In 1936, basketball got its start in the Olympics.
Basketball first featured as a demonstration sport at St Louis 1904, but it wasn’t until Berlin 1936 that hoops gained official Olympic status.
The tournament was played at the Tennis Stadium, which used clay courts, and was the first and last time the Olympics held its basketball event outside.
Twenty-two teams converged on Berlin to compete, with James Naismith in attendance at age 74. He did the opening toss of the first game, a 34-29 win for Estonia over France, to honor his invention of the sport. He also awarded the medals at the end of the event.
The whole thing took one week, beginning Aug. 7 with nine games in the first round and concluding Aug. 14 with the gold and bronze medal matches. USA won gold, defeating Canada, 19-8, in the final, with American Joe Fortenberry leading all scorers at eight points. Mexico claimed bronze to keep all three medals in North America, toppling Poland, 26-12, for third place.
The gold medal game was one of the most memorable ever played. It remains the only one to ever endure a rain storm, and it would be a shock if any others experienced the same fate.
“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,” USA captain Bill Wheatley said in 1984. “By now that dirt court was so muddy and slippery that nobody could run much or dribble a ball on it! But the Germans just wanted to get it over with, so we played two 20-minute halves in front of 500 umbrellas that I think had people under them!”
One journalist who was covering the game wrote that it was “almost like watching a water polo game.”
Scoring was much lower then than it is now, but the conditions for the gold medal decider made it a low-scoring affair even by contemporary standards. USA led 15-4 at half, and with the court barely intact, it was content to hunker down and hold the lead until the final whistle. The teams combined for eight points in the second half.
Wheatley described some of the other features of the 1936 tournament that were unrecognizable from the modern game.
“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,” he explained. “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,” he continued. “Mostly we passed the ball up court anyway and, except for layups, we shot everything two-handed, which was what everybody did in those days.”
It would be the first of 15 men’s basketball golds USA would win between then and now, the most of any country by 13. The Soviet Union owns two (1972, 1988), and Yugoslavia (1980) and Argentina (2004) have one each. The women’s tournament was added in 1976 with the Soviet Union earning gold. USA has taken eight gold medals in the women’s event, while the USSR is second with two (1976, 1980) and the Unified Team – consisting of 12 of 15 former Soviet republics – claimed gold in 1992.
In 2015, a gold medal from USA’s victory in 1936 was sold at auction for $66.632.
“This was a situation where we had not seen any times from a member of that team ever come to the market,” appraiser Grant Zahajko said at the time. “This was an important medal in that it belonged to a member of the first gold medal-winning U.S. basketball team competing in the first Olympics to include basketball as an event. However, this team was made up of amateurs and the medal had a hole drilled in it by the medal winner’s wife so it could be worn as a pendant, causing me to believe that it would sell at the lower end of the values. Despite the lower level of athletes competing in the event that year and the condition issues, the importance of this being from the first year basketball was an Olympic sport, and that the USA won it, made this even more desirable than I expected.”
1936 Berlin Olympics
The 1936 Olympics in Berlin are remembered for much more than its basketball tournament. The 1936 Games were the first to air on television, the first to hold the now-famous torch relay from Greece to the current Olympics host location, 12-year-old Inge Sorensen won bronze in the 200m breaststroke, making the Dane the youngest-ever medalist in an individual event, and American 13-year-old Marjorie Gestring took home gold in springboard diving. Gestring is still the youngest female to win gold at the Summer Olympics.
But what the 1936 Olympics is really remembered for is the backdrop in which it occurred: Nazi Germany. It was a few years before Germany invaded Poland, but the first concentration camps had already opened. This was Adolf Hitler’s attempt to prove his racial superiority theories and use the Olympics as a propaganda machine.
“The swastika was all over, on virtually every other banner we saw there was a swastika,” Jewish American sprinter Marty Glickman told the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in 2008.
“These weren’t the Berlin Olympics,” USHMM Director Sara J. Bloomfield said. “These were the Nazi Olympics.”
For the first time ever, there was talk of boycotting the 11th Olympiad. But 49 countries showed up, including the United States, to compete on the world’s biggest stage.
Black American sprinter Jesse Owens and his four gold medals, the first time any athlete had accomplished such a feat at the Olympics, have gone on as the enduring victory of equality over bigotry, supposedly upending the Nazi attempt to prove Aryan supremacy. But at the time, Germany pulling off these Olympics, a logistical success in virtually every metric on a scale previously unseen, was a massive propaganda win regardless of Owens’ triumphs.
“This was a major corruption of the Olympic ideals,” Bloomfield said. “And this was a total propaganda victory for the Nazis. This was creating an illusion of a peaceful and tolerant nation. And the world wanted to believe this illusion, allowing itself to be completely deceived.”