With the roster set for the 2012 USA Men's U18 national team and tryouts happening for the U17 unit this week, now is a perfect time to take an inside look at the relationship between USA Basketball and high school players.
High school players have a rich history of contributing to American success in international basketball competition. The contributions have primarily occurred since 1979 when the International Basketball Federation FIBA introduced its Junior World Championships. That year, a relatively unheralded high school junior named Sam Perkins of Shaker (Latham, N.Y.) helped the United States finish 8-0 and capture the gold medal in the inaugural U19 event in Salvador, Brazil, by averaging 10 points per game.
FIBA introduced the Junior World Championship qualifier in 1990 and in 2005 changed the names of its aged-based world championships to clearly indicate age requirements. Today, USA Basketball commits to national developmental teams down to U16 to prepare future USA Senior Men’s National teams for Pan American, World Championship and Olympic competition.
Preps at Olympic trials
Since FIBA changed its rules in 1989 to allow NBA players to compete, the dream of an American high school player earning a spot on a USA Senior Men’s National team has become far-fetched. It takes a high school player with special ability to be able to compete at that level, much less make a 12-man roster.
Before the Dream Team, the first U.S. Olympic team to feature NBA players, came along in 1992, USA Basketball held tryouts for the six Olympic Games between 1968 and 1988. In that period, seven high school standouts were given a shot at Olympic glory.
In 1968, 6-foot-5 Ralph Simpson of Pershing (Detroit) turned down an invitation. Ironically, 19-year old Spencer Haywood of Trinidad State Junior College, his former high school teammate at Pershing, led team USA to Olympic gold in Mexico City.
No high school players were among the 66 invitees in 1972, but in 1976 Darrell Griffith of Male (Louisville, Ky.) made a favorable impression. The most athletic guard at the tryouts, the 6-foot-4 jumping jack impressed Olympic coach Dean Smith (North Carolina), but an unfortunate thigh injury suffered during one of the workouts killed any real chance of him making the team.
In 1980, Earl Jones of Spingarn (Washington, D.C.) and Patrick Ewing of Rindge and Latin (Cambridge, Mass.) were the centers of attention. Neither made the cut for a team which didn't compete in Moscow because of a U.S. Olympic boycott. Jones had long been penciled in as a potential '80 Olympian since the Mount Hope, W.Va. native began dominating AAU tournaments as a 6-foot-10 eighth grader. As the only high school junior ever invited, Ewing made a favorable impression while Jones failed to lived up to his press clippings.
Four years later, Ewing (Georgetown) was able to earn an Olympic Gold Medal at the Los Angeles Olympic Games, while Jones (District of Columbia) wasn't one of the invitees. Guard Delray Brooks of Rogers (Michigan City, Ind.) and forward Danny Manning of Lawrence (Kansas) were among the invitees, but were a bit overwhelmed trying to earn a spot on one of the finest amateur teams ever assembled. The high school duo was among the first wave of cuts.
In 1988, Alonzo Mourning of Indian River (Chesapeake, Va.) joined Griffith and Ewing as ESPNHS Mr. Basketball USA honorees to earn an invite. With Morning's future college coach, John Thompson of Georgetown, guiding the '88 Olympic team, the popular thinking was Mourning didn't earn it and was invited to gain experience more than anything else. That proved false, as Mourning's shot-blocking ability and competitiveness made him arguably the most impressive high school player in American Olympic history.
Mourning was Thompson's final cut.
Walton's wild experience
The only prep player ever to make a USA Senior Men’s National Basketball Team experienced crushing defeat.
In 1970, 17-year old Bill Walton was invited by coach Hal Fischer to tryouts for the U.S. team competing in the FIBA World Championships in Yugoslavia. The Helix (La Mesa, Calif.) phenom easily made the team and was one of its most talented players.
It was clear, however, that Walton wasn't going to play much regardless of how well he looked during the tryout or practices. The laid-back Walton didn't take to Fischer's militant coaching style and the team USA mentor actually allowed his bench-warmer to suit up for the host country in one game. The U.S. lost its final three games and did not medal.
Walton later pointed to that incident as making his decision to skip the 1972 Olympic tryouts that much easier.
'Dream Team' viewing
Before he leaves for Colorado Springs, Colo., on Friday for USA Basketball's U17 training camp, Stanley Johnson of Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) will watch "The Dream Team," a documentary set to air on NBA TV June 13. Taken primarily from footage shot in Barcelona, Spain, the doc chronicles the experiences of 1992 NCAA college player of the year Christian Laettner and the 11 future NBA Hall of Famers that made up the Dream Team.
The Dream Team, widely credited with popularizing basketball worldwide, won gold by a 43.8-point average margin of victory.
The junior-to-be from Southern California wasn't born yet when Michael Jordan and company made the Olympics more a coronation than a competition. Johnson, however, has strong feelings about the use of NBA players in international competition.
"The Olympics are supposed to be about the best players from each country, so I think it's fair that NBA players compete," Johnson said. "I want to see the best, so why should a college player like Kemba Walker at UConn represent the USA when Chris Paul is out there?"