Happy Fourth of July!
There are plenty of terrific ways to honor America. One is to fondly remember the nation’s illustrious basketball history at the Olympics. (Like I said, there are many ways.)
The U.S. has won 14 of 18 gold medals awarded at the Olympics, and Big Ten products have been a big part of American success. So we’re going Olympics-by-Olympics to find which American teams had Big Ten representatives and exactly how well those players did. It’s the most patriotic Big Ten basketball moment since Bobby Knight’s face turned such a strange shade of red it actually produced 13 red and white stripes on his skin (that might or might not have really happened).
There were no Big Ten players on the roster when the U.S. defeated Canada in the first-ever gold-medal game in basketball at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. That game was won by a score of 19-8. Oh boy. Another gold medal wouldn’t be handed out in basketball until 1948, when a Big Ten-less U.S. squad defeated France, 65-21, the first of many U.S. blowout victories.
It wasn’t until the 1952 team in Helsinki that a Big Ten product made his first appearance for the U.S. Both Ronald Bontemps of Illinois and Howard Williams of Purdue were gold-medal winners. They helped the U.S. defeat the Soviet Union, 36-25, for the gold. Bontemps appeared in all eight games of the tournament and averaged 7.1 points per game, the fourth most on the team. A pair of Iowa Hawkeyes — Carl Cain and Charles Darling — played for the U.S. in 1956 in Melbourne. Darling averaged 9.3 points per game, making half of his shots in eight games (22-of-44).
[MORE BIG TEN: Undrafted but not forgotten: B1G'ers to play in Summer League]
The 1960 team featured three Big Ten alums, including a pair of Hall of Famers in Ohio State’s Jerry Lucas and Indiana’s Walt Bellamy. Purdue’s Terry Dischinger was also part of the team. The squad dominated competition in Rome, scoring more than 100 points five times. Lucas put together scoring performances of 28, 25, 25 and 21 during the tournament. Lucas (17) and Dischinger (11.8) both averaged double figures over the eight games.
The U.S. grabbed their seventh straight gold medal (and fourth straight over the Soviets) in 1968 in Mexico City, with Michigan’s John Clawson and Ohio State’s Bill Hosket putting aside the Wolverines-Buckeyes rivalry to represent their country. Hosket was in the top five in scoring on that team. Two Big Ten’ers — Minnesota’s Jim Brewer and Maryland’s Tom McMillen — played for the first U.S. Olympic basketball team to not win a gold medal in the 1972 tournament that ended in a controversial win for the Soviet Union. That group still hasn’t accepted their silver medals.
Four years later, in Montreal, the U.S. had its most Big Ten-heavy roster ever, with four players on the team. Indiana sent both Quinn Buckner and Scott May, while Phil Hubbard represented Michigan and Steven Sheppard represented Maryland. May was great in the tournament, averaging 16.7 points and 6.2 rebounds and twice going over 20 points in a game. The U.S. beat Yugoslavia by 21 points to reclaim the gold. The 1980 squad featured two Big Ten players in Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas of Indiana and Buck Williams of Maryland. However, the U.S. boycotted the Olympics in Moscow and the basketball team didn’t participate in the Games. Yugoslavia won the gold that year.
[MORE BIG TEN: Welcome to the Big(ger) Ten: Meet the Rutgers Scarlet Knights]
Indiana’s Steve Alford was the lone Big Ten product on the 1984 squad, which won gold in Los Angeles. With Knight, his coach at Indiana, coaching the team, Alford played alongside future NBA legends Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin. He averaged 10.3 points per game (fourth most on the team) and shot 64.4 percent from the field. The U.S. beat Spain by 31 in the gold-medal game. Four years later, there was no Big Ten player on the U.S. roster for the first time since 1964. The U.S. didn’t even play in the gold-medal game.
The failure in Seoul sparked the creation of the Dream Team in 1992, the team of NBA superstars that rolled over everyone in Barcelona for a redemptive gold medal. One of the biggest stars on that team was Michigan State alum Magic Johnson, who played in only six games but managed to average eight points per game and dish out a total of 33 assists, third on the team behind Bulls stars Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Three more Big Ten players played on U.S. teams over the next six Olympics, in which the U.S. captured five of the awarded gold medals. Steve Smith of Michigan State won gold with the 2000 team in Sydney, averaging 6.1 points in eight games. After the U.S. won bronze at the 2004 Games, a pair of Big Ten products — Ohio State’s Michael Redd and Illinois’ Deron Williams — were a part of the Redeem Team in 2008 in Beijing. Williams became the first Big Ten player to ever compete in two Olympic men’s basketball tournaments in 2012 in London. He helped defend the U.S.’s gold medal from Beijing and averaged nine points per game in the tournament.
So there you have it, an exhaustive examination of Big Ten products to hoop it up for their country on international sport's grandest stage. It's a wonderful way to celebrate all things American on the Fourth of July.