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Steve Aschburner

Jerry West (left) and Oscar Robertson were the stars of the gold medal-winning 1960 Olympic team.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)

Olympic feats by 1960 team still worth marveling today

Posted Aug 13 2010 9:34PM

No one in his or her right mind -- with the understandable exception of the fellows who actually played on the 1960 U.S. men's basketball team -- would argue very long or hard that that particular Olympic crew would have its way with the one that followed 32 years later.

The 1992 "Dream Team" is the gold standard of U.S. gold-medal winners, widely conceded to have the most dazzling roster and, in global terms, to be the most famous basketball team ever. Michael Jordan. Magic Johnson. Larry Bird. Charles Barkley ... and that's only the first of at least 2 1/2 Mt. Rushmores that could be chiseled from the NBA legends who shared one jersey, one rock tour, one red-white-and-blue mission from Portland to Monte Carlo to Barcelona and back.

Starting with the assertion that the '92 squad would win each of the matchups -- Jordan vs. Oscar Robertson, Johnson vs. Jerry West and so on -- and lacking that group's megastars, training techniques, nutrition and coaching advancements, the 1960 U.S. squad would be hard-pressed to win in whatever format (best-of-seven, two-out-of-three or single-elimination).

But y'know what? It doesn't matter. What that '60 squad did 50 years ago this month in Rome was more remarkable than anything the Dream Team accomplished in its Olympic summer. Consider:

• The 1960 squad breezed to an 8-0 record in those Rome Olympics same as the '92 team did in Spain, averaging 101.9 points to just 59.5 for its foes. Its average margin of victory was 42.4 points, impressive enough in raw numbers. But expressed as a percentage, it's staggering: Coach Pete Newell's bunch outscored the teams it faced by more than 71 percent.

• Even the Dream Teamers, with their slightly fatter margin (43.8), didn't do that. At 117.3 ppg to the other guys' 73.5, the '92 squad only clobbered the opposition by 59.5 percent.

• The 1960 team was made up entirely of amateur players: College kids, basically. That was the Olympic norm, which eroded over time to the point that the U.S. finally caved and sent its top pro talent in '92.

• Members of the team hoarded four consecutive Rookie of the Year awards when they did reach the NBA: Robertson (1961), Walt Bellamy (1962), Terry Dischinger (1963), Jerry Lucas (1964). The Dream Team never did that.

• But wait, there's more: The '60 team wasn't chosen in a traditional manner (holding tryouts, picking the best individual performers to create a team). Instead, the AAU held serious sway over the selection process and dictated a number of roster spots. So while the final team was loaded with top collegians -- Robertson, West, Lucas, Bellamy, Dischinger, Darrall Imhoff and Jay Arnette -- others were left off, such as John Havlicek, Lenny Wilkens and Tom "Satch" Sanders.

• It all played out in 1960 all against the backdrop of Cold War politics, with the United States and the U.S.S.R. as superpowers and simmering adversaries. And complicating things further, with race relations frayed back in the States.

In David Maraniss' fascinating book, Rome 1960, we learn that the Soviets weren't above exploiting that situation to some vague advantage for themselves. One athletic planning official, Grigori Kukushkin, told a UPI reporter that the Americans were superior in many events only because they had "so many Negroes on the team."

Even if truth was a defense -- the heroes of that Olympics included decathlete Rafer Johnson, sprinter Wilma Rudolph and an 18-year-old Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) -- the comment was meant to rankle and possibly divide. As far as basketball, the two U.S. stars were Robertson and West, one black, one white, rivals from their NCAA days at Cincinnati and West Virginia, respectively.

But the hoopsters were united under respected coach Pete Newell, and whatever racial tensions existed in the U.S. Olympians across sports -- due as much to news reports of sit-ins and incidents back home -- apparently never rose beyond usual chafing, in spite of their chief rivals' instigating.

What was evident in basketball was that the Americans were superior, period. They steamrolled the competition, beating Italy, Japan and Hungary by an average of 45 points each. Rarely did the opponents play hard to the end, accepting defeat with time on the clock. Against a Yugoslavian team that Newell actually fretted about, Dischinger scored 12 quick points and the U.S. jumped in front 40-7.

By halftime, Newell had no buttons left to push. "I didn't know what to say other than kind of talk about the weather or something like that," he said later. "What can you say when you're ahead that much?"

That wasn't going to be the case against the Soviet Union, a game bigger than the gold medals or the Olympics themselves to that point. The Palazzetto dello Sport was sold out.

The Soviet coach, Stepan Spandarian, had boasted that his U.S.S.R. team would "beat the Americans at the game they invented." He felt Robertson wouldn't pose nearly the threat that Bill Russell had in Melbourne in 1956.

West, meanwhile, had personal feelings tied up in the contest, owing to the death in 1951 of his older brother David in Korea.

"This was not about the USA beating the world, it was about beating Russia," the eventual Los Angeles Lakers' legend was quoted in Maraniss' book. "The differences in our countries were so enormous, it was like two boxers that had hate for each other. Everyone was afraid of each other."

The Soviets' strategy hinged on a defense fixated on Robertson, which at least turned the future triple-double master from scorer to passer. After trailing by 17 points, the Russians drew as close as 35-28 by halftime. That's when Newell, nervous about the impact of the referees -- one Bulgarian, one Swiss -- in a close game, turned West and Robertson loose in the second half to pressure the U.S.S.R. ball handlers up the floor. The intensity rattled the Russians. West scored 19 points, Robertson got 14 of his 16 in the second half and the U.S. cruised, 81-57.

After victories over Italy and Brazil (90-63) that were almost perfunctory, Robertson and West stood atop the medals platform as their flag rose and their national anthem played. Both of them would go on to greatness as pros; Robertson, West, Lucas and Bellamy all made it to the Hall of Fame as individuals, while Dischinger, Imhoff, Adrian Smith and Bob Boozer became NBA All-Stars. But at that moment, this was enough.

"It was a moment of jubilation for me, a very special moment," Robertson said later. "Jerry and I being from different parts of the country ... and neither of us had any money, and we are on the stands for the gold medal, one black and one white, with all the troubles that were going on in the country at that particular time. ... It meant a lot."

Dream? Team? The 1960 men's basketball squad went there, did that, 32 years before the other guys.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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