Coffeyville was once home to member of first-ever U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team
BY ANDY TAYLOR
When LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and the remainder of the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team brought home gold medals from the London games two weeks ago, another chapter was added to the United States’ domination in the global Olympic sport.
However, the first page of that long and storied history could have well been penned by the late Willard Schmidt, a Coffeyville man who passed away in 1965. That’s because Schmidt was a member of the first U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team that earned a gold medal in the 1936 games in Berlin, Germany.
Schmidt was not a Coffeyville resident when he represented the United States on an outdoor clay court in Berlin. His move to Coffeyville would come a few years later when he married a Coffeyville native, Hazel Nichols. However, Schmidt spent most of his adulthood in Coffeyville, working at Parkersburg Rig and Reel Company, which later become known as Parmac, and maintaining a lifelong love for basketball.
Willard Theodore Schmidt was a lanky giant from from Swanton, Neb., where his tall frame put him in competition with the equally tall corn that rose from the Nebraska prairie. By the time he finished playing college basketball at Creighton University, where he earned All-American status, he reached 6-foot-9 — a mammoth size that would have put him on the roster of any professional basketball team.
Funny thing about the mid-1930s: professional basketball did not exist. Instead, top-notch players from across the country were lured to major companies and industries that also sported basketball teams that competed in industrial leagues or the then-powerful Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). In the midwestern United States, the top rung of basketball would put college players like Schmidt in towns like McPherson, Kan. By day, Schmidt worked for the McPherson Globe Refinery. By night and on weekends, he wore the jersey for the McPherson Globe Refiners, which locked horns with fellow industry teams like the Henry Clothiers (based in Wichita), the Phillips 66’ers (based in Bartlesville) or the Ambrose Jellymakers (based in Denver, Colo.)
“Dad worked hard at the refinery, and he took on the job of climbing the long sets of stairs to get to the top of the oil tanks in order to read the gauges,” said Schmidt’s daughter, Connie (Schmidt) Schweer, who resides in Overland Park, Kan. “Dad said he climbed those steps because it made his legs stronger for basketball.”
The Globe Refiners were coached by Gene Johnson, who had joined the team after coaching at then-Wichita University from 1930 through 1933. Johnson’s team gained national acclaim in the mid-1930s for its unique style of fast-break offense, which was contrary to the legitimately slow and methodical pace of the game that was invented by Dr. James Naismith less than five decades earlier.
In the 1935-36 season, the Globe Refiners not only won the AAU Championship (with a 47-35 victory over the Universal Studios Universals) but also was summoned to New York City to compete in the U.S. Olympic trials in advance of the Summer Olympics in Berlin. Schmidt was one of six players from the Globe Refiners team to join six players from Universal’s squad (as well as several college players) to become the first U.S. “dream team” of the 1936 Olympic games.
Schweer said her father recalled being especially lean by the start of the U.S. Olympic trials. And, that was not of Schmidt’s choosing. The pangs of economic depression meant people — including refinery workers — sometimes skipped meals or had little food to eat.
“So, when dad went to New York City, he weighed a little over 200 pounds. Just imagine what any person would like being 6-foot-8 and 200 pounds,” said Schweer. “However, he and the other Olympic team members had full meals in New York City and on the boat that went to Berlin. By the time he got to Berlin, he had put on 10 to 15 pounds.”
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By the time the fattened U.S. team was ready for the Olympics, it was confronted with immediate obstacles. The international olympic committee had changed its tournament venue by designating an outdoor tennis court — with a clay and dirt surface — to be the official tournament court for basketball. The committee also barred players who were 6-foot-2 or taller from playing (thereby eliminating Schmidt’s chances of playing in the Olympics) and limited team rosters to only seven players per game. Only when the U.S. team coaches hollered and complained loudly did the International Olympic Committee rescind its height rule. Schmidt was thereby allowed to play in the Olympics.
Another challenge: the committee decided to use a smaller ball, almost akin to a volleyball, instead of the regular leather-wrapped basketball that the American players were accustomed to using.
The unusual seven-man roster forced the U.S. team to be divided into two squads: one that included Schmidt, the other five McPherson Globe Refiners, and collegian Ralph Bishop. The other team included all seven members of the Universal Studios Universals. The teams — largely representing Kansas and California — would alternate every other game in the olympic tournament.
The unusual rules and outdoor venue imposed by the International Olympic Committee did not endanger Schmidt and the rest of the U.S. team members. They defeated Spain (by forfeit), Estonia, Phillipines and Mexico before facing Canada for the Olympic gold medal.
However, on the day of the gold medal game, a steady rain converted the outdoor clay-court surface into a gooey swamp — creating abysmal conditions that made basketball look more like mud wrestling. The court was surrounded by a concrete wall with zero drainage for water, meaning all water remained on the court surface, making the court resemble a muddy bathtub. In the end, the U.S. team defeated Canada, 19-8, which despite its low score, was enough to garner the gold medal.
Schmidt finished the tournament with eight points to his credit and a gold medal around his neck.
However, there would be little joy for Schmidt and the five other Olympic team members from McPherson when they returned to Kansas. In dealing with the hardships of the depression, the McPherson Globe Refinery had dropped its sponsorship of nationally-competitive basketball. Plus, the refinery had to find people to replace the six refinery workers who were at the U.S. Olympic trials as well as the Olympic games in Berlin.
Being a member of a national-caliber basketball team offered zero job security, Schweer said.
“It was the depression. If you wanted a paycheck, you had to work,” she said.
The refinery workers who represented their company — and their nation — in the 1936 olympic games were now unemployed.
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Schmidt was able to find employment in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he became a member of the Antlers Hotel basketball team in the 1937 season. However, Schmidt quickly contracted rheumatic fever, which left him largely unable to play competitive basketball again, recalls Schweer.
“That’s when dad moved to Coffeyville, which was the hometown of my mother,” she said. “He worked at Parkersburg Rig and Reel and coached a local team called the OSC Drakes. He would also coach local basketball for many more years in Coffeyville.”
Schweer said many people in the Coffeyville community knew of Schmidt’s connection to the U.S. Olympics and the gold medal that he won for his nation. When Billy Mills, the famed long-distance runner, won the 10,000 meter gold medal for the United States in 1964, Mills returned to the United States as a hero and given a full salute in Coffeyville, where he was married to a local native and used Coffeyville as his official address during the 1964 Olympics.
Invited to the local celebration was Willard Schmidt because of the rare appearance of two gold medal recipients with Coffeyville connections sharing the same stage.
“I remember dad being invited to the dinner in honor of Billy Mills and the mention that Billy and dad were both gold medal winners from Coffeyville,” Schweer said.
Schmidt died in 1965. Although most people in Coffeyville of that era remember Schmidt’s connection to the Olympics, the passage of time has kept that story tucked away.
“It’s been more than 45 years since dad passed away, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there are younger generations of Coffeyville residents who never heard of him,” said Schweer, herself a Coffeyville native and Field Kindley High School graduate.
Schweer speaks with pride of her father’s involvement with the first U.S. men’s basketball team and the gold medal he won under difficult situations.
“When dad played in the 1936 Olympics, it was an entirely different era of basketball,” Schweer said. “There was no NBA, no job protection or job security. So, even though you would represent your country in an olympic sport, you would come home without a job. That’s how far times have changed.
“But, dad would talk to people in Coffeyville whenever he was asked about his Olympic gold medal. It was a thrill to hear him talk about it.”