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 The rule was withdrawn, but another restriction, mandating no more than seven players on a team per game, was imposed.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 next.
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 Chaplinesque comedy."
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."