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Tar Heel Firsts: UNC’s first basketball Olympian

A very notable name was the first Tar Heel to compete on the Olympic basketball court.

UCLA v SMU Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Olympics would have been this summer, but they’ve wisely been pushed back to 2021 due to that whole worldwide pandemic thing. That means we’ll have to watch any Tar Heels from various sports compete on the world stage.

There will undoubtedly be plenty in Tokyo, as history tells us that many, many UNC athletes have taken part over the years. One of the sports that has produced the most Tar Heel Olympians is, unsurprisingly, men’s basketball.

School legends like Charlie Scott, Phil Ford, and Michael Jordan have all competed and won gold medals, while Dean Smith coached the 1976 school to one as well. However, the first UNC athlete to be a men’s basketball Olympian is quite a notable name as well.

Men’s basketball made its Olympic debut back in 1936, and it’s been a fixture at the games since. However, no Tar Heel athlete competed in the first five editions of the tournament. That changed with the 1964 games.

Larry Brown was a first-team All-ACC player for Dean Smith’s second ever UNC team in 1962-63. At 14.2 points per game, he was the second leading scorer behind Billy Cunningham. A little over a year after that season, Brown made the USA’s 1964 Olympic squad, which was headlined by future Hall of Famer Bill Bradley and UCLA star Walt Hazzard. Legendary Oklahoma State coach Henry Iba helmed the team from the bench

The men’s basketball event at the Olympics was a 16-team tournament, that began with the teams being divided into two eight-team groups and playing a group stage. The US began play against Australia, and crushed them by 33 points.

They followed that up with easy wins over Finland, Peru, and Uruguay, setting up a game against Yugoslavia, one of the other strongest teams in the competition. The US led by just one at the half before eventually squeaking out a nine-point win. They then got past a Brazil team that had won the World Championships the year before, beating and dooming the US to a fourth-place finish. There wouldn’t be a repeat of that as the Americans crushed them this time around, winning by over 30.

One last win over South Korea got the US into the medal round with a perfect 7-0 record. They were matched up with the second placed team from the other group, which was Puerto Rico. The US trailed by one at the half before dominating the second to win by 20 to advance to the Gold Medal game.

Awaiting them in the Gold Medal game was the Soviet Union. They would not face any more scares this time around. The US took an eight-point lead into the break and extended out to a final margin of 14 to bring home the Gold. Brown scored six points on 3-5 off the bench in the win.

This would not be Brown’s only Olympic experience. He was set to be an assistant coach on the 1980 US squad in the Moscow games, however they never went as the US boycotted the games.

He did get a chance as head coach in 2004, but that didn’t go as well as anyone would’ve hoped. The US went 3-2 in the group stage before losing to Argentina in the semifinals and having to settle for the Bronze Medal.

Thanks to his Gold Medal from 1964, Brown’s name will forever be up in the rafters as one of the honored players from UNC history