The Caterpillar Visitors Center is a fascinating look at the company, the iron and the people making sustainable progress possible around the world.Learn More
After the success of the Peoria Cats in the 1952 Olympics and 1954 World Championship, the best opponents in the world sought the opportunity to compete against Caterpillar’s team – including the 1956 U.S. Olympic Basketball Team. On October 30, 1956, the Peoria Cats played against the U.S. Olympic Basketball Team at the Field House in Peoria, Ill. when the Olympians were on an exhibition tour throughout the nation. While the Peoria Cats lost to the touring Olympians 73-67, they held strong against the team which had future NBA Hall of Famers (including KC Jones and Bill Russell).
In 1958, the Peoria Cats celebrated their fourth AAU title and won the right to represent the U.S. in an AAU exhibition tour of Russia – and they were the first Western team do so. The Peoria Cats swept the tour in Moscow, Tbilisi and Leningrad. Memorabilia from this historic win is currently on display at the Caterpillar Visitors Center.
"It was a unique experience, that's for sure," said Bert Born of the Peoria Cats. "They treated us fine. We'd go for walks from our hotel and after a while we would notice about 40 or 50 people following us. It was mostly youngsters who wanted to practice their English and learn of America.”
When the NBA's No. 1 overall choice of the 1959 draft, Bob Boozer, an All-American from Kansas State, spurned Cincinnati's pro franchise to play for Caterpillar, the Peoria Cats tacked on their last AAU championship win.
In 1960, the Peoria Cats continued to win in the Olympic Trials, and weren’t stopped until the NCAA University All-Stars (Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, etc.) ran past the Peoria Cats 124-97 in the championship game. Boozer and Al Kelley were still picked to represent the U.S. team in the Rome Olympics that year and Warren Womble, coach of the Peoria Cats, served as the assistant coach of the U.S. team. Boozer and Kelley won a gold medal with the Olympic team after they won eight games by an average of 42.4 points. The team was later inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
Escalating salaries offered by NBA franchises and the beginning of televised games caused Caterpillar to think twice about continuing its program. Caterpillar decided to end its sponsorship of the Peoria Cats in 1960 and the National Industrial Basketball League was disbanded a few years later.
Former Caterpillar basketball players recently unveiled an exhibit honoring the team at the Caterpillar Visitors Center, which will be open until June 30.
Click here to see a sneak peek of the exhibit.
Seven members of the Caterpillar Diesels/Peoria Cats basketball team reunited for the first time publicly in nearly 60 years to unveil the new basketball exhibit at the Caterpillar Visitors Center.Learn More