The opening ceremony for the 2020 Olympics (2021 edition) is only 10 days away and Team USA is really struggling on the basketball court. The Americans lost to Nigeria in their first exhibition game last Saturday, then fell to 0-2 in exhibition play with a loss to Australia last night. Throw in the seventh-place finish in the 2019 FIBA World Cup and it has been four losses in five games for our home country, an embarrassing low for the same program that gave us the Dream Team and Vince Carter jumping over a seven-footer.
Team USA is back in action tonight against Argentina in the third of five exhibition games in Las Vegas before heading off to Tokyo for the Olympic Games. Rather than diagnose the problems and how Coach Pop can fix those problems and stop yelling at reporters, why don’t we talk more positively about USA Basketball, like all of the times a former Kentucky Wildcat represented America in the Olympics.
Cliff Barker, Ralph Beard, Alex Groza, Wah Wah Jones and Kenny Rollins (The Fabulous Five); Adolph Rupp | 1948 London Olympic Games
The University of Kentucky’s Olympic basketball representation began in 1948 when five UK Basketball stars and their head coach competed for the United States in the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. Known as the Fabulous Five at Kentucky, Cliff Barker, Ralph Beard, Alex Groza, Wah Wah Jones and Kenny Rollins were selected as Olympians and Adolph Rupp served as the team’s assistant coach, only months after winning Kentucky’s first ever NCAA basketball championship.
The story of how Kentucky became America’s team is an interesting one. Back then, four NCAA teams and four AAU (Amateur Athletic Association) teams competed in a qualifying tournament in Madison Square Garden to become the team to represent the United States in the Olympic games. The ’48 Cats qualified as the defending champion and made the final game of the Olympic Trials, but lost to the AAU champion Phillips 66ers, 53-49. The runner-up coach, Adolph Rupp was picked to be 66er head coach Bud Browning’s only assistant on the Olympic team, and each of the team’s starting fives joined forces with two other AAU stars and two other college stars, including Don Barksdale, the first African-American on Team USA, in London.
Led by Alex Groza’s 11.1 points per game, the Americans went 8-0 and won the gold medal. Wah Wah Jones was USA’s sixth-best scorer at 7.2 points per game, while Barker, Beard and Rollins averaged four points apiece in the first known platoon system on record.
Billy Evans | 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games
#BlueGotIn two Olympics later in Melbourne in 1956 with former Kentucky star Billy Evans among the 12 Americans competing for basketball gold. A member of UK’s undefeated 1953-54 season, Evans was drafted by the Rochester Royals in the fifth round of the 1955 NBA draft, but joined the Air Force instead.
While serving with the Air Force, Evans played for the Air Force All-Star basketball team that competed in the 1956 Olympic Trials. The Phillips 66ers again won the tournament as they did in 1948, but Evans’ Air Force All-Stars were given five spots in a runner-up finish, and the Berea native was selected as one of the Air Force’s five to go to Melbourne, along with a guy named Bill Russell as an at-large pick.
At Kentucky, Evans played with Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey and Lou Tsioropoulos on the team that went 25-0 but did not participate in the NCAA Tournament. Evans got his basketball championship in Melbourne a year later when he went undefeated and won gold for Team USA. His jersey is retired in Rupp Arena.
Adrian Smith | 1960 Rome Olympic Games
With a margin of victory of 42.4 points per game, the United States’ 1960 Olympic team is considered one of the best collections of amateurs to ever play together. Made up of stars from the college and AAU amateur leagues, one Army All-Star was selected in Adrian Smith, a former NCAA champion at the University of Kentucky. Smith was the only member of the Armed Forces to play for the 1960 team and one of five double-digit scorers in the gold medal run, along with Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Jerry West and Terry Dischinger.
A native Kentuckian from Graves County, Smith was one of Rupp’s Fiddlin’ Five on the 1958 title team.
Sam Bowie | 1980 Gold Medal Series*
The Olympic team didn’t have another Kentucky Wildcat until 1980, the third Olympic Games since Team USA transitioned to college athletes only, with Kentucky freshman Sam Bowie in the paint for the Dave Gavitt-coached Americans. However, the U.S.A. boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games due to Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union, and the youngest team in Team USA’s history never competed for Olympic gold.
To make up for the missed Olympics, Bowie and his American teammates played a five-game series of exhibitions against NBA talent in various stops around the country. Bowie was second on the team in scoring and first in rebounds and blocks as the young college stars beat the NBA All-Stars in four of the five Gold Medal Series games.
Bowie went back to Lexington for an All-American sophomore season before injuries kept him sidelined in the 1981-82 and 1982-83 seasons. He returned in 1983-84 for another All-American campaign despite two years away from the game. He was selected second overall in the 1984 NBA Draft, one spot ahead of Michael Jordan.
Tayshaun Prince | 2008 Beijing Olympic Games
Tayshaun Prince became the ninth Wildcat to win Olympic basketball gold in 2008 as a member of the “Redeem Team.” By this time USA Basketball had already made the switch from college stars to NBA superstars, and Prince was selected as a defensive specialist with four straight All-NBA Defensive Team selections and an NBA championship to his name.
Tasked with bringing the gold back to the States after disappointing bronze finishes in the 2004 Olympics and 2006 FIBA World Cup, Team USA went undefeated in Beijing and beat Spain in an exciting gold-medal game to complete the run. Prince hit six of his 11 three-point attempts for the fourth-best 3-point percentage in Olympic basketball history.
Anthony Davis | 2012 London Olympic Games
Anthony Davis played for the U.S. Olympic team in the summer between his national championship season at Kentucky and his rookie debut in the NBA, filling in for the injured Blake Griffin in London. Only 19 years old at the time, Davis averaged 3.7 points, 2.7 rebounds and shot 64.7 percent from the field in limited minutes for a team that had Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony leading the scoring, and NBA Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler protecting the rim inside. That team won Olympic gold with a margin of victory of over 30 points.
Davis was expected to suit up for the Americans again in the 2016 Rio Games, but a shoulder injury kept him back home in recovery. He will not compete in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo either, again with lingering injury issues from the NBA season.
DeMarcus Cousins | 2016 Rio Olympic Games
The 2016 Olympic team returned only two players from the 2012 gold-medal victory in London, and one of the newcomers was former Kentucky fan favorite DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins was selected to play for America in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games after two All-NBA seasons in Sacramento in 2015 and 2016, the latter with a career-high average of 26.9 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.
Prior to the departure for Rio, Cousins was the only player to average a double-double in the team’s five exhibition games. Once in Rio, he started five of the eight games and won gold as the team’s second-leading rebounder with a scoring average of 9.1 points per game.
Devin Booker and Bam Adebayo | 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games
Team USA will play its first game in Tokyo on Sunday, July 25 against France in the first game of group stage play. Kentucky alums Bam Adebayo and Devin Booker made the final 12-man American roster, marking the first Olympic selections for both young NBA stars.
Adebayo had 11 points and five rebounds in Team USA’s first exhibition loss, followed by six points and three boards in the second. Former Wildcat Keldon Johnson also played in that game, called up to help from the USA Select Team until the full roster is available.
Devin Booker will join the team once he is done in the NBA Finals as Team USA pursues its 16th gold medal.