Wednesday, July 11, 2012

It’s time for Olympic basketball!

By Anne Hassler, Director

McPherson Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Well the buzz around this year’s Summer Olympic Games in London has already started and I, of course, think it’s an excellent time to promote our own Summer Olympic connection – players from the McPherson Globe Refiners. We are busy putting the finishing touches on the CVB documentary “Oil and Gold” in time for our Basketball Traditions Celebration Aug. 10-11.

Six Globe players were part of the first-ever Olympic gold medal basketball team in 1936. Joe Fortenberry led all scorers in the final game with eight of the 19 points scored and was overall scoring leader for the team with 29 points.

I was lucky enough to travel to Amarillo, Texas recently to interview Joe’s wife Barbara and his son Oliver for our documentary “Turning Oil into Gold” about the team. They seemed a little uncomfortable at first with the idea that anyone would want to hear their stories but once they began talking about Joe, the words came easily.

Joe and Barbara (Bobbie) met after his days of playing professional basketball were over. They both worked in the oil industry in Texas when they married in 1947. Joe had gone on to play for the Phillips 66 Oilers after playing for the Globe Refiners. They made a striking couple – Bobbie was all of 5’2” next to Joe’s 6’8”. They had two children, Oliver and Sally and adopted another daughter Trisha, a niece they had raised like one of their own.

I tried to get a story out of Oliver about his dad’s goal tending prowess, but he said their games on the driveway were very tame.

“You could tell Pop knew how to put the ball in the hole,” Oliver said. “He was just a very kind guy. You never heard him say a disparaging word about anybody.”

Oliver recalled his father’s stories about being in close proximity to Adolph Hitler during the Olympic ceremonies.

“He said if he had known then what was going to happen, he would have jumped him right there. It gives me the heebie-jeebies just thinking about that. All of the athletes knew there was a big war coming. It wasn’t a surprise they were going to have to fight these people.”

Oliver said it wasn’t until the 1980s when the Olympics were scheduled to play in Los Angeles and people started showing an interest in the 1936 games that his dad realized his place in history.

“He kept his Olympic medal in a shoe box in the closet. The only time it ever came out is when I played with it,” Oliver said.

The Fortenberry family kept articles, photos and scrapbooks of Joe’s career. Oliver showed me his dad’s many medals from AAU tournaments, the ship’s manifest from the S.S. Manhattan, pages of autographs from other Olympic athletes like Jesse Owens, a sweat shirt from the Olympic team and even two pairs of his old basketball shoes.

One point that I’ve always wondered about in the Refiners’ story was what happened to the team when they returned from Berlin. The Globe Refinery no longer sponsored the team past 1936 though a competitive, non-AAU team still existed with Tex Gibbons as the coach. Gene Johnson moved on to coach a team at the Antler Lodge in Colorado with his brother Francis and Willard Schmidt. I asked Oliver and Bobbie if Joe had a job at the refinery when he got back.

“No, his brother had lined up a job for him with Greyhound Bus Lines. Not playing ball for them or anything, just working at the bus station. He’d already accepted it, just happy to have any job, when the offer to play for Phillips 66 came,” Oliver said.

Owners of Lario Oil, formerly Globe Oil, have said the company supported the team’s trek to the Olympics. Unlike the players for the Hollywood Universal team, Globe players weren’t given an ultimatum about going to the Olympics or losing their jobs.

My guess, and it’s purely a guess, is that Gene Johnson would have liked to have a bigger venue than the community building to play in and found greener pastures in Colorado. A copy of the original agreement was shared with me by Brett Whitenack, curator at the McPherson Museum. Gene Johnson received $1,500 to organize the team that was to be used to cover uniforms, travel and any other team expenses. I don’t know who kept the gate from home games – Johnson or the refinery. The refinery probably thought they had ridden the publicity out as far as they could by sponsoring the team. Given that it was the middle of the Great Depression I can understand why they might have wanted to fill the Refiners jobs with men dedicated solely to working at the refinery. I can also see why Johnson might have wanted to take advantage of their recent success and find better opportunities. But man, it sure was an excellent team while it lasted!

This is our first documentary production by the CVB but I hope not our last. McPherson has so many great stories to tell. The premiere of the documentary will be at the McPherson Opera House Aug. 11, 2012 followed by a question and answer session with Keith Cantrell, Rich Hughes, who wrote a book called “Netting Out Basketball 1936” on the team, and me.

Follow the progress of our documentary project and find out more about our Basketball Traditions Celebration at

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