I love history, basketball, and being a contrarian, so you’ll have to excuse me as I combine those three loves to select my favorite Olympic moment.
The year is 1936. Images of Jesse Owens making Hitler’s Nazi ideology look foolish are surely running through your mind. However, that’s not the Olympic moment I’m selecting as my favorite. I’m selecting instead the gold-medal basketball game played on August 14 between the United States and Canada.
The game itself was a dreadful affair, from all accounts. It was played on an outdoor dirt court (formerly a tennis court) on an overcast day. According to the New York Times, the court was “swept by wind and rain and deep in mud.” As for the final score? 19-8, USA.
It wasn’t just the low scoring and the outdoor court that made the inauguration of Olympic basketball a bush league event. The U.S. didn’t even get the chance to play Spain, its first round opponent, because of the Spanish Civil War. Later in the games, the U.S. lockers were burglarized, forcing the Americans to play the Philippines with a makeshift set of uniforms. Halfway through the tourney, Japan led a contingent of countries seeking to pass a rule change for international basketball that would only allow players 6-foot-3 and under to compete (the rule change was tabled).
But you have to start somewhere, and for Olympic basketball, 1936 was the year. The inventor of basketball, James Naismith, reported to the New York Times that “I never thought I’d live to see the day when [basketball] would be played in the Olympics.” For Naismith, basketball in Berlin was the culmination of his life’s work. We now know that it was much more than a culmination: it was a beginning.
Seventy-six years later, Olympic basketball is arguably the most popular, profitable, and prominent piece of the Summer Olympic Games. Buoyed by the celebrity of the Dream Team in 1992, American basketball stars receive heroes’ welcomes. And even though the international level of play has greatly increased, American basketball remains the cream of the crop.
To think that America won its first basketball gold on a muddy outdoor court is a beautiful contrast from the commercialized and polished game of today. It’s a reminder of the romantic notion of competing for the love of the game, a notion that has long since disappeared from the reality of the American sports scene, but which we still try to pretend exists every four years when the summer Olympics roll around.
For that reason, when I root for the U.S. basketball team this year, and when I see LeBron James dunk, Kevin Love rebound, and Chris Paul thread the needle with a bounce pass, I’ll think back to the faceless stars of the 1936 squad. I’ll think of a dirt court turned to mud, and Joe Fortenberry, Frank Lubin, Francis Johnson, and the rest of the Americans slogging through the elements to bring basketball gold back to America for the first time.
Carson Cunningham, American Hoops: U.S. Men’s Olympic Basketball from Berlin to Beijing (2009)
Brad Herzog, “The Dream Team of 1936” in Sports Illustrated (July 22, 1996)