Isolated miles inside the guarded gates of a military reservation in the high Rockies, U.S. forces were putting on an unprecedented display of power last week in an area of conflict where mobile, aggressive troops are the only means to victory. Forty-four carefully screened volunteers, lured only by the promise of medals, were undergoing intensive training in a mode of combat in which our supremacy, once considered the natural status for red-blooded American boys, is being seriously challenged.
Directing the exercises for the fresh, young recruits, many of whom are unknown to our enemies, was one of the nation's most decorated commanders in this field. He had announced his retirement from his accustomed active duty but will remain on this assignment for two more years—until the task culminates on the battlefields of Munich in the summer of 1972. The regimen prescribed by the chief was rigorous, and his command cadre concentrated on the strange conditions the troops will encounter in alien territory. The trainees were divided into platoons, code-named in typically deceptive military style: North, South, East and West. They were then thrown into intraunit and interunit drills to perfect their new techniques under simulated combat conditions. In a communiqué promulgated after only four days of the three-week training period, one of the commanding officer's top aides said, "The best thing I've noticed in camp so far is that it's like watching an arena of lions. These boys have been up against children before. Now that we've got them going against each other they're all acting like lions."
The speaker was not a public affairs officer sent out from the Pentagon but John Bach, a rather peaceful sort who coaches basketball at Penn State. Bach was at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs along with a battery of his colleagues to help Olympic Coach Henry Iba run the first Olympic Basketball Development Camp. Their mission was to begin preparing the players who at present seem most likely to appear on the 1972 Olympic roster. Iba, who retired last spring after a glorious career at Oklahoma State and will be trying for his third consecutive gold medal as Olympic head coach, was a careful observer as his assistants put the four 11-man squads through their paces. Standing alongside him was East Texas State's Jim Gudger, who will pull 12 players out of the camp for a preliminary foray into Russia later this summer and will also coach the U.S. Pan-American Games team next year.
Invitations to the camp were tendered solely on the basis of a player's skill and probable availability for the Olympics. With the exception of six men from the armed forces, all the participants had just completed either their sophomore or freshman year in college this spring, or were recently graduated from high school. Most of them should still be amateurs, and therefore eligible for the Olympics, in the summer of 1972.
The reason for all this effort is that the U.S. can no longer dominate international basketball simply by showing up with five gunners from the corner playground. Fielding such teams, we have not won a World Games championship the last six times the tournament was played. Two months ago, at the World Games in Yugoslavia, our team lost to Italy, Yugoslavia and Brazil, and finished fourth to Yugoslavia, Brazil and the Soviet Union. We have never lost at the Olympics, but the competition gets tougher each time, and another form of competition—among the professional teams to sign good talent as it becomes available—is a disturbing factor not met in most other countries. It was the cause of widespread concern before Mexico City.
"When I came home from the preliminary tour we made with the Olympic team in 1968, before we left for the Games themselves, I never thought we would win," said Bill Summers, chairman of the Olympic basketball committee, last week. "We had lost our first two games in Yugoslavia. Then we won a tournament in Minsk but were really clobbered in another one in Moscow."
The U.S. did win at Mexico City, of course, due partly to the extraordinary play of an unknown junior college center, Spencer Haywood, and partly because the flashy U.S. guard corps of Jo Jo White, Charlie Scott, Calvin Fowler and Mike Barrett couldn't resist an occasional breakaway from Iba's control style of basketball. These freewheeling bursts, which ran up sudden big U.S. leads in several key games, finally pulled the U.S. through, but a firm basis for uneasiness about the Olympics had been established.
"We became apprehensive even in 1964," said Summers, "when the team did not shape up the way the '60 one had. At that time, though, we only had to negotiate with one pro league, the NBA, and they took some of the pressure off our boys about signing. In 1968 that wasn't the case. The boys were under pressure to sign and I can't blame them for doing it. It was strictly a case of money for most of them. It was obvious we needed a new program to bring in younger boys and get them interested earlier. This is it."
Summers performed two neat tricks to make the camp a reality. First he wangled about $25,000 out of the Olympic Committee. Then he hammered out an agreement among the NCAA, AAU, NAIA, NJCAA and the military to allow their players to participate. Only the Texas scholastic athletic association refused to cooperate. When it became apparent that Dwight Jones, the 6'9" center who is the best high school player developed in the state in several years, was going to be invited, Texas officials turned down the bid without even asking the youngster. His participation, the Olympic coaches were told, would have made him ineligible for the Texas High School All-Star Game in the Astrodome. "What they were saying was that the Astrodome is more important than the Olympics," complained Summers.
Of the few visitors to the camp, most were pro and college coaches, and some of them seemed less interested in what was going on than in demonstrating their expertise by asking why Elevator Superleaper of State Tech was not invited to this year's session. But the talent was first-rate, despite the fact that each governing group—AAU, NCAA, etc.—was allowed a proportionate number of representatives. As it should be for international competition, the emphasis was on the type of athletes that even basketball coaches like to call studs. Height, strength and plain old meanness were the players' most obvious attributes. There were four referees skilled in the international game, including Wayne Lichty, an Iowan who has officiated at the last two Olympics. They ran classroom sessions and interrupted practices to explain the international rules. Although the differences between U.S. collegiate rules and those used in the Olympics are relatively minor, the variations are sufficient to make the foreign game faster and much rougher, particularly under the backboards. "It's about halfway between our college game and our pro," said Washington's Tex Winter, who coached the West squad.
The studiest stud of them all last week was Joby Wright, a 6'7" forward who smiles frequently and chats pleasantly off the court. On the floor Wright is the meanest-looking man since Sonny Liston and he knows it. "I've worked on looking this way," he said. "It helps me intimidate people." Wright, who will be a sophomore at Indiana next fall, plays as mean as he looks. An officer from the Air Force athletic department asked Academy Assistant Coach Hank Egan, "What class is that Wright in?" Said Egan, "Any one he wants to be in." Ranking with Wright in orneriness were Creighton's Cyril Baptiste and Chuck Terry, a recent graduate of Long Beach (Calif.) City College. All three have a good chance to make the team that will play four games in Sweden and Poland and then eight in Russia.
There were also some big, strong guards in camp, particularly Southern Cal's high-jumping 6'4" Paul Westphal and Utah State's quick and muscular 6'4" Nate Williams. But the backcourt pair that was most impressive was the East's combination of Army Lieut. Art Wilmore, a calm playmaker who has had previous international experience, and Dartmouth sophomore James Brown. Brown, only 6'1" but a dunker, scores in bursts, particularly on the blitzing fast breaks so common in international play.
The center choice for this summer's tour may be another sleeper like Haywood. Elmore Smith, the 7' NAIA All-America from Kentucky State, does not yet have Haywood's offensive ability, but then he has only played basketball for four years and is still getting his kicks by rebounding and blocking shots. "He's a human shot rejector," said Bach after Smith snuffed 15 in his first workout.
Iba and Gudger agreed that one or more of the five high school players at the camp should make this summer's trip. "The emphasis here is on development, not selection," said Gudger. "If we wanted the best record in Russia, we'd take college juniors and seniors. But we'll take some losses this summer to build for better Pan-Am and Olympic teams."
Steve Erickson, who will attend Oregon State in September, stands 6'10" counting his thick shock of blond hair and, even though he played mostly against Smith, he performed well. So did Jim Bradley, another 6'8" stud from East Chicago, Ind. Still, the recent high school graduate most likely to make the squad is 6'11" Tom McMillen, who played both forward and center, alternately swinging down the lane for the left-handed hook he never seems to miss and then moving out for long jump shots that he rarely had an opportunity to try back in Mansfield, Pa. McMillen, who weighs only 201 pounds, is not ideally suited physically for the international game, but he was perhaps the most impressive offensive player in camp. And he had plenty of help. With him on the North squad were Wright, Baptiste, Williams and North Carolina State's good 6'5" guard, Ed Leftwich. With such teammates, even a thin man can play in any class he chooses.