Though the USA had been the sole winners of the men’s Olympic basketball gold medal since the sport’s first appearance on the programme in 1936 and were now going for a seventh straight gold, they were not actually the favourites heading to Mexico City 1968.
The main reason for that was the underwhelming performances of their college players in a tournament held in Europe that summer, where they were outplayed by Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, who were subsequently installed as the leading contenders for Olympic gold in Mexico. There were also doubts about the strength of the USA squad that travelled to the Mexican capital that year.
All these concerns would soon be dispelled.
The leader of the American pack was the 19-year-old pivot Spencer Haywood, who scored an average of 16.1 points per match as the Americans, coached by Henry Iba, cruised to victory in their seven first-round games at Mexico City’s Palacio de los Deportes, where crowds in excess of 20,000 gathered every day.
The Americans then swept to a 75-63 win over Brazil in the semi-finals. Most people expected a fifth consecutive final showdown with the USSR. However, Yugoslavia had other ideas, as they clinched a nail-biting 63-62 win on the buzzer to advance to the gold medal match at the Soviet Union’s expense.
The Yugoslavians showed they were worthy of their place in the final by restricting the Americans to a 32-29 lead at the end of a pulsating first half. Hungry for a seventh gold, however, Team USA pulled away in the third quarter, with Haywood and Joseph “Jo Jo” White scoring eight points apiece as the Americans went on a 17-0 scoring streak. They eventually ran out comfortable 65-50 winners, with Haywood’s personal contribution 21 points and White’s 14.
The Americans were jubilant at notching a seventh consecutive basketball title for their country, while the Yugoslavs were delighted to record their first ever Olympic silver in the sport. Meanwhile, in the bronze medal match, the Soviet Union beat Brazil 70-53.
The USA’s golden run would come to an end four years later in Munich, when they went down to a 50-51 defeat to the Soviet Union in the final.