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1936 Olympic basketball: quirky ball on a dirt court

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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.


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