There is a kid from Coos Bay, Ore. and a graduate of Marshfield High School that ended up winning gold at the Olympics. It’s the happy ending to a story that many hoped would belong to Steve Prefontaine before he tragically died in a car accident at 24 years old. But it actually took place before Pre even started running at Oregon.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, football, basketball and track were the main sports that had some success at Marshfield High School. Some of the football players doubled as members of the basketball team but Mel Counts was just focused on the hardwood. He stayed out of trouble, which was something that Prefontaine also gets credit for out of Coos Bay. There was alcohol and cigarette smoking from classmates but it was not for him. A healthier addiction was found in sports.
Counts, a classmate of Neta Prefontaine (Steve’s older sister), was good and Oregon State started recruiting him as a junior. After several trips to Corvallis to watch them play, he committed to the Beavers and continued to play well. He reached the Final Four as a junior in 1963 and received attention from NBA scouts. The Celtics ended up taking him with the seventh pick in the 1964 NBA draft.
I’m way too young to remember the 1960 Olympic team that featured Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas and other future NBA Hall of Famers that won gold in Rome. That team was loaded but then the 1964 Olympic team was not as strong. Counts was coming off his senior year with the Beavers and decided to attend the Team USA tryouts in Los Angeles. The coaches selected the six best NCAA and the six best AAU players were selected for the Summer Games in Tokyo. Counts made the cut.
It’s the same Olympics that saw several U.S. breakouts on the track including Billy Mills winning the 10,000 meters.
“That was huge!” Counts recalls. “He came out of nowhere. Bob Hayes was the fastest human being in the world at the time too.”
Counts, now 75 years old, still remembers spending a few weeks in Tokyo for the lead-up to the Games. He laughs thinking about how the whole team didn’t stay on a fancy ship or away from the rest of Team USA but in dorm-style quarters with the whole team. He doesn’t forget that the closest call came against Yugoslavia, who the U.S. only beat by eight points. He’s quick to note that they beat the Soviets by 14 points in the championship.
“We didn’t get to enjoy a lot of the other sports,” Counts says. “One day we’d have a game in the morning and then we’d have to work out in the afternoon. It all went back to the leadership and coaching of that team. Coach Hank Iba kept us focused and our feet on the ground by telling us that we were there to represent the United States. It worked and we got the job done.”
“We may have had one of the least talented teams in the Olympics but were probably one of the best conditioned teams at the Olympics,” Count says. “We played as a team because we didn’t have any overpowering superstar. Jerry Shipp was an AAU player and led us in scoring but there wasn’t one person who could take over the game.”
Counts was a first-round draft pick but then found himself playing behind Bill Russell on the Boston Celtics. Counts has no qualms about how his career turned out as he got to win championships with Boston in 1965 and 1966. He had a front-row seat to watching one of the greatest basketball players ever.
“Two NCAA championships back-to-back. Olympic gold from 1956. 11 championships with another two coming as a coach.” Counts says. “If I were to start a team today, I’d pick him. People talk about Jordan all the time and sure, he was more talented in certain areas but Bill was a winner. Jordan has six championships but Russell has 11 as a player and two as a coach.”
Counts went on to play for the Baltimore Bullets for a season before spending three years with the Los Angeles Lakers, where he made three consecutive NBA finals but fell short each time. In Game 7 of the 1969 Finals, Counts replaced Wild Chamberlain after the legend picked up his fifth foul with six minutes remaining in the game and appeared to be injured. Counts hit a shot that would bring the Lakers within one point but head coach Butch van Breda Kolff kept Chamberlain on the bench and the Lakers lost 108–106.
Counts enjoyed a few more years in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns, Philadelphia 76ers, a second stint with the Lakers from 1972 to 1974 before playing and retiring in New Orleans after the 1976 season.
“It was a great career and I got to see not just the United States but a whole lot of the world because of it,” “A gold medal is a gold medal and this is one that no one could ever take away from me,” Counts says.
Counts found his way back to Oregon and was convinced by a friend to get into real estate, which he’s been doing for the past 32 years.