Meet the Oldest Living U.S. Olympic Basketball Player

Sixty four years have passed since Ray Lumpp won his gold medal

Sixty-four years ago, Ray Lumpp climbed aboard the London-bound S.S. America along with 240 other members of the U.S. Olympic team.

The ship departed from New York City where politicians, celebrities, and a 60-piece band provided fanfare for the largest of several sendoffs on July 14, 1948.

"Grace Kelly was on board-her husband Jack Kelly was an oarsman," recalled Lumpp, who holds the honor of being the oldest living U.S. Olympic basketball player. "She was given a lot of attention by the press."

Lumpp, who in 1948 was a 25-year-old NYU basketball star with an Elvis grin, had said goodbye to his pregnant wife and toddler a month earlier before heading to Kentucky to train. Besides the occasional letter, they wouldn't communicate for another month when Lumpp would return home with his gold medal.

"The Olympians didn't bring their families over," said Lumpp, an NBA alumnus who recently retired as director of the New York Athletic Club after 47 years. "Not like today. They didn't make arrangements in those days."

That the Olympic Games even took place in 1948 was remarkable. The 14th Olympiad (London's second) was the first following a 12-year wartime hiatus that left much of Europe so bomb-scarred and broke that it was uncertain if organizing such a large-scale, international event would be possible.

But London - despite its on-going food and fuel shortages - managed to organize an inspirational event that paved the way for future Games. With just two years to prepare - compared with eight years leading up to London 2012 - organizers scrambled for resources, refurbished existing venues and opened the Games on time.

It was on that hastily arranged stage where some of the innovation and social progress that athletes and spectators today may take for granted, vigorously pushed ahead.

Though the civil rights movement and desegregation were well over a decade away, several concrete steps that the U.S. had taken ahead of the '48 Games made the event a sturdy platform for progress.

A year earlier, Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, breaking baseball's racial barrier, and days before the Opening Ceremony, President Harry Truman signed an executive order that would desegregate the U.S. military. 

These seeds of social progress were already growing aboard the S.S. America where Lumpp was sharing a room with Hall of Famer Don Barksdale, the only black player on the U.S. basketball team. Arthur Jackson, a white rifle shooter, shook hands with a black person for the first time in his life, according to an account in Janie Hampton's "The Austerity Olympics."

Herb Douglas, one of the eight black athletes on the 65-member track and field team, had fond memories of the Games.

"For most of us, that was a very nice experience, because a lot of us had never witnessed the way we were welcomed over there from the social standpoint."

He noted that while his homecoming to Pittsburgh, Pa. was one of the greatest moments of his life at the time, some of his other teammates returned home to states that required them to watch news coverage of their Olympic feats from the balconies of movie theaters.

Still, he credits the 1948 Games, and more emphatically, the 1936 Jesse Owens Games, with paving the way for integration in sports.

The Games were also an important step for women, who were limited to nine events (compared with 24 for men) based on the belief that overexertion could damage women's bodies.

Women like "The Flying Housewife" Fanny Blankers-Koen, a 30-year-old mother of two who won gold medals in four track events, helped to chip away at the perception that women were too fragile for athletics.

The '48 Games also saw the debut of international Paralympic competition, initiated in response to the surge of wounded veterans returning from World War II, and were the first Games to use photo-finish technology.

Harrison "Bones" Dillard, a four-time Olympic gold medalist won his first at the '48 Games, thanks to a finish line snapshot. Though he says he knew he won the 100-meter race ahead of Barney Ewell, who instantly began celebrating, the photo made it official.

"Barney went into a victory dance, jumping up and down." Dillard said. "Lloyd LaBeach [the third-place winner] had a good view and I remember, prior to the official announcement, he said to Barney, 'no man, you didn't win, Bones won.'"

The historic moment was broadcast live, along with other major sporting events, and watched from television sets across the U.K.-another transformative first, on which the 2012 Olympics continue to build.

This year, every minute of competition will be livestreamed, giving anyone with an Internet connection the opportunity front-row access as the Olympics return to London to build upon the legacies of one of the most improbable Games in history.

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