Basketball as a sport has a rich history that spans over a century, and while many think back to its early days when college teams competed, or professional leagues rose from AAU competition, the Olympics goes largely unnoticed. The first time basketball appeared at the Olympics was in 1904, as a demonstration sport. The Buffalo Germans, a YMCA team, won the first demonstration, while the London Central YMCA won in Paris in 1924. Back then, the rules were so different, that basketball had yet to be the exciting and entertaining game that we all know and love today. Dribbling was not universally accepted, there was a jump ball after every made basket, and scoring was simply a difficult endeavor.
Finally, thanks to legendary Kansas Coach Phog Allen, basketball became an official sport in 1936. These were the games held in Berlin, where Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals while the host Nazi party looked on.
The 1936 team was chosen by having a tournament between the top 2 AAU teams at the time: McPherson Globe Refiners and Universal Pictures, the YMCA Nationals winner, and five college district champions. Ultimately, they took 7 players from Universal, 6 from McPherson, and 1 collegian.
They were coached by one of the first tacticians of the game, Universal Pictures coach Jimmy Needles, who went on to coach at Loyola in Los Angeles, mentoring other coaching greats like Pete Newell and Phil Woolpert.
The basketball games were played on outdoor clay courts usually used for tennis. The first of what became a 63 game win streak began as a forfeit as Spain didn’t show up due to Civil War.
In the finals, the US beat Canada 19-8, as rain made the clay courts very difficult to play on. The team was led by Joe Fortenberry from the McPherson Globe Refiners. (6’8″, 185 lbs, 25 yrs old)
Due to World War II, the summer olympics weren’t held again until 1948 in London. To determine the team, the Olympic committee held a game between the 1948 AAU Champion Phillips 66ers and the 1948 NCAA champion University of Kentucky. The Sixers won 53-49, so Phillips head coach Bud Browning coached the team, assisted by Kentucky head coach Adolph Rupp. The Olympic team took 5 players from each of these squads, and the coaches subbed them in 5 at a time to keep them together no the court.
This method worked fine until they met up with Argentina, where a more regular substitution pattern eked out a 2 point win. The Americans plowed through the rest of the field, winning the gold by defeating France 65-21. They were led by Alex Groza (11.1ppg) and Bob Kurland (9.3ppg) – who along with George Mikan was one of the game’s first great big men.
In 1952, the team was selected by pitting the NCAA winner and runner up, the champions of the NAIB (precursor to the NAIA), top 4 AAU teams, and the winner of the NIT tournament.
Selected were 7 Kansas players, 5 AAU Peoria Caterpillars, and 2 Phillips 66ers. Head coach of the Caterpillars Warren Womble led the team, and was assisted by Kansas coach Phog Allen.
A cold war showdown between the Soviets and the American was inevitable, and these two undefeated teams clashed in the quarter finals. In a physical game (6 Americans, 4 Soviets fouled out), the Americans routed the Soviets 86-58.
For the first time ever, the Americans had two consecutive scares – Brazil led by 2 at the half before the US rallied to win 57-53, and Argentina kept it close in the semifinal game, losing a high scoring game 85-76.
This set up a rematch between the Soviets and the Americans. This time the Soviets stalled on offense, keeping the game close til the US hit some key outside shots and pulled away, winning 36-25. The Americans were led by Clyde Lovelette (14.1 ppg).
1956 was a strange summer olympics because they were held in December – the beginning of host Australia’s summer. Undeterred, the olympic committee put together its first super team, combining the top AAU and college players. This team annihilated everyone they played, winning by an average margin of 53.5 points per game. Led by Bill Russell and KC Jones, who were fresh off an NCAA championship and 60 game win streak at the University of San Francisco, they delayed their NBA seasons until they could win gold for their country. The Americans beat the Soviets twice in this competition, routing them by 34 points in the gold medal game. The head coach was Gerald Tucker, who coached the Phillips 66er team, and was assisted by Bruce Drake who developed the Shuffle offense, later popularized by Dean Smith at North Carolina.