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Facts & Photos: 1936-1976 & 1988 U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Teams

  • Date:
    Aug 9, 2020

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were to be held July 24-Aug. 9, 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the Summer Games to 2021. USA Basketball is celebrating the original dates of the 2020 Olympics with a look back at past U.S. Olympic men’s and women’s basketball teams through photos and fun facts. Be sure to check in daily for Olympic memories galore!

On this day in USA Basketball Olympic History: Aug. 9

The inaugural U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Team traveled to Berlin for the 1936 Olympic Games via boat, and found that their first opponent, Spain, did not show up due to the Spanish Civil War.

1936 U.S. Olympic Men's Team

In the 1936 Olympic men’s basketball gold medal game, the outdoor clay court had suffered due to weather. Facing Canada in front of 2,000 rain-soaked fans, the American took a 15-4 lead at halftime. The rain continued in the second half and both teams were only able to score a combined eight points as the U.S. held on to claim a 19-8 win.

1936 Olympic Court

Upon arrival in Berlin, the 1936 U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Team was informed of rule changes made more than two years prior. At a FIBA meeting, with no U.S. representatives attending, rules were approved that abolished the three-second rule, limited each team to seven players per game and designated outdoor facilities as the official playing court. U.S. head coach Jim Needles reluctantly accepted the rules and divided the team into two, seven-man units. One unit featured the six McPherson Globe Refiners and the lone collegian, Ralph Bishop. The other unit featured the seven Universal players. Each unit alternated playing the games. A rule banning players over 6-foot-2 was rescinded only after the U.S. complained.

1936 Olympic Men's Game

  While the U.S. remained the leader in basketball and won a second-straight gold at the 1948 Olympics, European nations had not had the opportunity to improve their basketball teams much due World War II, and five of the top six finishing teams in 1948 were from the Americas.

Omar Browning
1948 U.S. Olympic Men's Basketball head coach Omar Browning

  1948 U.S. Olympic team captain Jesse Renick was a Native American from Oklahoma. Renick, a Chickasaw and Choctaw who starred as a collegian at Murray State and for future Olympic head coach Henry Iba at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University), played for the Phillips 66ers, including AAU National Championships in 1945-48, and he coached the 66ers for four years, winning one National Championship in 1949-50. He was elected to the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame in 1973, the Chickasaw Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.  

 1948 U.S. Olympic Men's Team
Jesse Renick is No. 55, standing in the back row on the far right.

At the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, the Americans twice met the Soviet Union on the basketball court amidst the backdrop of the cold war struggle. The USA earned an 86-58 win in the preliminary round that saw six Americans and four Soviets foul out of the game. And in the gold medal matchup, the Soviets used a stalling tactic, and after 10 minutes, the USA led 4-3. The U.S. foiled the Soviet Union's upset attempt by shooting well from the outside, and after pulling ahead by nine points, began its own stall, causing one Soviet player to stage a temporary sit-down strike at midcourt. The Americans eventually went on to win, 36-25.

 1952 U.S. Olympic Men

At the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, the United States averaged nearly 100 points per game, on the way to the gold medal, surpassing the century mark in four of eight games. The USA's average margin of victory was 53.5 points per game.

 Gerald Tucker
1956 U.S. Olympic Men's Basketball head coach Gerald Tucker

Because the 1956 Olympics were held in Australia, the competition took place during the USA’s winter, Nov. 22-Dec. 1, and Bill Russell delayed his professional debut so he could compete. Russell, who led the University of San Francisco to 1955 and 1956 NCAA titles, helped the USA to a gold medal and then reported late to his Boston Celtics team, which went on to win the 1956-57 NBA title.

1956 U.S. Olympic Men 

While the gold-medal winning 1960 U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Team featured NBA greats such as Jerry Lucas, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, a total of 10 of the 12 team members went on to play in the NBA. The list is rounded out by Jay Arnette, Walter Bellamy, Robert Boozer, Terry Dischinger, Darrall Imhoff, Allen Kelley and Adrian Smith.  

 1960 U.S. Olympic Men

In the process of capturing a sixth-straight Olympic gold medal with nine-straight wins in Tokyo, the 1964 USA men extended their Olympic unbeaten string to 46 games. The Americans won their nine games by an average of 30 points per game.

 1964 U.S. Olympic Men

The USA men won an incredible seventh-straight Olympic gold medal at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, which still stands as the longest gold-medal streak in the history of traditional team sports.

 1968 U.S. Olympic Men's Celebration

The 1968 Olympics served as a coming-out for 19-year-old Spencer Haywood, the youngest player ever to make a USA Olympic basketball team at that time. Haywood, a 6-foot-8 junior college star who went on to fame at the University of Detroit and an eight-year NBA career, led the U.S. squad by scoring 16.1 points per game. He also shot a sizzling 71.9% from the field to set a U.S. Olympic men’s shooting percentage record.

Spencer Haywood

The USA’s men’s 1972 Olympic silver medal represented perhaps the most controversial game in international basketball history. With just three seconds left in the game, American Doug Collins sank two free throws, despite the horn going off during his second attempt, to put the USA ahead 50-49 with three seconds left in the game. After the free throws, the Soviets inbounded the ball, but an official stopped play. The Soviets argued they had requested a timeout before Collins' foul shots. The referees ordered the clock reset and the game's final three seconds to be replayed. The clock was in the process of being reset, however, when the referees put the ball in play. A length of the court Soviet pass missed its mark, the horn sounded and the U.S. again began celebrating. The secretary general of FIBA, R. William Jones, stepped in, however, and ordered the clock again reset to 0:03, and the end of the game again replayed for a second time. This time, the Soviet's Aleksander Belov caught a long pass from Ivan Edeshko at the foul line and drove to the basket for a layup and the winning points. Post-game, the U.S. filed a protest, but the protest was denied and the Soviets were awarded gold. The U.S. team voted unanimously to refuse their silver medals.

 1972 U.S. Olympic Men's Team

Henry Iba was the first USA head coach to lead three men’s Olympic Teams. Iba guided the USA to Olympic gold in 1964 and 1968 and to the controversial silver medal in 1972.

Henry Iba 

Led by legendary Hall of Fame head coach Dean Smith, the 1976 U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Team returned to the top position on the podium and recorded seven-straight wins to capture gold in Montreal, Canada.

 1976 U.S. Olympic Men's Basketball Team

The USA's quest for gold in 1976 was nearly thwarted by a Puerto Rican team led by Marquette University guard Butch Lee. Lee, a New Yorker who was born in Puerto Rico, made the Puerto Rican Olympic Team only after failing to be invited to the 1976 U.S. Olympic Trials. Trying his best to make the U.S. pay for its oversight, Lee scored 35 points on 15-for-18 shooting from the field to help lead a gutsy Puerto Rican team in its near upset of the U.S. squad. Puerto Rico's dream of the upset ended when Lee was called for a charge. Phil Ford hit a pair of free throws, and the U.S. held on for a 95-94 victory.

Butch Lee
Butch Lee

With Georgetown University and future Hall of Fame coach John Thompson at the helm, the 1988 U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Team fell to the Soviet Union 82-76 in the semifinals in Seoul but rebounded to top Australia 78-49 for the bronze medal. The USA-USSR Olympic semifinal matchup was the first Olympic game between the superpowers since the controversial 1972 Olympic finals.

 John Thompson

The 1988 Olympics was the final time the U.S. team was comprised entirely of collegians. FIBA changed its rules in 1989 and NBA athletes were allowed to compete in the Olympics beginning in 1992.

1988 U.S. Olympic Men's Basketball Team

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