“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.