Jack Robinson returns to London 64 years after winning the gold

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 25, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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Like anyone who has lived the better part of nine decades as a busy and accomplished man, Jack Robinson has forgotten a few details along the way.

But he recalls the thoughts that flashed through his mind as he received gold for his contributions as a member of the U.S. men's basketball team in the 1948 London Games as vividly as what occurred only seconds ago.

They all started with home, he said.

The day he discovered the joy of throwing a tennis ball at a bent hanger on his mother's hall closet door as a small child in the 3100 block of Greene Street, two blocks from the TCU campus.... The hours and hours spent playing, often by himself, in the TCU gymnasium after "finding" a way in as often as he could, and often, admittedly, being chased off by the "authorities."... Sweeping off the asphalt outdoor courts at McLean Middle School of debris from rain storms or snow so he could get more work under a basketball mentor he'll never forget, Ronald Balch. ... A state championship at Paschal High School in 1945 under legendary coach Charlie Turner, who finagled the schedule of his players so they could work out twice a day.... Leading Baylor as the point guard to a runner-up finish behind Kentucky in the 1948 national championship game.

And now this.

"Just playing the whole thing [through his mind] from beginning to end, and, now, this is about the best you can do and you reach out your hand and the lord of the Games puts the Olympic medal in it and you're still doing pretty good," Robinson said, "and then comes the Star-Spangled Banner.

"That choked me up. Still does."

Dr. Jack Robinson, now 85 and retired in Augusta, Ga., who traveled the world as a Baptist preacher, will return to London where 64 years ago he joined 13 other Americans under the leadership of Phillips 66ers coach Bud Browning and less-than-enthused assistant Adolph Rupp.

"He couldn't have been nicer to me or more gracious, and that wasn't his nature," Robinson joked about Rupp, the Kentucky coach. "He didn't like [being] the assistant at all."

Rupp became the assistant after losing to the Phillips 66ers, a semipro team that took part in an Olympic trials tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York. The tournament included Baylor, the NCAA runner-up; Kentucky, the NCAA champion; and New York University, the NIT champion. The Phillips 66ers, the AAU national champion, and some other semipro teams, such as the Oakland Bittners, the team of Don Barksdale, the first black man to play on a U.S. Olympic basketball team, also competed.

Robinson, to this day, said he doesn't exactly know how or why he made the team. Baylor lost to Kentucky in the semifinals of the tournament, and Robinson said he was not in good shape physically, including having a bad knee, after a grueling regular college season.

On his way down from his New York hotel for breakfast one morning he just happened to look down at the pile of newspapers that the doorman sold routinely each day. The New York Times read: "U.S. Olympic team chosen," along with a subhead, "Lumpp, Robinson added."

"That's how I found out," said Robinson, who became Olympic teammates with Ray Lumpp of NYU, Kentucky teammates Cliff Barker, Ralph Beard, Alex Groza, Wallace Jones and Kenneth Rollins, 66ers teammates Lewis Beck, Gordon Carpenter, Bob Kurland, R.C. Pitts and Jesse Renick. Barksdale and Vince Boryla of the semipro Denver Nuggets rounded out the squad.

Though he'll never know for sure, Robinson believes he had two able and influential advocates in his corner on the selection committee: Oklahoma A&M coach Henry Iba and Arkansas coach Eugene Lambert.

Humility, too, probably stands in the way of Robinson's logic. He was an All-Southwest Conference performer and All-American his junior season at Baylor.

What he does know now is that his world changed over the course of three weeks in London.

"I never knew how I got on the Olympic team," Robinson said. "I never knew how I got to meet the king and queen. But as I talked to [Iba] in later years, I got the feeling he thought I was a real good player and a fine citizen.

"I learned so much," said Robinson, who attended Alice E. Carlson Elementary School before moving on to the original McLean (where Paschal High School is now, on Forest Park) for middle school and high school at Paschal, the old Central High building that now houses Trimble Tech.

"Think of being 21 years old, from Fort Worth, Texas, and going over to all of that..."

Remnants of war

A procession of athletes into Wembley Stadium opened the proceedings of the 1948 Games.

Robinson and the other 13 were sweating in the London heat, made worse by the traditional U.S. Olympic blazer.

God save our gracious King; Long live our noble King; God save the King!

Send him victorious; Happy and glorious; Long to reign over us...

God save the King.

Pigeons numbering 5,000 or so were released to fly to the major cities of Europe to declare that peace would reign throughout the progress of the Games.

London in 1948, even more than three years after the tragedy of World War II, looked anything but peaceful.

It was still rubble.

It was easy to see just by walking around town, Robinson said, why these Games became known as the "Austerity Olympics."

The condition of one of the world's great international cities was an eye-opener for each of the 14 men's basketball players, Robinson said.

"Everywhere you went you had to walk around the rubble in the streets," Robinson said. "They didn't have the money or the time" to clean it up.

Horse and whale meat were still being consumed by many Londoners. The candy and gum the players brought for the children were their first taste of sweets in 10 years or so.

"They didn't know how to chew gum," said Robinson, who remembered that government officials announced an end to sweet rations for children during his three-week stay. "They'd never had any."

The laughing and horseplay common among team members would cease instantly, Robinson said, "every time we'd walk around the rubble, everything just got quiet. Every time they got around where a bomb had hit, it just got quiet."

One building still standing, of course, was the headquarters of the Royal Air Force, which saved Britain from Hitler's plans to invade the island. "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few," said Winston Churchill.

Today, athletes live in the penthouse of the Olympic Village. In 1948, they stayed at the home of the RAF.

Robinson recalls an errand boy there around 10 years old who was persistent in his requests for someone to accompany him to a place in town.

Robinson declined, telling the boy he was busy. Jesse Renick went. The boy wanted to show someone where his mother had been killed by a German buzz bomb.

"I felt like a dog," Robinson said.

Britain certainly didn't appear to have reaped any of the booty of triumph.

But, despite its condition, London and the United Kingdom were actually on the mend, though its empire sent to the ash heap even after being on the winning side of the war.

There was, Robinson said, an air of jealousy among the Brits toward the Americans, the world's new empire. It didn't help that the Americans did what Robinson termed were "some dumb things," such as bringing their own food, like scrumptious steaks, sugar, tea and lemonade.

"That didn't go too well," Robinson said. "How would you have felt if they came into your country carrying big T-bone steaks and sugar and coffee and tea and other things you haven't seen much less had in six or seven years?

"People hadn't had a good meal really" in years.

The royal family naturally showed no such ill will when giving Olympic athletes an audience.

King George VI and Princess Elizabeth, who was expecting the future king, Charles, and all the royals greeted representatives of competing nations for high tea one late afternoon at Buckingham Palace.

Robinson represented the men's basketball team.

"Your Majesty, I would like to present to you Jack Robinson."

"I shook hands with him," Robinson said. "He couldn't have been nicer. They had told me that he stuttered, but he didn't to me at all."

In a more informal setting some moments later, Robinson went back to speak to the United Kingdom's head of state. He was joined by swimmer Ann Curtis, a California native who would win two golds in 1948.

California, the king exclaimed, that's where the biggest and best come from!

"Of course, I said, 'Whoa. Sir, I'm from Texas.'"

Pre-Cold War games

Germany and Japan, still banished from the community of nation-states, did not compete in 1948.

The Soviet Union did not either, though that was by choice. Though by now clearly at odds with the West, the Russians had also seen the worst of the war. More than 20 million of its citizens and soldiers had been lost in the conflict.

That didn't keep them away from London, however. Russian officials were present to scout and be present for rules conferences.

The 1948 Games were played under the rules of the most recent Olympics, which were last held in Berlin in 1936.

The rules meeting turned into one of the earliest Cold War games of cat and mouse between the Americans and Russians.

The U.S. proposed a ban on goaltending, beginning with the 1952 Games, said Robinson, who was at the meeting.

"Well, the Russians said, 'Nyet, nyet, nyet,'" Robinson said. "They said 'nyet' to everything that the Americans said yes to. Bud [Browning] said, 'What are we to do?'"

Robinson said he had an idea.

That night before the United States' game, knowing the Russians would be in attendance, the Americans sent their most dominant post players, including Kurland, Groza and Barksdale, under the basket to swat away every outside shot Robinson and the American perimeter players took during warm-ups.

"I asked Bud how the next meeting went," Robinson said. "He said the Russian hand went up when they declared the meeting officially open, and his first statement was, 'We want to propose a ban on goaltending.'"

Score one for the U.S. It wouldn't be until the disputed 1972 gold-medal game that the Russians would even the score on the basketball floor.

American politics -- waged between Browning and Rupp, who each believed their respective players from the 66ers and Kentucky were superior to the other -- didn't get in the way of the domination of the 1948 men's American basketball, which went 8-0 and won gold, defeating the French 65-21 in the championship game.

The Americans returned home on the S.S. America champions of the world in men's hoops ("net ball," as they called it in the UK) again. The sport's first year as an Olympic event was 1936.

Only the Argentines came within an arm's length, losing 59-57. It was Robinson's best game of the tournament.

He scored six points down the stretch, including a basket in the final moments.

The game ball presented to him and signed by each of his Olympic teammates sits in his Augusta, Ga., home.

Color barrier

Leviticus instructs that "when a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

Nothing about Don Barksdale's ability would have kept him off the 1948 team, except, of course, his color. He was a standout athlete at UCLA and was playing for a semipro/AAU team in Oakland. It would be a year before he would become one of the first black players in the NBA.

Though progress had been made -- the U.S. Army had begun to integrate and Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier a year earlier -- black Americans were still left to feel too often as strangers, but in their own land. And they weren't exactly not done wrong.

Barksdale, Robinson said, was one of them as a member of the U.S. Olympic team.

A final Olympic warm-up in Lexington, Ky., created some tension when Rupp told U.S. Olympic officials that they had sold tens of thousands of tickets, "but you can't bring" Barksdale.

Robinson said he led his teammates in protest, saying, "Tell him to give back the money for the tickets. Just return them."

Barksdale made the trip to Lexington, but a state law forbade him from staying in a hotel. He stayed instead at the home of a wealthy black doctor and had a nice stay, though it wasn't the same, Robinson said.

In Bartlesville, Okla., where the team held workouts before the Games, Robinson said he and Barksdale would often attend movies at a nearby theater to kill time.

"Negroes in the balcony."

"Guess where I watched the movie?" Robinson said. "Upstairs with Don," he added before joking, "I wanted him to pass me the ball."

Before the Olympics, Barksdale, at 6-foot-6, had made a name for himself as a world-class track athlete, having won the 1944 AAU triple-jump title. His dreams, though, were the same as Robinson's.

"I said, Don, you hold the record for the hop, skip and jump," Robinson said. "What in the world are you worried about playing on the Olympic basketball team?"

Said Barksdale, Robinson remembered: "You can't make a dime doing the hop, skip and jump. From now on whenever my name is in the paper, it'll be 'Don Barksdale, ex-Olympic cager.'"

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