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THE FIRST OLYMPIANS
Jeremiah Tax
April 11, 1960
Oscar Robertson leads a group of brilliant basketball players who earned the right in Denver to represent the U.S. this summer
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April 11, 1960

The First Olympians

Oscar Robertson leads a group of brilliant basketball players who earned the right in Denver to represent the U.S. this summer

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The 17th Olympiad, in Rome, is five months away, but last week the U.S. clinched its first gold medal of the Games on the playing courts of Denver in a tournament that led to the selection of the 12 young men shown on these pages. They will represent the U.S. in basketball, and are the first athletes to be named to the 1960 Olympic squad. Of all the teams that will wear the U.S. colors in Rome this summer, none will enjoy such worldwide superiority.

This was made abundantly clear in the Denver Coliseum during the three days of elimination games. Never has such a stunning array of amateur basketball players appeared in one tournament. When the Olympic selection committee went into a huddle well after midnight on Saturday, the real problem was not whom to select but how to leave so many good players off the team. The committee would have been justified in issuing a public apology to the players it was forced to pass over.

Yet despite the excellence of all eight teams in the Denver tournament, the group that won—the NCAA University All-Stars—stood out like Gulliver in Lilliput. Led by Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson and West Virginia's Jerry West, the All-Stars won all three of their games with relative ease, and the nicest thing about this is that the job of coaching them was the happiest kind of farewell gift college basketball could give to a gentleman named Pete Newell. Newell has retired as California's basketball coach to become its athletic director. Slim, erect and fast turning gray in his mid-40s, he is as fine a coach and man as ever graced this sport. He earned the job of handling the All-Stars when California finished second in the NCAA championship two weeks ago, and now he will coach our Olympic team in Rome.

In the All-Stars, Newell had under his command the best team of his coaching career. But he also had-a serious problem, aside from the obvious one that his boys had never played together. "I have," he said before the tournament began, "12 Indian chiefs and no Indians. All of these kids have been the stars of their college teams. The plays have been set up for them. Each one of them has been handling the ball 50% of the time during his games. When I put five of them out on the court, I have to have some Indians to go with the chiefs because five times 50% is 250% of the time. Some of these kids will have to sacrifice themselves to a team effort—maybe even sacrifice their chances of impressing the selection committee."

In just two brief practice sessions, Newell found his Indians. One was a skinny Texan named Jay Arnette, another was Bowling Green's chunky Jim Darrow and a third was Georgia Tech's rugged Roger Kaiser. In another sense, Newell made Indians out of all his chiefs. The All-Stars played as if each wanted to help all his teammates earn a trip to Rome.

But the best Indian was Oscar Robertson. Oscar, the Big O, the marvel of agility, grace and disciplined skill, was simply magnificent. In the All-Stars' first game, with the Phillips 66 team (whose coach, Warren Womble, will be Newell's assistant with the Olympians), Robertson played against Phillips' fine shooter, Red Murrell, and held Murrell scoreless for the entire game while scoring 23 points himself. In the second game, with the Goodyear Wingfoots, he asked Newell to let him guard Good-year's top man, Dick Boushka, at a critical stage in the play. Boushka never got a point after that while Robertson was going on to collect 29 for the evening. In the final game, with the Peoria Cats, he guarded Peoria's ace shooter, Bob Boozer, for the first half and held him to three points. In that game Robertson got 20.

As difficult as the selection committee's task was, I would argue strongly with its choice of Burdie Haldorson of the Phillips Oilers (the lone survivor from the 1956 Olympic squad) and Boozer over Ohio State's John Havlicek and Peoria's Jack Adams. Also the choice of Al Kelley and Les Lane over Darrow and Ohio State's Larry Siegfried. These four who didn't make the team are among 12 alternates selected by the committee. But agree with the picks or not, the squad as chosen should run away from the best the rest of the world will have to offer at Rome. Pete Newell again will make Indians of them all.

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