1953 & 1957 Pioneers Set the USA Gold Standard - Part 1
1953: The USA's First World Championship Gold
Before there were T and Tree, Lisa and Dawn, Dee and Sue, there were a host of pioneers who laid the groundwork for USA Basketball in international hoops. Alberta Cox, Joan Crawford, Katherine Washington, Nera White - names few outside of the die-hard women's basketball world would know. These women, along with their teammates, helped the U.S. collect the first two FIBA World Championship gold medals in history.
FIBA, which debuted the men's world championship in Buenos Aires in 1950, in 1952 decided to hold a women's worlds beginning in 1953. In the United States the AAU had been holding national championships since 1929, but the U.S. had never competed in an event such as this and was unsure as to where the national team would rate against the best in the world. The Pan American Games didn't include women's basketball until 1955, the Olympics until 1976, so the U.S. was relatively untested outside the country.
The first FIBA World Championship was a huge deal for the city of Santiago, Chile. The Chileans built a wooden platform for the games in the national stadium. The stadium had seating capacity for 35,000 spectators and was reported as close to capacity for most of the games. In fact, Chile's president had a difficult time getting to his reserved seat at times, according to FIBA.
Featuring a team comprised of seven members of the Nashville Business College and two from Iowa Wesleyan College, the USA in an attempt to prepare for the World Championship played and won all five of its exhibition games in South America. The USA team then went on to Santiago, Chile, and led by the play of Katherine Washington, emerged from the first world Championship with a 5-1 record and the World title.
The tournament, which featured 10 teams, was lopsided in terms of participation from the Americas. In fact, eight teams came from what would eventually be known as FIBA Americas: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and the United States. The final two teams were from Europe: France and Switzerland. While nobody can say for sure as the reasons have been lost to history, there's a good chance that cost and a year to plan the first such championship played a factor in the make-up of the participating nations.
Of the 10 teams, six advanced to the final round, which was played in round-robin style. Unlike today, the preliminary round featured one game per team. France defeated Peru 62-22, Brazil downed Cuba 50-31, the United States pummeled Paraguay 60-28 , Argentina slipped past Mexico 39-24 and Chile won against Switzerland 37-28. All five winning teams advanced to the final round. The losing four teams competed in the repass round, which Paraguay won to gain entrance to the final round.
The USA went 4-1 in the final round to claim the gold, its lone loss was to Brazil. The placements for Brazil, Chile and France, having finished with identical 3-2 slates, were determined by FIBA's tie-breaking formula, and the host country came away with silver, while France, the tournament favorites heading into the championship, took home bronze.
While the United States would go on to collect a total of seven gold medals, one silver and two bronze medals, 1953 marked the only time Chile and France ascended the medal podium at a FIBA World Championship.