Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from Games of Deception, written by Nashville resident and Vanderbilt visiting author Andrew Maraniss. The book chronicles the story of the first U.S. Olympic basketball team at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany — a team heavy with Kansas and KU ties. Maraniss will be speaking about the book in McPherson, Kansas, on Nov. 12 and in Lawrence on Nov. 13.
Outside James Naismith’s bedroom window, snow fell silently in the night, another New England blizzard blanketing the landscape in white. Naismith was frustrated. He hadn’t solved the problem he’d worked on for two weeks, and time was running out.
As a student in a new “Psychology of Play” course at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Mass., Naismith had accepted a challenge from the director of the school’s physical education program, Luther Gulick, to develop a new game, something to keep restless students occupied inside the gymnasium during the winter.
At first, Naismith tried to bring outdoor games inside. But football and lacrosse weren’t well suited to the tiny gymnasium in the Armory Building. Too many injuries, too much broken equipment. Indoor soccer created the same problems. Naismith regrouped. He knew he wanted a game that required an all-around athlete, one that was easy to learn but difficult to master, a team game, possible to play in any gymnasium. He wanted to eliminate rough play. He wanted a game that used a large, light ball, and not much other equipment. Slowly the contours of a new game began to form in his mind. The last problem to solve, the one that kept him up late, concerned how the players would score. Specifically, how the goal should be situated.
And then his mind flashed back to his boyhood days in rural Ontario. One of his favorite games had been called Duck on a Rock. The object was to knock a stone off a much larger boulder. Kids would throw rocks at the stone sitting on the boulder, and if they failed, they’d have to scoop up their rock and return to base before they were tagged by the player designated as the guard. Over time, Naismith and his friends learned that a high-arching toss of their stone worked better than more of a straight baseball-style throw. That was it! Naismith’s new game required a toss with a high arc. The goal would be located high off the ground, parallel to the floor.
James Naismith put down his pencil and went to bed content on December 20, 1891. That night he became the first human being ever to play this new game, if only in his dreams.
Long way from home
It’s a long way from a basement gymnasium in western Massachusetts to the Olympic Games. How did a sport invented by one man for one class of students at one small school become so quickly known, understood, and played by people all over the world?
The catalyst was an article in the Springfield College magazine, The Triangle, mailed to YMCA directors worldwide. On page 144 of the January 15, 1892, issue was an unassuming headline, “BASKET BALL,” along with the 13 original rules of the game and a sketch depicting the first game, drawn by a witness, student G.S. Ishikawa of Tokyo.
As Springfield graduates took jobs at Ys around the world, they brought basketball with them. In less than two years, YMCA workers trained in Springfield introduced the game in a dozen countries. The game received another international boost during World War I, when YMCA personnel assigned to U.S. military camps in Europe set up basketball games to keep soldiers occupied when they weren’t engaged in battle.
Even before the war, the game appeared in international settings. At the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, basketball was introduced as an unofficial demonstration sport. The best team was a group of German-American immigrants from the East Side YMCA in Buffalo, New York who called themselves the Buffalo Germans.
Shortly after the Buffalo team’s victory in St. Louis, a nineteen-year-old boy in Independence, Missouri, began taunting the “world champs,” challenging them to come back to the Midwest to defend their title in a three-game series.
The Germans accepted the challenge and traveled to Kansas City. They won the first game and lost the second. Playing with two broken elbows, the five-foot-eleven teenage organizer led his Kansas City team to a 45–14 blowout win in game three. The referee in the third and deciding game was none other than James Naismith, by that point the physical education director at the University of Kansas. And the nineteen-year-old kid at the center of the spectacle? Later in life, he’d be better known by his nickname, and the basketball field house at his alma mater would be named in his honor. He remains one of the most influential figures in the history of basketball. And no single individual was more responsible for basketball’s inclusion in the 1936 Olympic Games. His name was Forrest “Phog” Allen.
Where Naismith valued basketball primarily as a form of physical fitness, it was Allen, head coach at the University of Kansas for thirty-nine years, who envisioned what we now understand as the totality of the modern game: high-level coaching, tournament action, massive spectator interest, a way to make money.
As he worked to elevate the sport of basketball to its highest potential, Allen took a keen interest in the Olympic Games. Beginning in 1928, he contacted officials in the U.S. and around the world to lobby for basketball’s inclusion at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, even if just as a demonstration sport, as had been done in St. Louis in 1904, Paris in 1924, and Amsterdam in 1928. By October of 1929, however, Allen had resigned himself to the fact that it wasn’t going to happen. The LA committee chose American football instead.
Undeterred, Allen attended the LA Olympics to meet with officials from other countries and gain their support for basketball at future Olympics. Among his key meetings were lunch with German official Carl Diem and dinner with Sohaku Ri of Japan. With Tokyo slated to host the Olympics in 1940, Ri promised to lobby his German counterparts for ’36, and all but assured Allen that basketball would be included in Japan if the Germans didn’t bite.
Allen worked other German contacts, too, including Fritz Sieweke, an exchange student Allen had counseled during a summer basketball camp at Springfield College. Sieweke was now back in Germany working for the Hitler Youth, a sinister organization that indoctrinated German boys in Nazi culture. Basketball wasn’t popular in Germany at the time, but Sieweke pressed the case. Allen also continued to lobby Diem, secretary general of the Berlin Organizing Committee and one of the most powerful sports officials in Germany.
Ultimately, German Olympic officials decided not to include basketball as one of the demonstration sports in 1936, selecting glider flying and field handball instead. Much to Allen’s delight, basketball was chosen as a full medal sport. A 1934 letter from Diem to Allen confirmed it—and gave the Kansas coach credit. “I have the pleasure of informing you,” Diem wrote, “that the Organizing Committee at its meeting October 19, adopted the resolution that basketball be included in the program of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin . . . Thanking you again for your kind suggestion.”
For Allen, years of dogged lobbying across multiple continents had paid off. Where his own countrymen had let him down by shunning basketball in Los Angeles, the Nazis lifted basketball onto the international stage.
Writing confidentially to his ally Ri in Tokyo in August of 1935, Allen admitted the Nazi connection gave him reason for concern, if not for humanitarian reasons then for the potential damage to his favorite sport. “Yes, we are elated over the fact that basket ball is to become an Olympic sport,” he said. “I am sincerely anxious that nothing shall happen in Berlin to cause the postponement of our games on account of the . . . Jewish difficulties that are taking place over there.”