From Grassroots Game to Olympic Sport
The game of basketball has its roots in Springfield, Massachusetts, where it was invented by Canada’s James Naismith, a physical educator born and raised near the Ottawa Valley town of Almonte, Ontario, and educated at McGill University in Montreal. The first ever basketball game was organized by Naismith and played on 21 December 1891 at the International YMCA Training School (later called Springfield College), where he worked.
The sport quickly spread to collegiate campuses across the United States. When the Olympic Games took place in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904, basketball was included as a demonstration sport. Thirty-two years later, men’s basketball made its debut as an official medal sport at the 1936 Olympic Summer Games in Berlin, Germany.
Originally, 23 countries were scheduled to participate in the event, but two of them, Hungary and Spain, withdrew before the tournament began. The remaining 21 countries — Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Czechoslovakia, Egypt, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Mexico, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Switzerland, Turkey, the United States and Uruguay — still made basketball the largest team event at the games.
While the Edmonton Grads were dominating women’s basketball in Canada — and abroad — on the men’s side, Windsor, Ontario, was Canada’s basketball hotbed. The city’s proximity to Detroit, Michigan, meant that many players from Windsor played at American colleges where competition was generally at a higher level, allowing them to hone their skills before returning home.
In 1926, a local team called the Windsor Collegiate Alumni was founded by Gordon Fuller. Two years later they proved to be Canada’s best when they won the 1928 Montreal Cup, Canada’s men’s basketball championships. The team, which included University of Detroit stars Bill Butcher, Eddie Dawson and Frank Dowd, beat the Toronto Riverdale Collegiate Institute Grads, Hamilton YMCA and Ottawa Basketball Club in the Ontario region. The victories earned them a trip to the Eastern Canadian Finals in Sackville, New Brunswick, where they split a pair of games against a team representing Mount Allison University — but advanced to the national finals based on an aggregate score of 41–39.
In the championship round, Windsor was victorious over the University of British Columbia. Windsor’s title as Canada’s best was firmly entrenched. As the team improved, Fuller sought a sponsor for his club and found one in the local Ford manufacturing plant. The team was renamed the Windsor Ford V-8s, and in 1936 again competed for a national championship — this time with the winner earning the opportunity to represent Canada at the upcoming Olympic Games.
Windsor beat the Western Canada champion Victoria Dominoes in the title game at Windsor’s Hon. W.C. Kennedy Collegiate, punching their Olympic ticket.
Three standout members of the Victoria team were added to the V-8s roster to play for Canada. Doug Peden was a multi-sport star in British Columbia who was crowned the province’s under-15 doubles champion in tennis in 1929; in 1936, he became the first Canadian rugby player to score against the New Zealand All Blacks. He would go on to win a national sprint bicycle title in 1939 and played minor league baseball throughout the 1940s after being signed by Major League Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates in 1941. In 1950, Peden finished second in voting for the title of Canada’s Athlete of the Half-Century, losing out to Lionel Conacher. The other two Victoria players were brothers Charles and Art Chapman. The latter, at six feet three (190 cm), was Canada’s tallest player.
The rest of Canada’s roster included: Malcom “Red” Wiseman, James Stewart, Thomas Pendlebury, Robert Osborne, Stanley Nantais, Irving “Toots” Meretsky, P.P. McCallum, Don Gray, Norman Dawson, Edward Dawson, Gordon Aitchison and Ian Allison. Allison later served as a major with the 14th Army Tank Regiment (the Calgary Tank Regiment) in the Second World War and played four games with the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts before his career was ended by blood poisoning.
Canada’s 1936 Olympic Men’s Basketball Team Roster
- Gordon Aitchison (born 14 June 1909 in North Bay, ON; died 6 January 1990)
- Ian Allison (born 26 July 1909 in Greenock, Scotland; died 4 August 1990)
- Art Chapman (born 28 October 1912 in Victoria, BC; died 3 February 1986)
- Charles Chapman (born 21 April 1911 in Vancouver, BC; died 7 March 2002)
- Edward Dawson (born 10 October 1907 in Alford, United Kingdom; died 24 October 1968)
- Norman Dawson (born 8 October 1911; died 15 February 2003)
- Don Gray (4 January 1916)
- P.P. McCallum (born 1 January 1899; died 6 April 1958)
- Irving Meretsky (born 17 May 1912 in Windsor, ON; died 18 May 2006)
- Stanley Nantais (born 25 July 1913 in Windsor, ON; died 26 January 2004)
- Robert Osborne (born 10 April 1913 in Victoria, BC; died 8 May 2003)
- Doug Peden (born 18 April 1916 in Victoria, BC; died 11 April 2005)
- Thomas Pendlebury (information N/A)
- James Stewart (born 10 July 1910 in Kingsville, ON; died 12 August 1990)
- Malcom Wiseman (born 12 July 1913 in Winnipeg, MB; died 11 April 1993)
Nazi Germany’s Olympics
The Berlin Games marked the first time Germany hosted the Summer Olympics after being banned from the 1920 Games in Antwerp and the 1924 Games in Paris in the wake of the First World War.
The international competition provided a stage for propaganda on behalf of Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler, who rose to power in 1933. The Games took place against a backdrop of growing anti-Semitic policies throughout Germany under Hitler, and there had been failed movements spearheaded by Jewish athletes in multiple countries to boycott the Games entirely. Throughout Berlin, Olympic flags and swastikas shared real estate, hung from buildings and adorning public streets. At the opening ceremonies, a reported crowd of more than 100,000 people saluted Hitler.
It proved a difficult environment for the Jewish member of Canada’s basketball team. Irving “Toots” Meretsky, like many Jewish athletes from the 49 countries competing at the games, faced a moral conundrum in attending what would become known as “Hitler’s Olympics.” As Meretsky told the CBC in 2000, “I got permission, actually, from my parents that it was okay for me to go over there, because I was Jewish.… On the train going from France to Germany I met a Jewish travelling salesman.… I asked him what was going on there.… He told me, he says, ‘Don’t go out at night, and don’t go chasing German girls.’”
Julius Goldman, a Jewish Canadian assistant coach for Canada, recalled having to hide his ethnicity. “I thumbed a ride and got in with two fellows that were on the German Olympic team.… Nazis,” Goldman said. “Yiddish is almost the same as German, see, so that’s where I could translate.… This one fellow says to me, ‘Where did you learn to speak German?’ Well, I wasn’t going to tell him it was Yiddish, because they would throw me out.”
Road to the Finals
The first official Olympic basketball game took place on 7 August 1936 and was played outdoors on the clay courts of Berlin’s Tennis Stadium. A 74-year-old James Naismith, the sport’s Canadian-born inventor, was in attendance and threw up the opening jump ball in the first game, played between France and Estonia.
Canada’s opening game took place later that day, a 24–17 victory over Brazil. Art Chapman and James Stewart led Canada with eight points apiece. Canada remained undefeated through the semifinals, where they beat Poland 42–15 thanks in part to Doug Peden’s game-high 18 points, guaranteeing a medal and setting up a matchup with the United States in the gold-medal game.
Canada’s results heading into the finals were as follows:
- Canada 24 Brazil 17 (7 August 1936)
- Canada 24 Latvia 23 (9 August 1936)
- Canada 27 Switzerland 9 (11 August 1936)
- Canada 43 Uruguay 21 (12 August 1936)
- Canada 42 Poland 15 (13 August 1936)
The Gold-Medal Game
Like Canada, the United States entered the gold-medal game with a perfect record, albeit after a slightly easier road to the finals. In their opening game, United States’ opponent, Spain, was forced to forfeit due to the ongoing Spanish civil war. The Americans were given a bye in the third round, and entered the championship game outscoring opponents by a total of 133–61.
The US players were made up of seven members of California’s Universal Pictures team and six members of Kansas’s McPherson Globe Refiners, the two teams that had met in the United States’ Olympic trials championship game in April 1936.
It was basketball’s global governing body, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), that had made the decision to hold games outdoors. That decision would prove to be a mistake when a rainstorm on the day of the gold-medal game left the court muddied, making it hard to even bounce the ball off the ground.
“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,” recalled US team captain Bill Wheatley. “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!”
It was “almost like watching a water polo game,” wrote one journalist who covered the game in person. In actuality, the rain-soaked crowd was estimated to be closer to 2,000, but the stormy conditions and equipment issues meant the gold-medal game between Canada and the United States hardly resembled basketball action as it had been known before or since.
“The ball was a lot bigger and heavier than the ones they have today…. No matter how tight you laced up that opening with rawhide, there was no way to make that ball perfectly round,” Wheatley said. “That, plus the dirt court, made it almost impossible to dribble…. 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.”
The Americans took a 15–4 lead into halftime and Canada would ultimately lose the low-scoring contest 19–8. Ian Allison led the Canadians with four points in the loss.
When the game was over, Naismith himself handed out the medals to the competitors. Having earned the silver, Canada’s men’s basketball team represented 15 of the 28 athletes who returned to Canada with an Olympic medal.
The Edmonton Grads
Of course, that medal tally would have been even higher had the International Olympic Committee recognized women’s basketball as a medal sport.
Canada boasted the winningest basketball team in the world: the Edmonton Grads. The all-women’s team won 96 per cent of their games during their existence from 1915 to 1940, and took home the Underwood International Trophy (United States - Canada) for 17 consecutive years beginning in 1923.
The Edmonton Grads had participated in the three Olympics preceding Berlin, dating back to 1924, and kept a perfect 27–0 record intact following the 1936 Olympics. Yet at the time, women’s basketball was considered an exhibition event, with games organized by the Fédération sportive féminine international and in conjunction with the Olympics,with no medals awarded to the winning teams.
“We were disappointed, naturally,” former Edmonton Grads player Betty Bowen told the CBC in 2000, “but the fact that we played in conjunction with and were recognized as world champion, it sort of compensated for the fact that we were not in the Olympics. But it would have been nice to bring the gold medal home to Canada — which I’m sure we would have.”
It wasn’t until the 1976 Olympic Summer Games in Montreal that women’s basketball would be recognized as an Olympic medal sport.
Although it would be a long time until it reached the mainstream as it has today, basketball’s inclusion as a medal sport in the 1936 Olympics played a role in growing the sport on a global stage. In 2018, FIBA estimated that more than 450 million people around the world play the game.
Several members of Canada’s 1936 Olympic team were honoured in the years that followed the Games. Malcom “Red” Wiseman went on to a career as a basketball referee and in 1975 was given a Merit Award from the National Association of Basketball Coaches. In 1981, he was awarded a lifetime membership to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
In 1981, the team was inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fameas the “Olympic Ford V-8s team.”
In the years since the Berlin Games, Canada’s men’s and women’s teams have competed in Olympic basketball eight and six times, respectively , but the silver earned in 1936 remains Canada’s only medal in basketball. It wasn’t until the London Games in 2012 that Canada would earn another medal in a team sport at the Summer Olympics, when Christine Sinclair and the Canadian women’s soccer team won bronze.