For three days and nights last week, 94 of the best basketball players in the country rushed up and down the St. John's University Alumni Hall in New York City while the deadly serious eyes of U.S. Olympic Coach Hank Iba followed them every inch of the way. Every time a player dropped a pass or missed a shot, Iba saw it, noted it and waited. Eventually all this rushing about produced the U.S. Olympic team that Iba will take to Tokyo in October. These are the first Olympians chosen for our team, and if all of the others could be as sure of victory the Games might well be called off right now and all the gold medals shipped to the U.S.
The U.S. has won the title in every one of the five Olympics that have had basketball on the program; indeed, we have never lost a game. Iba's team may not be the equal of the Lucas-Robertson-West crew that swept through the field at Rome in 1960 under Coach Pete Newell, but it will do.
Fortunately, too, the selection of this team was accomplished swiftly and without the rancor between NCAA and AAU committee members that marked previous occasions. True enough, not every player in the 94 who deserved a place got it, but it is also true that if everyone had the squad would number about 25. When the list was handed to Iba by the committee three hours after the final game was played Saturday night, happy lines raced all over his broad, rugged face. "I got what I wanted," he said.
What Iba got in his backcourt, for example, are four speedy, hustling ball-handlers. Larry Brown, formerly of the University of North Carolina and more recently with the AAU champion, Goodyear Wingfoots, was about half a foot shorter than most of the players on the St. John's Moor. Yet he charged about so fearlessly—and ceaselessly—that worried spectators feared he would fly right off the court and into their laps like a light plane with its throttle stuck. "Every time he comes in for a layup, I cringe," said former pro star Bob Davies, whose kid brother, Dick, also made the team. Brown is not just a frantic dasher-about. He is a superb playmaker, as are teammates Walt Hazzard and Jeff Mullins. These may not be the best shooters in the world, but they are by far the best all-round backcourters, and Iba has a wealth of firepower elsewhere on his squad.
Take Pete McCaffrey and Jerry Shipp. Both are monotonously accurate from fair distances and make a 20-foot baseline shot look easy. Then there is Arizona State's Joe Caldwell, possibly the most graceful and best-coordinated athlete in the trials. Caldwell is not a top-grade shooter, but when he does shoot he gets the ball through the hoop on his first, second, third or fourth follow-up. He follows up relentlessly, on smooth-muscled legs that he uses like fiber-glass vaulting poles. And he runs like a whippet. In the final game he shot from one corner, retrieved the ball from a tangle of arms as it bounced from the rim toward the other corner and slapped it through cleanly.
Olympic spectators who remember Jerry Lucas are going to see a slightly smaller version at Tokyo in Bill Bradley—the same deadpan, calm control, the same unselfish passing-off to teammates in slightly better scoring position, the same easy, natural skill that comes from playing this game since age 4. Bradley is an above-average shooter even by our standards, which means that he is about 40% better than most Europeans and South Americans. Just in case Iba wants a 6-foot-5 guard against the Russians, Brazilians or other traditionally tall teams, he can use Bradley at that spot—or Caldwell, for that matter—without any loss in playmaking or ball-handling. If he wants another speedster up front to team with Caldwell, he can play Mullins there with the barest drop in shooting ability.
All of this and muscle, too. No one, not even the 7-foot, potato-soup-stuffed giants the Russians keep coming up with, is going to take a rebound away from Jim Barnes. He jumps as breathtakingly as Caldwell and is much stronger. And he seems to take a football lineman's delight in crashing through a cluster of thick-muscled rivals to get his large hands on the ball. The international rules under which the Olympic Games are played afford considerably more protection to such an aggressive style than our own rules do. Barnes should enjoy himself in Tokyo. So will Lucious Jackson and George Wilson, our other centers. Mel Counts, the fourth chosen for that position, will undoubtedly be used as a forward instead—not just because he can be spared as a rebounder on this team but because he is a rarity among 7-footers: he shoots as accurately from outside as a little man.
"When I think of the good players who won't make this team," said Oregon State Coach Slats Gill as he awaited the selections, "it breaks my heart." Slats meant it. He is that kind of warm, considerate gentleman. But if Slats is still sad today, so, surely, are excellent players like Cazzie Russell, Wally Jones, Cotton Nash, Willie Murrell, Dave Stall-worth and a dozen others who were passed over. Now, a smart coach would wangle Panamanian citizenship for this bunch of unhappy rejects, suit them up, take them to Tokyo—and who'd bet they wouldn't win?