all-time player. I'm still trying to figure out how that team lost. That Hank Iba ... I did really like the 1976 team. I think people have forgotten that Mitch Kupchak was once a damn good player. 1980, with a young Bird and Magic, could have been something. Who knew Americans would care so much about the Middle East?
Bobby Knight got his squad in 1984, and John Thompson got his squad in 1988. One of them was really good, probably due to the coach. Actually, the 1984 team was pretty awesome as it was, even though it did not have all the names available. What a concept: adding players based on the idea of a team ! Where did Knight get such a non- Basketball DemiGod concept? Doesn't he know that LeBron is to be a global icon? Has he not witnessed?
Knight is, of course, seriously old-school, and God Bless Him. Between all the dunk videos and rap tunes, there is still a game to be played. Honest. 1960 seems like so long ago now, you'd think Abe Lincoln was on the team right out of Illinois or Kentucky, using a set shot. They used wooden rims, right? Imagine saying to today's stallions, with their golden conditions and personal trainers, that the 1960 team is probably STILL the best, pound-for-pound, to ever carry the Stars And Stripes. How could that possibly be? It wasn't the shoes. They did not lift. Not one NBA player in the bunch. Red Auerbach, Bob Cousy, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor followed at home as best they could. There was no cable or internet.
No, there wasn't huge competition like there is now. Brazil, Italy and a few others were decent at best. Uruguay had to be checked for knives as I recall... I could be wrong. The USSR was big, but running without the ball had not been passed by the Proletariat yet. There seemed little reason to believe that the Americans, so loaded then as they are now, could really ever lose at Our Game. Personally, I don't think we ever should have. It should be unconstitutional, and I still think it is in some states.
The coach was Pete Newell, then the undisputed California Golden Bear, later a legendary talent scout and big man trainer. Few have ever known the game better. Yes, he's in the Hall. Somewhere behind all the KG jerseys ...
There were big names, and there were politics. There always has been. America simply expects some guys to be there. Bill Bradley? You better believe it for 1964. Names counted then just as now, and always will. Who were the names then?
Oscar Robertson had it going then. Newell saw how deadly he was with the ball, and moved the 6' 5 Bearcat forward to guard. In hindsight, a pretty fair move. West Virginia's Jerry West was just as deadly, but one could pass just a little better. Did West sulk? No. Class doesn't do that. West complimented Robertson instead, playing small forward at 6' 3 with those long arms and that deadly jumper. The team, and country, came first.
Terry Dischinger, a terrific forward few today remember, gave the team another great shooter up front. Defense, considering the competition, was not the priority. Dischinger was then a national name. He got to start because Jerry Lucas was not a forward after all.
Newell was looking ahead, and saw the Buckeye center as a forward next to Big Ten rival Walt Bellamy, who he had often outplayed in their battles. Of course, the coach had a spot for his project too, Darrall Imhoff. But it didn't take long for the two future Hall Of Famers to make it their two-way center battle. It could have been the 6'11 Bellamy, a dominating athlete inside. But Lucas was such a good passer. In fact, his willingness to pass made the team click. Lucas had already been famous for averaging 26 points per game on just 13 shots per game at Ohio State.
Back then, the AAU mattered. Today, it is a forgotten relic of another age. Two future pros, Bob Boozer and Adrian Smith, who also played for the Air Force, both spent time on the industrial circuit. Are there such blue-collar guys out there today who could help a team? Of course there are. But it's about stars now ...
Now, there were guys who got cut and screwed. John Havlicek, Dave DeBusschere, Chet Walker and Lenny Wilkins all leap to mind. Yes it could have been even better. It always can be. There were some other bench names who made this team that no one remembers. I could mention them, but why?
What makes these guys so great ( five Hall Of Famers, including the coach!! ) wasn't that they would later carry the NBA out of the stone age and into TV time. It was the game, and their attitudes. There were no a-holes in the bunch. Everybody listened to the coach, especially the reserves, who kept themselves straight so they could get minutes. Today's USA team is much older and richer than these guys, right? But who was more college-educated? Who had more class to represent a nation with? Is it not enough to dunk on Romania but to also say ' In yo face ' ? What were the Olympics originally about, anyway? It wasn't merchandising.
Lucas actually took the time to learn paragraphs of Russian, Japanese and Italian before he went there, so he could converse with foreign opponents. Did Clyde Drexler even leave his hotel room? There was the Cold War then, and the two teams took to the court before a huge crowd. The U.S. didn't ice them until the second half. Class.
Often during the Games, the foursome of Robertson, West, Lucas and Dischinger sat for as much as half the game. They got the big early lead, and then allowed the reserves to play nearly as many minutes as themselves. No stat watching. Just wins with some degree of manners. As it was, it was hard not to win by 40 points per game, even with their big guns out.
Competition is the name of the game today, with Europeans and South Americans now so skilled, filling the NBA with their ranks in good number. It's an NBA with different teams, really. No, there is no comparison to the overall talent of the two times, now nearly 50 years apart. But I tell you what: A five of Bellamy, Lucas, Dischinger or Boozer, Robertson and West, coached by Newell, with some well-chosen reserves added, would still be a damn good team today. The game had such a bumper crop of talent then between young NBAers and collegians. Great athletes who were also very well-developed and coached college players, not just 19-years olds who travel to the rim and cash checks. The games has come so far since then, but where it has gone is open to debate.
I think today's players are terrific, even incredible individual talents. No doubt, the USA will have a roster with guys who can flat out play, maybe as well individually as anyone ever, in some cases anyway. But will they respect their flag? Will they respect the idea of team? Will they respect their opponents? Can they follow the coach? Do they have a clue what the Olympics are supposed to be for? I hope so, on all counts. But if anyone wavers, and a few young multi-millionaires will, they have a template they can follow. The 1960 team did not need all the talent it had, or all the character. But they were not just there to win. They represented. What a concept.