1936 Olympic basketball: quirky ball on a dirt court

The 1930s were a lot of things to a lot of people, many of them involved with the depression, racketeering, kidnapping, and worse. But among the good things the '30s gave us were social security, frozen foods, experimental TV, the five-day workweek, and unemployment insurance.

It was also the decade when the 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin, and the first time a sport invented ay an American (Dr. James Naismith) became an official part of the Games. The sport, of course, was basketball, with the United States beating Canada outdoors, 19-8, in a driving rainstorm on a dirt court for the Gold Medal!

The 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee woke up the echoes of that triumph recently by inviting several members of the 1936 US team to L.A. for a press conference. Actually, they were the guests of the Converse Rubber Company , which manufactured the high-top canvas sneakers they wore in the Berlin Games and has been equipping US Olympic basketball teams with their footwear ever since.

After a series of elimination tournaments around the country, the Universal Pictures (Hollywood) AAU team and the McPherson (Kan.) Globe Oilers met in a one-game playoff to see which would go. Part of the incentive was an all-expense trip to Germany, plus $2 a day for incidentals.

Even though Universal won 44-43, it was decided that the squad would be even stronger if several members of the Oilers were added to the US team. Of the seven-man squad that eventually emerged (plus coach Jim Needles of the University of San Francisco and his assistant, Gene Johnson), Bill Wheatley of the Oilers was named captain.

What comes next is basically Bill Wheatley's story, what he saw, heard, and felt in Berlin that summer.

"Since the Germans didn't know anything about basketball and had no team in the Games, our sport to them was just something to get out of the way as fast as possible. We played all our games outdoors on a dirt-packed court because there were no suitable facilities inside.

"The court was regulation size and we had wooden backboards that were OK," Bill continued. "But the way I remember it, the two referees we always got spoke only German. At least that's the way it was in our championship game against Canada.

"The ball was a lot bigger and heavier than the ones they have today, and there was a slit on one side where you put in the bladder. No matter how tight you laced up that opening with rawhide, there was no way to make that ball perfectly round.

"That, plus the dirt court, made it almost impossible to dribble, even when the ground was dry. Mostly we passed the ball up court anyway and, except for layups, shot everything two-handed, which was what everybody did in those days."

The US needed to win five games to take home the gold medal, and when Spain pulled out at the last minute because of its civil war, the US won on a forfeit, 2-0. After that, Estonia (a Soviet satellite at the time) was beaten 52-28; the Philippines 56-23; Mexico 25-10; and then Canada.

"It rained hard for 24 hours before the final, and when the weather didn't change the next day, we figured the Germans would surely postpone things," Wheatley recalled. "By now that dirt court was so muddy and slippery that nobody could run much or dribble a ball on it.

"But the Germans, as I said before, just wanted to get it over with, so we played two 20-minute halves before 500 umbrellas that I think had people under them.

"The referees were impossible. If you even looked like you were thinking foul, they'd call one on you. But the Canadians were never a threat after the first few minutes. We had like a 14-4 lead at halftime; and in the second half we just protected it. Mostly we were a deliberate team that got the ball inside to our center and worked off him. Defensively, we played man to man."

Only Wheatley, because he was the captain was called up to the winner's platform to receive a gold medal. The others didn't get theirs until later.

Bill kept his medal until a few years ago when, after his house had been burglarized for the third time, he sent it to the basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

What else does Wheatley remember?

"Well, there was no way you could get away from the Hitler influence," he said. "Every morning he used to march 1,000 of his flashiest-dressed troops past the Olympic Village in a kind of show of strength.

"Anyone with an ounce of brains could tell that there was a man and a country getting ready to make war," he continued. "You could see it and feel it, and Hitler flaunted it. I also recall that the German athletes were always anxious to trade with you for anything American. The last thing I remember before going home was giving my straw hat to a Berlin waiter."

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