Eighty-five-year-old Francis Johnson is in a zone--a 2-1-2 zone,
to be exact. With his eyes ablaze and his hands in motion, he
has lifted himself out of his chair to describe how he and his
teammates defended the basket those many years ago.
A visitor to the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield, Mo., has no
trouble picking out Johnson's house: It's the one with the
Olympic flag flying in the front yard. Inside, the den is
dominated by a framed photo of the 14 members of the 1936 U.S.
Olympic basketball team. Johnson is the man in the middle, with
the ball at his feet.
From a closet Johnson pulls the hat and sweater vest he wore
during the opening ceremonies at Berlin's Olympic Stadium. He
gingerly removes his gold medal from a box. He cradles the
champion's laurel wreath, now dried with age, that was placed on
his head by Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball. The
memories come at him like a fast break. "You know," Johnson says
with a grin, "I was the Michael Jordan of my day."
As the 1996 Games in Atlanta approach, Johnson's thoughts often
turn to Germany six decades ago, when basketball became part of
the Olympics and he became a gold medalist. Of the 14 members of
the U.S.'s first Olympic basketball team, only Johnson and three
others--Sam Balter, 86, of Los Angeles; Frank Lubin, 86, of
Glendale, Calif.; and Duane Swanson, 82, of Waterman, Ill.--are
July 21, 1996
Several of these '36 Olympians earned subsequent sporting
acclaim. Johnson, for example, raised prizewinning Appaloosa
horses. Balter was a sports broadcaster and newspaper columnist
in Los Angeles. Lubin became known as the godfather of
Lithuanian basketball after he led his ancestral country to the
European championship in 1939.
Basketball had been part of the Olympic program at the 1904
Games in St. Louis, but there were only five teams, all from the
U.S., and so the sport was only a demonstration event. Thanks in
part to persuasion by Phog Allen, the legendary Kansas coach, in
1936 basketball was officially recognized as an Olympic sport.
The U.S. roster was decided early in April when eight teams, all
of which had survived a qualifying tournament, gathered in New
York City's Madison Square Garden for the finals. There were
five college squads, one YMCA team and two Amateur Athletic
Union squads (the McPherson Globe Oilers from Kansas and
Universal Pictures from Hollywood, which had faced off in the
AAU national finals two weeks earlier in Denver).
Unfortunately the AAU teams had to pay their way to the Garden.
"They told us to get to New York on our own," Johnson remembers.
"The oil refinery I worked for, in McPherson, told us if we went
to the Olympics we wouldn't have jobs when we got back." With
one exception, they went anyway. The Universal Pictures squad
encountered similar problems when, according to Lubin, the
studio stopped supporting the team to protest U.S. participation
in the Nazi-run Olympics. And so the nation's prospective
Olympians had to barnstorm their way East.
The Universals and the Oilers met again in the finals. The
Oilers had won in Denver, but this time Hollywood's hoopsters
prevailed by a point, 44-43.
By winning the game, Universal won the right to fill half of the
Olympic roster. The players chosen were Balter, Swanson, Lubin,
Carl Knowles, Art Mollner, Donald Piper and Carl Shy. Balter
became the only Jewish athlete to compete for the U.S. Olympic
team. McPherson supplied six players: Joe Fortenberry, John
(Tex) Gibbons, Johnson, Jack Ragland, Willard Schmidt and Bill
Like the 1992 Dream Team, the 1936 U.S. basketball squad
included one college player, University of Washington center
Ralph Bishop. James Needles, from Universal, was named head
coach. Gene Johnson of the Oilers, Francis's older brother, was
In July the entire U.S. Olympic team set sail for Europe aboard
the S.S. Manhattan. The basketball players were accompanied by
Naismith, then 74, who was to be honored during the Games for
having invented the sport 45 years earlier. Neither he nor any
of the players could imagine what lay ahead. More than a
generation later Balter wrote of the experience: "We had hoped
to display to sports fans of other countries the skills, the
science and the speed of this native American game. Instead, a
comedy of errors and unfortunate circumstances had combined to
make a sandlot affair of what should have been the greatest
basketball tournament ever."
When he arrived in Berlin, Naismith discovered that no ceremony
had been arranged to honor him at the opening of the basketball
competition. In fact, he was denied entrance to the Games. His
friends scrambled to set things straight, and on Aug. 7,
Naismith stood proudly as all 21 basketball-playing countries
paraded past him. But his sport, having reached middle age at
home, was in its infancy everywhere else, and the organizers
weren't ready for it.
To the surprise of many, the International Basketball Federation
tried to take the big men out of the game, attempting at the
11th hour to pass a rule banning all players taller than 6'3".
Facing the loss of half its team, the U.S. objected. The rule
was withdrawn, but another restriction, mandating no more than
seven players on a team per game, was imposed. As a result the
U.S. alternated seven-man squads. The seven Universals would
play the first game, the six Oilers and Bishop would play the
To make matters worse, the games were to be played outdoors, on
courts made of clay and sand. "The Nazi mentality, which was
supposed to be the apotheosis of detail and organization, had
certainly misfired," wrote Balter. "Why hadn't the Master
Organizers bothered to find out basketball was an indoor game?"
The German version of a basketball resembled a slightly warped
soccer ball. "It wasn't heavy like a regular basketball," says
Johnson. "You would shoot it, and the wind might catch it and
blow it three or four feet to the side."
The U.S. began with a forfeit victory over Spain, whose team had
been called home because of the start of the Spanish civil war.
The Universal players trounced Estonia 52-28 in the second
round, and the McPherson platoon followed with a 56-23 victory
over the Philippines. A 25-10 U.S. triumph over Mexico in the
semifinals set up a gold medal encounter between Naismith's
native Canada and his adopted U.S. Unfortunately, it turned out
to be what Balter later described as "a priceless bit of
The U.S. coaches decided to go with a final-round squad of
Johnson, Fortenberry, Ragland, and Wheatley from McPherson;
Knowles and Shy from Hollywood; and Bishop. That left out Lubin
and Swanson, something they still haven't come to terms with 60
years later. "We earned our way up there," Swanson insists. "We
earned our way to the top."
As it was, they had to watch as faces in the crowd. And then it
rained. A first-half drizzle turned into a second-half downpour.
"It was just horrible," says Lubin. "And the water stayed on the
court. It was almost like watching a water-polo game."
The players' uniforms were muddied within minutes as they slid
through the grime chasing a ball so waterlogged that it felt
like a medicine ball. "A dribble was not a dribble," Balter
would remember. "It was a splash." After leading 15-4 at
halftime, the U.S. spent the rest of the game playing catch. The
final score was 19-8, with Fortenberry matching the score of the
entire Canadian team.
How would the Depression-era basketball pioneers compare to the
millionaire Olympians of today? "Basketball is a game of skill,
but it's also a game of knowing what each player is going to
do," Johnson says. "I think we would fare well against them."
Maybe. But Johnson and his teammates are getting up there in age.
Brad Herzog's last story for Sports Illustrated was about Jackie
Robinson's 1946 season.