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Berry Tramel: Lester Lane's dream team to be inducted without him

by Berry Tramel Modified: August 7, 2010 at 9:53 pm •  Published: August 7, 2010
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The Basketball Hall of Fame this week honors the dream team with induction.

Not the Jordan/Bird/Magic squad.

The original dream team. The 1960 U.S. Olympic team that ushered in a new era of hoops, in which colleges would seed stars for the NBA.

That 1960 team included four players who would beat their Olympic teammates into the Springfield, Mass., Hall of Fame.

Oscar Robertson. Jerry West. Walt Bellamy. Jerry Lucas.

Also on that team were future NBA rookie of the year Terry Dischinger and longtime NBA players Bob Boozer, Adrian Smith and Darrall Imhoff.

But the starting point guard on the Olympic team that will be inducted Tuesday night was a throwback. A 5-foot-11, 28-year-old veteran of the AAU industrial leagues that dominated international basketball in the 1950s.

Lester Lane, the pride of Purcell and a 1955 OU All-American, quarterbacked that team of Oscar and West, Lucas and Bellamy.

Sadly, Lane won't be in Springfield this week with his 11 Olympic teammates. He died of a heart attack on Sept. 5, 1973, at the age of 41.

Lane's untimely death cheated him out of much more than an Olympic reunion.

* * *

The call came on a Tuesday down in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. Would Lane be available to fly to Norman to interview for his alma mater's head coaching job?

Would he ever. Lane loved OU.

He had grown up just one county south, in Purcell, where he was a legendary athlete. Lane had led the Dragons to the 1950 Class B basketball state championship and set a state scoring record (2,384 points) that stood for 17 years. He also was a football star and state pole vault champion.

At OU, Lane played cornerback two seasons for Bud Wilkinson, then went solely with basketball, in which he was a two-year All-Big Seven pick and a 1955 All-American, averaging 19.6 points a game. Lane scored 1,180 career points, a school record that stood for 13 years.

Some pundits took to calling Lane "Lujack," because he would throw jump passes on the basketball court like Notre Dame quarterback Johnny Lujack threw on the gridiron.

After OU, Lane played AAU ball with the Wichita Vickers. After the Olympics, Lane coached AAU, with the Denver-Chicago Truckers, and was hired in 1964 by the Mexican Basketball Federation to coach its national team.

A fifth-place finish in the Mexico City Olympics for the novice Mexicans affirmed Lane's status as a coach. He coached in Spain the next year; went to Altus, his wife's hometown, for 18 months; and then returned to coaching in Mexico when the call came in April 1973.

Lane had tried to get the Oklahoma State job a few weeks earlier, but the Cowboys hired Guy Strong.

Then John MacLeod left OU for the Phoenix Suns, and while MacLeod's assistant, Joe Ramsey, seemed to be a shoe-in for the job, Lane was told his visit would not be a token interview.

Lane met with OU's athletics council on Thursday, wowing them with his enthusiastic personality, and was offered the job the next day, April 6, 1973.

"He was so thrilled to be back here," said Jan Lane Warner, Lane's widow.

OU point guard Mike McCurdy, who also hailed from Purcell, had just completed his sophomore season and was thrilled.

"In Purcell, he was always considered a legend," McCurdy said. "I felt like I had a little of an inside track with him."

Lane took over a good program from MacLeod. Alvan Adams had just finished his freshman year and already was a dominant center. Good players were around him. The Sooners had gone 18-8 in MacLeod's final year.

"Lester, when we had our first meeting, he was so enthusiastic," McCurdy said. "Had such a desire for OU basketball, to take it to the next level."

Lane liked to play fast. Wanted the Sooners to go up-tempo, which would have fit well with the mobile Adams.

Lane put the Sooners through rigorous offseason conditioning. McCurdy recalls climbing the steps at Memorial Stadium while carrying 100 pounds of weights.

"Your legs would be on fire," McCurdy said. "He made us work hard. We were going to be in shape. We were going to press a lot and run.

"He knew talent. He knew how to win. I think it would have been exciting."

The Lanes bought a house on Macy Street, a few blocks east of campus, and began renovations.

They finally moved in the first week of September. Lester Lane spent one night in his new home.

* * *

The Olympic basketball trials in those days were a tournament. Eight teams, with the winner getting to fill the majority of the U.S. roster.

The teams were the NCAA champion (Ohio State), two NCAA all-star teams, the NAIA all-stars, an armed forces team and three AAU squads, including the Phillips 66ers, who had added Lane to their roster.

For the first time in history, the NCAA all-stars won the tournament with the likes of Robertson and West, two of the 10 best players God ever made.

The Olympic roster was filled out with additions like Lucas off the Ohio State team, and Boozer off the Peoria Caterpillars (AAU), and little Lester Lane off the 66ers.

The team met for a 10-day training camp at West Point, N.Y., then headed for Europe.

Jan Lane Warner didn't get to go to Rome. "We were poor," she said. "We didn't have the money to go."

But Lester regaled her with stories. Lane flew over on a plane with Wilma Rudolph and Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali). "He thoroughly enjoyed it," she said. "He said Cassius Clay was very entertaining on that flight."

Olympic coach Pete Newell settled on a lineup. Lucas and Dischinger down low, West and Robertson on the wings, and Lester Lane at the point.

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by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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