Before there was a Dream Team, U.S. Olympic basketball history was filled with stories of young men who lived their dreams.

That was when American rosters were composed solely of amateur players from colleges, the armed forces and other amateur teams.

That all changed in 1992 when professional players, those from the NBA, were allowed to compete and filled the U.S. roster.

“What I was able to experience couldn’t happen today,” said Mike Barrett, the former Richwood High and West Virginia Tech great who was a key member of the 1968 U.S. Olympic basketball team that won the gold medal in Mexico City.

“Some of us on that team went on to play professional basketball, but probably half of that team didn’t, yet all 12 of us were able to experience the Olympics as athletes, represent our country and win the gold medal.”

Barrett said he wouldn’t mind seeing an Olympic team composed half and half of pro players and college players.

“The Dream Team, as good as they were, I wouldn’t mind seeing some amateurs mixed in to keep that kind of dream alive.”

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Barrett’s march toward 1968 was as much about perseverance as it was a dream. As a senior at Richwood High School in 1962, the rail-thin 6-foot-2 guard was told he was too small to play major-college basketball. So he went to West Virginia Tech, where his career blossomed under legendary coach Neal Baisi.

After three standout years at Tech, he joined the U.S. Navy and was able to continue his basketball career on a touring team based with the submarine fleet in Norfolk, Va.

Gaining international experience, he was selected to the U.S. team for the 1967 World Championships in Uruguay. Against the Soviet Union, he scored 17 points, including the winning bucket, in a 59-58 U.S. victory.

Then came 1968.

“The Olympic trials were held in Albuquerque (N.M.),” Barrett said. “Back then, there were four NCAA teams, a college division team, an AAU team, an NAIA team and an armed forces team. The teams played against each other and the Olympic coaches would watch and evaluate. That’s how the Olympic team was picked.

“The three top college players at that time were Lew Alcindor (who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. They were later named three of the top 50 NBA players of the 20th century. Imagine what kind of (Olympic) team that would have been. But there was a lot of unrest in the country in 1968, and they chose not to participate.

“During the trials, in the first couple of games everybody was supposed to play. After that, the Olympic coaches would tell the team coaches which players they liked, and those players would see more court time. As the trials ended, I had an indication two or three of us (on the armed forces team) were still being considered, but I really didn’t know.

“So we were getting ready to leave and I was at the airport in Albuquerque with John Clawson, who was also on the armed forces team. John lived in Chicago and I had a connecting flight in Chicago to Norfolk, where I was stationed. We were standing there at the airport when this guy came up to me and said, “Are you Mike Barrett?” I said, ‘Yes,’ and then he said, ‘I’m glad I caught you. The U.S. Olympic Committee sent me out here to tell you that you made the Olympic team.’

“Then he looked at John and said, ‘You’re John Clawson, aren’t you?’ John told him he was, and he said, ‘You made the team, too.’

“We didn’t know what to think, whether it was true or some kind of prank. When we got to Chicago, John’s mother met him, and she had the telegram from the USOC confirming it. Mine had been sent to (wife) Carolyn in Norfolk. I think I could have flown on to Norfolk without the plane.”

The Olympic team assembled in Alamosa, Colo., to train at altitude.

“We had (6-foot-8) Spencer Haywood, who had one year of junior college experience, Jo Jo White (from Kansas) and Charlie Scott (from North Carolina),” Barrett said. “Nobody knew much about anybody else.

“We went to New York to play the (NBA’s) Knicks at Madison Square Garden. That’s when they had Walt Frazier, Dick Barnett, Bill Bradley, Willis Reed, Walt Bellamy and Phil Jackson. You talk about a terrified bunch of young players.

“On top of that, Sports Illustrated said we were just an awful team and that we would be lucky if we won the bronze medal. The day of the game, the New York Times ripped us up one side and down the other.

“So we come out and play the Knicks. The first half was close and we were down two or three points at halftime. I remember Coach (Hank) Iba telling us, ‘You can beat these guys.’ And I said to myself, ‘Yea, right.’ It stayed close in the second half, and we ended up beating the Knicks by two points. The next day, the New York Times’ headline read: Flash, Olympic team loaded.

“Then we went to Cincinnati to play the Royals, who had Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas. We lost by four or five. We had a few days off, then we reunited in Denver to play the Rockets of the ABA. We won by 16 going away.

“Our image and confidence had risen significantly. We felt pretty good when the time came to go to Mexico City.”

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It was time for the Opening Ceremonies of the 1968 Summer Games.

“Here I was, a kid from a small town in West Virginia getting ready to walk out in front of 90,000 people,” Barrett said. “We came out from under the stadium into this brilliant sun-lit day. The sheer emotion, I felt like I was going to bust open.

“Then we got into the games, and the first real challenge we had came from Puerto Rico. We ended up winning by five.”

The U.S. team won seven games in pool play, then beat Brazil in the semifinals. Up next in the gold-medal game was Yugoslavia, which had upset the Soviet Union in the other semifinal.

“At halftime, we were up by two or three points,” Barrett said. “Coach Iba told us, ‘I want you to pick them up end line to end line. If one of their players gets the ball over half-court, whoever is guarding him is coming out.’ Well, before they could get the ball across the half-court line, we had a 14- or 16-point lead, and the game was all but over. (The final score was 65-50).

“I thought nothing was going to top the feeling I had during the Opening Ceremonies. Well, when you’re on that platform and you hear the national anthem being played as they raise the American flag, it doesn’t get any better than that.

“There’s one other thing that stands out. It actually happened before the trials. Carolyn and I had not been married very long. She was the editor of the base newspaper, and she came home from work one day and said, ‘I gave you $2 today.’ And I said, ‘How did you do that?’ Then she said someone from the Olympic Committee had come by and she donated $2. She said, ‘If you make it, can I go?’ Lo and behold, she was right. She got to go for the first week. For two people from our backgrounds (she was from a small town in southern Illinois), it was just an amazing, amazing experience.”

Sports Illustrated, which had said the team would be lucky to win the bronze medal, voted the team second, behind the Boston Celtics, for team of the year.

Barrett was named the 1968 Amateur Athlete of the Year in West Virginia. In 1980, he was inducted into the West Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in a class that included Jerry West, Rod Thorn, Chuck Howley and Bob Jeter.

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Following the Olympics and after leaving the Navy, Barrett played in the old American Basketball Association with the Washington Caps, Virginia Squires and San Diego Conquistadors, making the All-Rookie team in 1969-70. His teammates included Rick Barry, Larry Brown, Doug Moe and Charlie Scott. He missed the 1971-72 season with the Squires following wrist surgery, and missed playing with a rookie by the name of Julius Erving.

Injuries forced him to retire as a player in 1973. He had a career scoring average of 13.4 points per game in the ABA.

He eventually became a successful account executive with VF Corporation, the world’s largest clothing company, specifically with Wrangler products. He’s now retired from that job. He and his wife live in Nashville, Tenn.

“So much of my life has been good, and it happened to about as unlikely an individual ...,” he said. “To have lived the life I have, especially the past 40 years with Carolyn, it’s been pretty extraordinary.

“If I had it to do again, I’d do it the same way.”

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