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Allen Kelley Finds His Place Among Hoops Greats

Former Kansas star gets inducted into Basketball Hall of Fame with 1960 Olympics teammates

The names of former NBA stars such as Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jerry Lucas, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan flow from the lips of basketball fans as if they were reading poetry.

Allen Kelley? Well, outside of Lawrence, Kan., and Peoria, Ill., there’s a good chance he suffers from a lack of name recognition, even among the most devoted basketball fans.

Kelley, 77, played during a different era for the sport, one that is in danger of being lost from the history of the game. He was on the NCAA championship team at the University of Kansas in 1952, won a basketball Olympic gold medal in 1960 and then settled in for a 45-year career with Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc., the manufacturer of construction and mining equipment.

Kelley worked in parts distribution, and he could have been your next-door neighbor. He never played professional basketball.

But as of Friday, Kelley is a proud member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame—just like all those big-time stars. He and his teammates on the 1960 USA men’s Olympic squad were inducted as a team, as were the members of the more famous 1992 USA Basketball “dream team.”

“You respect all those [in the Basketball Hall of Fame] for what they did,” says Kelley, who had been eagerly awaiting this 1960 reunion since the Class of 2010 was announced in April. “And it’s just a privilege to be there in the same hall.”

Fifty years ago, the Olympic team was a collection of college all-stars and the top players from corporately sponsored amateur teams in the National Industrial Basketball League. That’s where Kelley got his chance, as a 5-foot-11 guard for the Peoria Caterpillars, one of the ruling amateur teams from 1943 to 1960.

Oscar Robertson, from the University of Cincinnati, and Jerry Lucas, from Ohio State, were the stars on that 1960 Olympic team, averaging 17 points each. Jerry West, from West Virginia, and Terry Dischinger of Purdue were the other top scorers. The college all-stars’ domination of the amateur teams that year ended the Amateur Athletic Union’s (AAU) rule of the selection process, which began when basketball was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1936.

Kelley played in five of the eight Olympic games and scored just four points. But he says nothing could ever replace the Olympic experience and watching boxer Cassius Clay and track stars Wilma Rudolph and Rafer Johnson compete in their events. Of course, he also got the opportunity to go against Robertson and West in practice.

“As a player, you didn’t have to play long with Oscar and Jerry West to know they had great ability,” Kelley says. “There wasn’t any dissension on the team because the best players were playing. The college boys were good. They beat us in the Olympic [tryout] tournament.

“Players know who the best players are. So it was kind of nice to have a front-row seat and watch the boys perform.”

Legendary University of California coach Pete Newell got the most out of his talented players. The USA held its opponents to an average of 59.5 points, defeating the Soviets 81-57 and beating Brazil 90-63 for the gold medal.

“The AAU players were amateurs in name only,” Robertson wrote in a guest piece for the New York Times. “They worked for companies—like Goodyear, Vickers Aviation, Caterpillar or Phillips 66 … The NBA did not pay well and offered no benefits. For many college graduates, AAU basketball was the better option.”

Bob Boozer, one of Kelley’s Caterpillars teammates and an All-American at Kansas State, actually delayed his entry into the NBA to play in the 1960 Olympics. Kelley was a seventh-round selection of the Milwaukee Hawks in the 1954 NBA draft after earning All-Big Seven honors his last two seasons at Kansas.

“I’ve still got the letter, and the offer was $5,000,” Kelley says. “I think they wanted me to pay my way out there, and then I had to make the team. I decided Caterpillar was more stability, so I went to Peoria and visited there. AAU was the place to be.

“But you went to work every day and we practiced after work. When we were gone on [game] trips, somebody had to cover your job. Your salary was based on your job, and you were reviewed every year by your boss. Basketball had nothing to do with it.

“But Caterpillar dropped their program after the 1960 Olympics. It got too expensive. I decided to quit then. I was out of college six years, but I had always wanted to make the Olympics.”

Kelley reached that goal, was inducted in the University of Kansas Athletics Hall of Fame and the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame. And now, 50 years after he and Boozer carried the Cats banner at the Rome Olympics, his name is in basketball’s greatest hall of all.

Ken Davis is a writer in Coventry, Conn.

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