This twelve year span of Olympic basketball history is memorable because it’s bookended by two fascinating teams. Arguably the first Dream Team was assembled in 1960, destroying teams by the biggest margin ever, and the 1972 team ended the United States winning streak and cost them the Gold Medal.
The year is 1960 and the Summer Olympics are being held in Rome, Italy. After the incredible run by the 1956 Men’s team, it’s hard to fathom that the United States could produce an even better team.
Featuring 10 players who went on to play in the NBA, including 4 Hall of Famers, coach Pete Newell led this bunch to an average winning margin of 42.4 points a game.
Walt Bellamy was one of those Hall Of Famers, and to show you how deep this team was, he only averaged 8 points per game. Jerry West, who averaged 29 pts and 17 rebounds a game his senior year at West Virginia, was 3rd in scoring at 13.8 ppg. Jerry Lucas, fresh off beating Newell’s Cal team for the NCAA championship, tied for the team lead with 17 ppg. And Finally, the Big O, Oscar Robertson, also scored 17 ppg.
This amazing team extended the US dominance at the Olympics, increasing their winning streak to 36 games.
To select the team, the Olympic Committee held trials between 3 NCAA All-Star teams, 2 AAU All Star Teams, and one NAIA all-star team. The Russians had improved enough that there was real concern the United States streak would come to an end.
Legendary coach Hank Iba of Oklahoma St. began a run of 3 straight Olympics as the head coach of the US team.
One recognizable player was Larry Brown- who after a stellar career at North Carolina, was deemed too small for the NBA and played for the Akron Goodyear Wingfoots, an AAU team.
Second leading scorer was Bill Bradley, who had just completed a great Junior season at Princeton. Walt Hazzard, having just started the UCLA dynasty, averaged 3.8 ppg. The leading scorer was Jerry Shipp, an AAU standout for the Phillips 66ers. (12.4 ppg)
The Gold Medal game featured two 8-0 teams, as the Soviets squared off in another cold war clash against the Americans. While the Soviets jumped out to an early lead, their star player Alexander Petrov got into early foul trouble and the US cruised to a 73-59 victory. With another Gold medal under their belts, the U.S. increased their winning streak to 46 games.
After a poor showing in an early summer European tour, the American team came into Olympic play in Mexico City as the underdog behind Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.
May top college stars skipped the Olympics in 1968 for various reasons.
The biggest star was Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who boycotted the games to protest the unequal treatment of African Americans in the United States.
This gave Spencer Haywood a chance to make a splash on the international stage. And what a splash that was- the youngest player at the time to make an Olympic squad, he led the team with 16 points per game. He made his way to the University of Detroit where he dominated, and then became part of a suit that paved the way for free agency in the NBA.
Hank Iba coached this team to another gold medal, but missed out on a rematch with the Soviet Union when the Yugoslavians upset the Soviets in the semifinal. The gold medal game was tight at halftime, but the US team reeled off 17 straight points to cruise to (a 65-50) victory, their streak extended to 55 games.
And this brings us to an infamous moment in American Olympic basketball. For the first time, the team was assembled by having a large tryout of top amateur and college players in the country. 66 players competed for 12 spots, with Jim Brewer, Bobby Jones, and Doug Collins being three of the standouts. Notably, Bill Walton boycotted to protest America’s presence in Viet Nam.
The US had cruised past every opponent except for Brazil (61-54) to set up a gold medal rematch with the Soviet Union. Both teams had 8-0 records, and the Soviets took control early with a 7-0 start and a 5 point lead at the half. Leading scorer and rebounder Dwight Jones was ejected after a loose ball scuffle, and Jim Brewer suffered a concussion after bring knocked to the ground.
Down by 1 with 10 seconds left, Doug Collins stole a pass and was fouled in the act of shooting. During the free throws, the horn sounded. This didn’t bother Collins as he sank both free throws to give the US a 50-49 lead. The Soviets inbounded the ball and didn’t score and the Americans won the gold again. But wait!
One of the referees, hearing the horn during Collins 2nd free throw, decided the last play should be done over, with 3 seconds on the clock. The Russians still had to go the length of the floor to win the game. Again, the Soviets inbounded the ball and missed a long heave at the basket.
Improbably, the head of FIBA came down to the court and insisted the scoreboard had not been reset to 3 seconds when the play started. He ordered the clock be reset to 3 seconds yet again and this time, the Russians got a long pass to Aleksander Belov while Americans Kevin Joyce and Jim Forbes went flying by to intercept it. Alone under the basket, Belov laid the ball in to win the gold.
Immediately, the Americans filed a protest, which was denied. To this day, their silver medals remain in IOC custody.