Much has changed since 64 years ago, when Robert “Jack” Robinson last played basketball in London.
In 1948, the city was still recovering from World War II, with rubble in the streets. Candy bars were luxury items, Robinson said, and he and his U.S. Olympic teammates brought their own food with them.
“Sugar was still being rationed,” said the 85-year-old Robinson, a former pastor at First Baptist Church in Augusta. “The children didn’t even know how to chew gum.”
When the 2012 Olympics begin with the opening ceremonies Friday, Robinson will be back in England reliving his glory days. The two-time All-American point guard from Baylor University was a member of one of the United States’ original Dream Teams. When Robinson travels across the Atlantic Ocean this week, he’ll find a much different city than the one etched in his memory.
“I’ve wanted to go back,” he said, “as soon as I found out London was selected.”
Robinson will have a large contingent with him and his wife, Charlotte. Their two daughters, two sons-in-law, a granddaughter, her husband and their two children all are traveling to the Olympics, along with Robinson’s doctor, Charles Shaefer, and his wife.
The Robinsons plan to fly to London, a different travel experience than the family patriarch undertook nearly seven decades earlier. In 1948, the U.S. Olympians sailed across the ocean on the S.S. America.
Accommodations will be much different, too. In 1948, the basketball team stayed 12 miles outside of London in the Royal Air Force barracks – not exactly an air-conditioned suite.
London was a bit of culture shock for the young man who grew up in Fort Worth, Texas.
During the Games, Robinson ordered a steak. After several chews, he detected a sweet taste and asked an acquaintance what he was eating.
“Horse meat,” he said. “So I didn’t finish that. I got fish and chips.”
In high school, Robinson earned 13 letters playing a variety of sports.
In 1948, he led Baylor to the NCAA Division I championship game against Kentucky. The Wildcats prevailed, 58-42, over Robinson’s Bears at Madison Square Garden. Baylor remained in New York City for the Olympic Trials, an eight-team tournament that would qualify 10 players (five off the final two squads) to represent America in London. In the semifinals, Baylor again fell to Kentucky, but the Wildcats lost the title game to the Phillips 66ers, an Amateur Athletic Union team.
With 10 spots locked up, four remained: two for college players, two for AAU players. The day after the finals, Robinson was in a hotel elevator when he looked down and saw a headline in a newspaper announcing he was selected for the team.
Before the Olympics, the squad embarked on a barnstorming exhibition around the country to raise money for nonrevenue-generating U.S. Olympic teams. In one game, the team played in front of 30,000 fans at night on a football field in Lexington, Ky.
The team was loaded, with the “Fabulous Five” from Kentucky, along with Phillips 66ers center Bob Kurland, a 7-footer who later was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The team also featured Don Barksdale, the first black American to play basketball in the Olympics. Barksdale will be posthumously inducted into the hall of fame later this year.
When the Olympics began, the U.S. dominated. In the first game of pool play, the U.S. defeated Switzerland, 86-21. Three of the other four games in pool play also were blowouts. The one real contest came against Argentina.
“That was the only close game. Most of the time we were winning by 20 to 40 points,” Robinson said. “It was fun.”
The South American squad led by seven points at halftime. The U.S. team, hampered by foul trouble, managed to rally for a 56-55 lead in the final minutes. Then Robinson came off the bench, adding a key bucket to extend the lead to three. The U.S. emerged with a 59-57 victory and cruised the rest of the way to the gold medal.
Robinson returned to Baylor in the fall for his senior season, but he tore the patellar tendon in his right knee. He tried to play through it, not knowing the extent of the injury. He went to grab a jersey out of his locker five days before the first game, but nothing was there.
“I looked up and there was the coach hiding behind the door of a locker crying,” he said. “I knew what he was saying.”
Robinson went on to become a pastor, moving in 1953 to Augusta to lead First Baptist Church. At the time, the church was located at the corner of Eighth and Greene streets, and Robinson kept his gold medal in a frame in his office. In the 1960s, burglars swiped his prized possession. Police told him they would never find the medal, saying the thieves probably melted it down.
Robinson received a new medal, one he keeps in a secure place. Soon he’ll return to the place where he and his teammates earned gold. If nothing else, there’s one thing Robinson said he wants to take from the trip.
“Memories,” he said.