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 still living.
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 compote for the U.S. Olympic team. McPherson supplied six players: Joe Fortenberry, John (Tex) Gibbons, Johnson, Jack Ragland, Willard Schmidt and Bill Wheatley.
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 Needles's assistant.