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Mud, wind and a ‘soggy ball’: the story of the USA’s first basketball gold medal

In the 1936 Olympics, basketball was played outdoors on a dirt court. A storm during the final showed why that was such a bad idea.

The 1936 Summer Olympics were, famously, something of a mess. Hosted in Berlin, they provided Hitler’s regime the perfect canvas from which to propagandize, and the rest of the world knew it. But we’re not going to talk about the Nazis today. At least, not very much. Because the Berlin Olympics weren’t just notable for providing PR cover to a murderous parade of genocides. They were also the coming out party for America and Olympic Basketball.

Team USA won gold, of course — I won’t make you wait for that non-shocker — but their journey there was a fiasco which culminated in one of the weirdest, muddiest basketball games of all time. Let’s explore.

1936 US Olympic Basketball Team
The winning team
Getty Images

Expectations for the American team’s first Olympic venture were naturally high. While international basketball was just becoming A Thing, college hoops had been thriving for decades, leaving the United States the obvious favorite in a sport which was only just starting to catch on with the rest of the world.

Indeed, basketball was so popular in the States that it was expected to power the rest of the American Olympic delegation. Back then, teams were meant to be self-funding, which meant they had to raise the cost of travel themselves. Avery Brundage, President of the American Olympic Committee, hoped that basketball might change that, bringing in enough cash during qualifying tournaments that the smaller sports didn’t have to scramble to fund themselves.

This was a nice idea that went badly wrong. At the end of June, Brundage was forced to announce that the AOC had a funding deficit of $146,000. Basketball hadn’t solved their problems. In fact, the proposed American basketball team of 13 players and three coaches hadn’t even managed to fund itself.

Things had gotten heated long before that point. The AOC at large clashed with their director of basketball, Phog Allen, who was both one of the most important figures in the history of the game and the man who had done more than anyone else to get the sport to the Olympics. Eventually Dr. Allen quit his post, citing ‘deceitful political bartering;’ the AOC responded with the outrageous claim that he’d never actually worked with them in the first place.

Avery Brundage
Avery Brundage. Would you trust a man who wore this tie?

Brundage, meanwhile, was thwarting the proposed boycott of Hitler’s games and proudly embracing anti-Semitic support: “[T]he fact that the Jews are against us will arouse interest among thousands of people who have never subscribed before, if they are properly approached.” According to Carolyn Mervyn, writing decades later, Brundage’s political interest (although, like all of his ilk, he claimed that there was no space in sports for politics) was in thwarting communism, and he considered Nazi Germany a friend in that venture. This is all to say Avery Brundage was a huge asshole.

How big an asshole? Well, on the Olympic basketball front, he managed to forget a basketball enthusiast named Dr. James Naismith. If you’re not familiar with the history of sport, this is notable because Dr. Naismith invented basketball. The Lincoln Evening Journal quotes Olympic referee Jim Tobin as claiming that Naismith, then 74, was deliberately omitted from the guest list:

Dr. Naismith arrived in Germany without even a pass to see a game. We managed to get him a pass for all games, but it was not [through] the American Olympic committee’s efforts. He was ignored there and his name was stricken from the pass list. What’s more, no ceremony was planned for Dr. Naismith, who is naturally the most important figure in basketball.

While Naismith (who was invited, eventually to hand out the medals after the final) languished, Brundage was amusing himself by kicking swimmer Eleanor Holm off the team. According to Brundage’s version of events, Holm, who’d won gold in the 100-meter backstroke at the 1932 Games had been discovered ‘in an alcoholic coma.’ According to Holm’s, she had violated curfew and had had a few glasses of champagne but was busted by a staffer and referred to Brundage, who had previously put Holm on his naughty list after she had refused to sleep with him. I find one version of these events somewhat more plausible than the other.

(Holm, incidentally, refused to go away, and was in fact hired by the International News Service as a sports journalist to report on the U.S. Olympians. I find this funny for reasons I’m not sure I can fully articulate.)

Surely, though, the actual basketball would be less of a mess? Friends, it would not. The warning signs were there early, sounded by Val Bouryschkine, who, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, wrote to Allen detailing the expected conditions of Berliner hoops.

Play in the Olympics will be on gravel (ed note: Bouryschkine appears to mean very fine gravel — see image below). This presents several difficulties such as the impossibility of a good dribble, accurate long shots, or, in case of rain, a slippery ball. Also, the referees are unusually strict on pivots, and very often call them traveling. There is no center line, and any stalling and freezing of the ball is perfectly legal.

Basketball, scene from a match, probably from the 1936 Olympics
Probably from the ‘36 games. Note the dirt/gravel ‘court’.
Lothar Ruebelt/ullstein bild via Getty Images

To the Americans, for whom basketball had been a wholly mature sport for decades, the notion of playing on gravel rather than nice maple floors was both alien and deeply concerning. But the US basketball team was far too good to let that stop them. Drawn from the best amateur teams in the country, they featured players like Joe Fortenberry, immortalized as the world’s first dunker, and Willard Schmidt, who may well have been the second (but wasn’t the MLB pitcher).

They were also big. The McPherson Globe Refiners, who contributed six to the Olympic roster, were described by one gushing sportswriter in the Corsicana Daily Sun as “the sky-scrapingest group of hoopsters ever assembled under one banner,” which just goes to show how far the art of writing has declined since mid-century. Tolkien would have given ‘cellar door’ far shorter shrift had he ever come across prose like this.

The US beat Estonia 52-28 in their first matchup, then dispatched the Philippines 56-23 in their second. This was actually the fourth round, because a) the US had received a bye and b) Spain hadn’t showed up for what would have been their first match. This is normally blamed on the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, led to the death of Federico García Lorca three days after the gold medal game. But the liberal Spanish government was planning on boycotting the Games anyway, so the Civil War mostly meant that Spain extra extra didn’t show up.

Having reached the semifinals, the gulf in class began contracting. Mexico managed to hold the Americans to a mere 25 points, but they couldn’t do anything in return in a 25-10 game. Canada, meanwhile, had romped to victory against Poland in the other semi, beating them 42-15. A delicious-looking gold medal matchup was on offer.

But. Remember Bouryschkine’s warning? “Or, in case of rain, a slippery ball.” That hadn’t been tested until the final, but on August 15th an afternoon storm hammered Berlin, and it turned out that that warning had actually been understated. Not only did the ball get slippery, it was so wet out that it ended up downright waterlogged. Oh, and increasingly high winds made it almost impossible to pass. To top things off, the ‘gravel’ court turned out to have been a gravel-on-dirt court, which quickly degraded into ‘mudpit’.

The image I have in my head for this game — sadly I can’t find any footage online — is essentially the funniest basketball game of all time. The Montreal Gazette does nothing to dispel this impression, noting that the court had been turned “into a skating rink by the incessant downpour” and that “a high wind did weird things with a soggy ball,” a phrase I think I must add to my earlier digression on ‘30s sportswriter prose.

The second half, if you’ll credit it, was even worse. “[T]he teams were so worn out from trucking through the mud, and cold from the raw wind that they slowed to a walk.” This honestly sounds more like a description of Passchendaele than a basketball game. In fact basketball can barely be said to have been played after halftime at all: eight points were scored. In total. All half.

Illustration of a very muddy basketball court Art: Tyson Whiting

The final score was a hilarious 19-8 in favor of the Americans (top scorer Fortenberry matched the Canadians singlehanded), who presumably had a nice long wash between extracting themselves from their miserable mudbowl and accepting their medals. These “towering men with speed to burn and sharp-shooting eyes” had won the first of the United States’ many basketball golds, overcoming a bizarre set of scandals and an incredible attack by the forces of nature herself.

For some reason, when the Olympics returned after World War II, basketball had been moved to an indoor court.