The team that went over the hill

The Olympic Trials were chiefly distinguished by the absence of 20 of our best college players
April 15, 1968

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.

Charlie Scott and Jo Jo White, whose standout play was rewarded by their selections to the Olympic team, both expressed discontent with the boycott.

"As far as I'm concerned, there is no boycott yet," said Scott. "I don't believe this is the proper means of protest, and I want to play. If the boycott does come about and it's total, well, I'm not going to be the only Negro out there. I'll go along with them. But if it's scattered, my choice is to play."

Jo Jo labeled it an individual matter. "I make up my own mind, and I've decided to play," he said. "I don't care if I'm the only one. They can go ahead and boycott; I'm playing."

After the first day of the tournament all four NCAA teams had been beaten, and it was sadly evident that the dregs of the college stars, many of whom had been hit by a flu bug, could not compete on even terms and under strange international rules (which put a premium on strength and roughness) with the more experienced AAU and Armed Forces teams. Aside from wondering about who was impressing the committee, only three questions remained: Would the junior college kids destroy the world? Would anybody come to watch? Would Pete Maravich get in a game?

The strong and explosive junior college players, appearing for the first time in the trials, were the surprise of the weekend, at least to many outside the cloistered world of those two-year institutions where the number 1.6 is listed only in the turnovers column.

The Jucos boasted the outstanding center of the tournament in 18-year-old Spencer Haywood of Trinidad State in Colorado. At 6'8", 225 pounds and possessing four-jointed fingers, Spencer is still a baby, but he and his mates provided the only excitement in an otherwise listless three days of basketball. Still, they weren't enough by themselves to bring out the crowds. The afternoon sessions averaged 582 spectators while the evening games drew a little over 1,200 to the 14,800-seat University Arena. Clearly, the populace of Albuquerque preferred watching desert rabbits eat sand to Olympic trials.

Even if they had come, of course, they wouldn't have seen much of LSU's Maravich, the nation's leading collegiate scorer who, because of an unfortunate personality clash with his coach, John Bach, rode the bench for most of the games. With few exceptions, the supposed bumper crop of good NCAA sophomores turned out to be not much more than unripened lemons. Rick Mount of Purdue and Niagara's Calvin Murphy appeared woefully inexperienced in their floor games, Maravich couldn't shoot, and all played poorly, though Mount and Murphy at least had a fair chance to show what they could or could not do. Mount, in fact, won an alternate berth on the strength of his shooting, while another sophomore, Dan Issel of Kentucky, also was an alternate choice. But North Carolina's Scott, who proved the most versatile and spectacular player of the trials, really saved the day for the sophomore class.

The selection committee, lacking enough good big men, went heavily for backcourt players, choosing five guards, not counting swingman Scott. Jo Jo White will blend in well with 6'2" Mike Barrett and 6'4" John Clawson of the Armed Forces, both experienced in international play, and 6'1" Cal Fowler of the AAU, who played alongside White in the Pan-American games last year. The latter two will be the defensive guards and direct the offense while Barrett and Glynn Saulters, a surprising and perhaps unfortunate choice over his NAIA teammate, little Dwight Durante, will do the shooting. The U.S. will miss Alcindor, Unseld and Hayes the most; along the front line the team is neither as deep nor as talented as in the back-court. The NAIA's Don Dee and Bill Hosket of the NCAA are strong 6'7" forwards who hit and hustle the boards and like to go outside for their shots. Neither is an outstanding jumper, but Hosket blocks out well and plays good defense. Neither Mike Silliman, the 6'6" former Army star, nor 6'7" Jim King of the AAU were exceptional, but both were selected anyway on their defense, rebounding and ability to play both center and forward. Ken Spain, Houston's forgotten man, is Haywood's backup at center and, though his shooting and defensive credentials are suspect, he made the least mistakes of a wholly unsatisfactory group of centers.

In fact, there was much about these trials—including the performances, the setting, the crowds, the racial overtones and the messy politics—that was unsatisfactory. Rumors abounded that the committee was being pressured to choose a racially balanced team (for those who are keeping score, five members of the 12-man team and three of the six alternates are Negroes) and that a few of the candidates were just along for the ride; if selected, they would refuse to play in order to become professionals immediately. Groundless or not, the talk undoubtedly deprived the NAIA's Charley Paulk of his rightful place on the team. Paulk, the first draft choice of the new NBA franchise in Milwaukee, was a fine all-round performer but he was selected only as an alternate.

As a result of all the furor at Albuquerque, the U.S. team is weak, probably weaker than it has been in two decades. And Henry Iba knows that up front, where an Olympic championship will be won or lost against the big Russian and Yugoslavian teams, he has problems.