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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Texas Dunker
Joe Fortenberry

by Clay Coppedge

Joe Fortenberry, a long, tall Texan from the little Panhandle town of Happy, was a member of the first U.S. men's Olympic basketball team in 1936 and an All-American for West Texas State University in Canyon (now West Texas A&M University) in 1932-33.

That he's a footnote in most modern basketball histories is peculiar because Joe Fortenberry basically revolutionized the game of basketball by giving fans - and reporters - their first glimpse of what we know today as the slam dunk. Because of Joe Fortenberry, they changed the rules of the game. Then the game forgot about him.

Fortenberry learned basketball at Happy High School where he led the Cowboys to county and regional titles. At West Texas State, the 6-foot-8 Fortenberry was a member of what sportswriters billed as "The Tallest Team in the World."

Had such a thing as the NBA existed, Fortenberry and teammate Willard Schmidt would've been hot properties coming out of college, but in 1936 the best players in the country played for teams that various companies fielded under the auspices of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU).

Fortenberry went to work for one of those companies, Globe Refinery, in basketball-mad McPherson, Kansas where he was the star player for the McPherson Globe Refiners (also referred to as the McPherson Globe Oilers). The team won the 1936 AAU national championship and earned an invitation to try out for the first-ever U.S. Olympic team, but the Olympic committee faced a shortfall and couldn't pay the players' way to New York City for the tryouts.

Globe Refinery not only declined to finance the trip but told the young men they might not have a job when they got back.

Joe Fortenberry with the Phillips 66ers
Joe Fortenberry with the Phillips 66ers, from 1939-40 Phillips 66 Basketball Program
Wikipedia

Oliver Fortenberry, Joe's son, recounted the dilemma to the Amarillo Globe News last year.

"So here they were, still in the Depression, didn't know if they would have jobs, and if they went they had to get to New York on their own dime," he said. "They had to beg, borrow and steal to get enough money and get a couple of Model As to get out there."

The actual Olympic basketball competition in Berlin was anti-climactic, even pathetic. Adolph Hitler decreed that basketball should be played outdoors and not in a gym, as James Naismith had intended when he invented the game in 1891. As a result, the U.S. beat Canada 19-8 in a driving rainstorm that turned the clay courts to mud.

Fortenberry scored eight points for the Americans, equaling Germany's team total, and earned an Olympic gold medal for his efforts and sacrifice. Basketball wouldn't be an Olympic sport again for another 12 years.

However, the real history happened not in Berlin but at the tryouts in New York. Michael McKnight wrote a vivid description of the moment for Sports Illustrated in 2015.

"When Joe Fortenberry, a farm boy from Happy, Texas threw one down at the West Side YMCA in New York City on March 9, 1936, he may not have been the first man to dunk a basketball, but he was the first to do it in an aesthetically stirring way, and in front of the right people.

"Cameras of that era were too crude to capture the split second when the rules of both Newton and Naismith were bent, so it was fortuitous that the New York Times writer Arthur J. Daley was at the Y that day covering the tournament that would decide which Americans sailed to Berlin for the Olympic debut of the 45-year old sport."

Daley wrote of the moment: "This new version of a lay-up shot left observers simply flabbergasted. Joe Fortenberry, 6-foot-8 center…left the floor, reached up and pitched the ball downward into the hoop, much like a cafeteria customer dunking a roll in coffee."

That's when people started calling this "new version of the lay-up shot" a dunk. Later, as players added more emphasis to the shot, it became a "slam dunk." Fortenberry's dunk helped punch his team's ticket to Berlin, but it also fundamentally changed how the game is played. Playing basketball today without the dunk would be like playing baseball without the home run or taking the forward pass out of football. Basketball coaches of the day considering dunking sort of crude and inelegant.

Fortenberry's combination of size, agility and athleticism also led to the creation of one basketball rule and the abolition of another. The rules committee wrote the goal-tending rule because of Fortenberry's talent for swatting balls away just prior to their arrival at the basket. The committee also abolished the practice of starting every possession with a jump ball because Fortenberry won nearly every jump ball he contested. It just wasn't fair.

The military stationed Fortenberry stateside during World War II because the brass couldn't figure out what to do with men who were closer to seven feet tall than six. He played with the Army Air Corps team, then settled in Amarillo with his wife and three children and went to work as a land man for Phillips Petroleum Company for many years.

He also played for the company's AAU team, the Phillips 66ers, and was a four-time AAU All-American selection. In 1959, he was the first athlete inducted into the Panhandle Sports Hall of Fame. Joe Fortenberry died in Amarillo in 1993 at the age of 82, all but forgotten by the game he did so much to popularize.

Earlier this year Oliver Fortenberry appeared on the popular PBS program "Antiques Roadshow" with his father's gold medal and various uniforms and memorabilia, including a picture of Big Joe slamming one home for the Phillips 66ers. Roadshow appraiser Grant Zahajko deemed the medal "the most important U.S. gold medal we've seen come into Antiques Roadshow" and appraised its value at $100,000 to $150,000. (Oliver later moved it from a shoe box to a safe deposit box in an Amarillo bank.) Maybe that kind of national exposure will help bring Joe Fortenberry the recognition he deserves. Not only is the first Texas dunker not in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame where he belongs, but the 1936 Olympic basketball team isn't in the Basketball Hall of Fame, either.

It says here that both of those things should change. Soon.


© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" March 16, 2017 column


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