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
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.
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
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
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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