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The intrusive priorities of school work, pro contracts, tired bones and a threatened boycott having taken their toll, the U.S. Olympic basketball trials finally reached the showdown stage last week with barely enough candidates for a fast break in a broom closet.
True enough, the Olympic Committee had coaxed and cajoled sufficient players into coming to Albuquerque for the tournament—88 warm bodies spread among eight teams (four from the NCAA, one from the AAU, one from the Armed Forces, one from the NAIA and one from the junior colleges) showed up for the three days and nights of play. But most of the interest centered around those who didn't appear.
The Big E had taken money (to sign a contract with the San Diego Rockets), Big Lew had taken a stand (he admits his decision included implicit approval of the boycott) and many others had just taken a powder of undetermined origin. In addition to Houston's Hayes and UCLA's Alcindor, among the missing were Louisville's Westley Unseld, who said he was tired, Dayton's Don May, who said he was exhausted, and North Carolina's Larry Miller, who said he was injured. Some, by sheer silence coupled with their absence, seemed to be saying best wishes, Olympics, but drop dead.
"We sat down the other day and figured it out," said Pete Newell, coach of the 1960 Olympic team and a member of the selection committee. "We've lost 20 to 25 of the country's top college players, including the six best centers."
Since a great majority of the absentees were seniors interested in a professional basketball career, it was thought that fine old standard, money, was rearing its ugly head again. Harsh as the judgment may seem, some players obviously were passing up the old red, white and blue for some long green. Olympic Coach Henry Iba went so far as to call the dropouts "bad citizens."
However, the NCAA powers-that-be were not escaping criticism either. Some college coaches, renewing an old argument, suggested that the trials were ill-timed and should be held in late summer when the players would be fresher, more enthusiastic and would not have to miss classes. But Newell, for one, was not sympathetic to this reasoning.
"How can we have trials in the summer when nobody's in shape?" he said. "The players would come in, after that long layoff, and get blisters, sore muscles and everything else. We couldn't judge them. I should think that schools would want to contribute to a national effort like this by making arrangements to help boys with their studies.
"I have been associated with four Olympic teams in the past, and nobody ever moaned about being tired and nobody lost out on any pro contracts because of injury. But I can't be critical of these kids. I just feel sorry for them. As a matter for posterity, playing in the Olympics is the greatest experience a basketball player could possibly have, and these boys will never know the great feeling that comes from representing this country against foreign teams."
He was, of course, repeating the sentiments once expressed by such past Olympians as Bill Russell, Jerry Lucas, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Bill Bradley. Most of the officials passed over the proposed boycott as just another flimsy excuse for those players who didn't want to come, but the name and specter of Harry Edwards, the leader of the Olympic boycott, continued to hang heavy over the proceedings. Edwards, who had announced he would "talk to these black brothers and try to make them see the light," did pop in and out of Albuquerque a couple of times during the weekend to change planes between speaking engagements in El Paso and Santa Fe. But if he made any contact with the 44 Negroes at the trials, or if Martin Luther King's assassination and the attendant riots caused them any concern, no one was talking about it.