The 1968 Olympic Games were held in Mexico City and are still remembered for the Black Power salute by US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, for the 29′ long jump by American Bob Beamon and for the advent of the Fosbury Flop in the high jump … won by American Dick Fosbury. The US Basketball Team swept to another gold medal but it was a bit more complicated than is should have been. Again, I had doubts that Hank Iba was the ideal choice to coach the USA. Me? I would have chosen John Wooden of UCLA. But I was too young to factor in the jealousy of Wooden and the political clout of Iba in the coaching fraternity.
That said, Hank Iba did another masterful coaching job, my misgivings notwithstanding. Here’s why: the first six centers on the list of candidates all withdrew, some for political reasons: 7’2″ Lew Alcindor (UCLA); 6’9″ Elvin Hayes (Houston); 6’6″ Wes Unseld (Louisville); 6’8″ Mike Lewis (Duke); 7’0″ Tom Boerwinkle (Tennessee); 6’8″ Bob Kaufmann (Guilford); 6’11” Neil Walk (Florida). That is, by the way, a short list. Others were missing, as well. Out of nowhere, Iba came up with 6’8″ Spencer Haywood, out of Trinidad Junior College, in Colorado, a 19-year old freshman, soon to enroll at the U. of Detroit, in his home town. He was the sensation of the tournament.
Once again, Iba pieced together a team from three sources of talent: the NCAA, the AAU, and the Armed Forces. So, this was a team of hustlers that played his kind of game: sticky defense and stingy offense. Around Haywood, he had 6’6″ Mike Silliman (West Point and the US Army); 6’8″ Bill Hosket (Ohio State); 6’5″ Charley Scott (North Carolina); 6’3″ Jo Jo White (Kansas). The result was a 9-0 record, going 7-0 in first round play, blowing out everyone. They then stopped Brazil in the semi-final, 75-63, and topped Yugoslavia (who had upset the USSR, 63-62, in the other semi), 65-50, though ahead just 32-29 at the half, then opening the second half with a 17-0 run.
All this was after a worrisome pre-Olympic tour of Europe for tune-up games, losing to both the USSR and Yugoslavia, winning just one game. But that experience brought the team together. From this, I took away a few lessons: one, play a tough exhibition schedule to toughen up your guys and I did just that with Chile in 1972; two, have your scouting in place if you want to find a gem like Spencer Haywood; three, stay flexible in your judgments and admit when you are wrong, as I was about Iba, who not only had a great defensive team and a great all-court press, but who also installed an excellent fast break. All’s well that ends well. Photos: Smith, Beamon, Fosbury, Haywood.