The U.S. Men's team competes in Basketball at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games.
The question of which was the greatest U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team would seem to have an easy answer.
It has to be the 1992 Olympic basketball team, the one of Jordan, Bird and Barkley that stormed to the gold medal in Barcelona in 1992. That team was so loaded with talent that it was inducted en masse into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010, one of just 12 teams so honored.
But the 1992 team wasn’t alone that day of induction. That iconic 1992 squad went into the Hoop Hall with the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team, the one of Walt Bellamy, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. They are the only two Olympic teams enshrined in the Hall.
The 1992 men’s team was famously the first U.S. Olympic basketball team with NBA players, which was a reversal from the amateur-only rules that the 1960 team was built with. But the U.S. team that took the court in Rome that summer was still loaded with NBA talent, just none of its players had gotten there yet.
Ten of the 12 players on the U.S. roster went on to play in the NBA, while four — Bellamy, Robertson, West and Jerry Lucas went on to become Hall of Famers. So too inducted were coach Pete Newell and team manager Dutch Lonborg.
Team USA was built a little differently than in previous years, with a majority of its players coming from the college ranks instead of Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) teams. This meant the team did have significant star power, at least to college basketball fans. Lucas, for example, was fresh off leading Ohio State to the national championship earlier that year.
Meanwhile, Robertson, West and Darrall Imhoff were already headed to the NBA as the first, second and third picks of the 1960 draft, respectively. Robertson was one of the most decorated players in college basketball, having led the nation in scoring and winning national player of the year awards in all three of his seasons at Cincinnati.
Robertson averaged more than 33 points per game with the Bearcats but didn’t need to shoulder the scoring load for Team USA. The team instead utilized a balanced offensive attack. Robertson and Lucas shared the scoring lead at 17.0 points per game but West, Terry Dischinger and Adrian Smith all averaged double figures. Newell pulled all the right strings, just as he had in winning the 1959 national championship at Cal.
“In Newell, we had one of the greatest teachers and coaches ever,” Robertson wrote in the New York Times around the time of the team’s Hall of Fame induction in 2010. “He would generally figure out a way to beat you, regardless of the talent on his teams. We had speed, quickness and stamina, played stifling defense, and rebounded at both ends of the court.”
The rest of the world was little match for Team USA in the preliminary round. The Americans easily won Group A, winning all three matches and outscoring opponents by a combined 137 points. The first match of the eight-team semifinal round didn’t get much tougher as Team USA raced out to a 32-1 lead over Yugoslavia and never looked back, winning 104-42. After a 108-50 win over Uruguay, Team USA met the Soviet Union for the top spot in the group.
Played at the height of the Cold War, the game with the USSR represented the strongest challenge for Team USA. The Soviets had been silver medalists behind Team USA at the previous two Olympic Games and would become the first country besides the U.S. to win a gold medal in basketball in 1972. They also boasted a 7-foot-2, 311-pound monster of a center named Janis Krumins.
The USSR drew to within seven points at halftime, by far the closest intermission score of the tournament for the U.S. The Americans responded by coming out of the locker room and going on a 25-1 run, crushing any hope of an upset.
In the final round, which was yet another round robin, though with the semifinal result against the Soviets carrying over, Lucas led the way with a pair of strong performances. He dropped in 26 points while four other players scored in double figures in a 112–81 win over Italy, leaving only Brazil in the way of a fifth consecutive gold medal. Lucas again scored a team-high, this time 23 points, as Team USA finished off the Rome Games with a 90-63 victory.
The players didn’t have long to bask in their gold-medal glory. Some like Robertson began NBA careers, while others like Lucas returned to campus. The 1960 team provided a pipeline of sorts to the NBA for years, as players from the team won four Rookie of the Year awards in a row from 1961 to 1964. Robertson was first, followed by Bellamy, Dischinger and Lucas. The 1963-64 Cincinnati Royals team featured five alumni of the team.
With recency, the impact of television and the magnitude of the stars, it’s no wonder the 1992 Men’s Olympic basketball team is so fondly remembered. But the 1960 team was a dream too for its players, and truly was one of the greatest assemblages of amateur basketball talent in Olympic history.
“As young as we were, with no professional experience and only three of us having previously played together, we represented the United States as well as any other team in history,” Robertson wrote his 2010 New York Times piece.
“Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, three of the greatest players of all time, just happen to be able to, with timing and everything, get on the same Olympic team,” Hall of Fame curator Matt Zeysing told WBUR around the time of the team’s induction in 2010. “And so you get to 1960 and you have what might have been, or probably was, the greatest amateur team ever assembled for any country.”