George Wilson. UC photo

By Herald Digital News

The University of Cincinnati athletics department mourns the loss of men’s basketball great George Wilson, the only Bearcat to win a national championship in 1962 and an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo in 1964. Wilson, 81, died Saturday, July 29.

Wilson averaged 13.2 points per game over his three-year varsity career, including 9.2 in his first year as UC claimed its second-straight title, for 1,124 overall.

His 888 rebounds, 10.4 per game, rank 12th in program history. He came to Clifton as a 1960 Parade First-Team All-American from Marshall High School in Chicago.

“I am saddened to hear the news of George Wilson’s passing,” Wes Miller, head coach, said. “He is a legend in the game of basketball: a national champion, Olympic gold medalist, NBA player, proud Bearcat and a trailblazer in his era. I was fortunate to spend time with him on multiple occasions over the last two years. Our entire Cincinnati program sends its regards to George’s family, loved ones and those he impacted over his lifetime.”

Wilson was a two-time NCAA All-Tournament team honoree, first in 1962 and again in 1963, as the Bearcats reached the title game for the third-straight season. He was a Second-Team All-American in 1963 by Converse and The Sporting News.

He was drafted in 1964 by the Cincinnati Royals as a center and also played for the Chicago Bulls, Seattle SuperSonics, Phoenix Suns, Philadelphia 76ers and Buffalo Braves through 1971. Wilson was inducted into UC’s Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.

Wilson was born in Meridian, Mississippi, on May 9, 1942, and grew up on the west side of Chicago.He attended Marshall High School and led the Commandos basketball team as a center to four straight appearances in the Chicago Public League, winning the Illinois state championships in 1958 and 1960.

As a senior, he was named a high school All-American after three seasons of averaging 25, 27, and 26 points per game, and in 1960 he was the inaugural winner of the Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year award. Wilson was named All-State three years.

Recruited by many colleges, he chose to attend the University of Cincinnati primarily because of his admiration of Bearcats star Oscar Robertson. As a sophomore in his first year on the varsity in 1961–62, he broke into the starting lineup for Ed Jucker‘s Bearcats in the 14th game, and for the season he averaged 9.2 points per game. The Bearcats were co-champions of the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) and posted a record of 29–2, capping off the season by winning the NCAA championship game over Ohio State 71–59, the Bearcats’ second consecutive national title.

George Wilson, with the UC Bearcats Olympic basketball championship team standing by him, accepts an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo in 1964. Provided

As a junior in 1962–63, Wilson led the Bearcats with 11.2 rebounds per game, a .505 field goal percentage. and 1.4 blocked shots to go with 15.0 points per game. He was named All-MVC, and he was named second-team All-American by The Sporting News and Converse. The Bearcats went 26–2, again won the MVC and advanced to the NCAA championship game for the third consecutive season, but they were beaten by Loyola University Chicago in overtime, 60–58.

In his senior season of 1963–64, Wilson (who was team co-captain with Ron Bonham) again led the Bearcats in rebounding with 12.5 per game, field goal percentage at .535 and blocked shots with 1.7 per game. He set a new Bearcats record with eight blocked shots in a game against Dayton. He also scored 16.1 points per game as he was again named All-MVC. The Bearcats finished the season 17–9.

Wilson was a member of the 1964 U.S. Olympic basketball team, which went undefeated and won the gold medal.

The Cincinnati Royals selected Wilson with their territorial selection in the 1964 NBA draft. In November 1966, the Royals traded Wilson to the Chicago Bulls for Len Chappell. He played as a backup for the Bulls, focusing on defense and rebounding.

The Seattle SuperSonics acquired Wilson from the Bulls in the 1967 NBA expansion draft. He played as a reserve forward for the inaugural SuperSonics and averaged 6.1 points per game. The following year, the Phoenix Suns acquired Wilson from the SuperSonics in the 1968 NBA expansion draft.

In January 1969, the Suns traded Wilson to the Philadelphia 76ers for Jerry Chambers. He played for the 76ers as a reserve while Lucious Jackson was injured. The Buffalo Braves selected Wilson from the 76ers in the 1970 NBA expansion draft. He retired from the NBA in 1971.

Wilson graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1964 with a degree in education. He was also a member of the Beta Eta chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.

In 2006 Wilson was voted as one of the 100 Legends of the IHSA Boys Basketball Tournament, a group of former players and coaches in honor of the 100th anniversary of the IHSA boys basketball tournament. In 2010 Wilson was inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame.

Wilson worked as a YMCA director and lived in Fairfield, Ohio. He competed in the Senior Olympics in golf, basketball and horseshoes.

Of all his experiences, Wilson said his Olympic memories will always stand out.

“When they put those gold medals around our necks, I don’t know how I could have had a bigger smile,” he said. “I think I cracked the corners of my mouth smiling so big. I was like a little kid at Christmas.”

As a high school basketball state champion, a college basketball national champion and Olympic basketball world champion, Wilson’s name could have easily be preceded by a string of impressive titles. Instead, he’d prefer people just call him “Big George.” And those who really know him, especially his old teammates, called him “Jif,” a nickname that stuck because he could jump as high as the kangaroo mascot that debuted on Jif peanut butter’s label in 1958.

That’s about the same year that Jif, the player, first leaped onto the basketball scene to lead Marshall High School, an all-Back team from Chicago, to the first of two Illinois state championships. Recruited by many colleges, Big George chose UC because of his admiration for his hero, Oscar Robertson.

“The Olympic experience is the greatest thing ever,” he said. “There is nothing like it.”

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