It was another scorching-hot day in New York, but that didn’t stop thousands of people from crowding the docks along the Hudson River.
The scene looked and sounded like the Fourth of July. Bands played patriotic tunes as men, women, and children on both sides of the Hudson cheered and waved small American flags. Even the SS Manhattan
was dressed for the occasion, with its red hull, white superstructure, and red, white, and blue funnels. Planes circled overhead, and, out on the water, boats sounded their horns and shot streams of water high into the air in celebration.
As far away as Kansas and California, families gathered around their radios, listening to announcers describe the festivities. At twelve noon, more than four hundred American athletes, coaches, officials, family members, and journalists would set sail on a nine-day journey to Germany for the greatest spectacle in the world, the eleventh Olympic Games.
But first, there was much to behold at Pier 60.
An African American man gave out homemade good-luck charms to theathletes as they boarded the ship, but he didn’t even bother to hand one to thegreat black track star from Ohio State, Jesse Owens, telling onlookers that Owenswouldn’t need any luck in Berlin.
Up on deck, a group of female athletes—there were a record number of them on this U.S. Olympic team—gathered in two rows for a photo. One woman called out, “We’re going to bring home the bacon, aren’t we, girls?!” and her teammates let out a big cheer. And who was that sprinting up the gangplank onto the boat? It was Willard Schmidt, all six foot nine of him, a skinny Nebraska farm boy who was the last man added to the U.S. Olympic basketball team. He hurried on board so nobody could stop him. Just being on this ship and on this team felt like such an improbable dream he was afraid somebody would pinch him and it would all be over.
Next came Schmidt’s USA Basketball teammates, including five more players from the Globe Refiners, his amateur team in McPherson, Kansas; seven from the Universals of Los Angeles; and one college player from the University of Washington. The Olympic team had been assembled by merging the two best amateur teams in the country (along with the one college player) after a qualifying tournament in New York where the Universals came in first and the Refiners second. The men who followed Schmidt onto the ship included Frank “Frankenstein”Lubin, a hulking six-foot-seven center; assistant coach Gene Johnson, stylishly dressed and talkative as usual; and his soft-spoken brother, Francis, a star of the team. Along, too, came Sam Balter from LA, and his buddies, Art Mollner, Carl Shy, and Carl Knowles. Lumbering aboard came big “College Joe” Fortenberry, the gentle giant from Happy, Texas. Tex Gibbons boarded the ship with one arm in a sling, while center Ralph Bishop from Washington, the only college player on the team, chatted with nine fellow UW Huskies, young men who would compete in a highly anticipated rowing event in Berlin. Rounding out the group were headcoach Jimmy Needles, in desperate need of coffee (he drank twenty-five cups a day), along with Jack Ragland, Duane Swanson, Donald Piper, and Bill Wheatley.
The names of these men have been forgotten, but they were an important and historic group: 1936 marked basketball’s debut as an official Olympic sport, andthis was the first-ever United States Olympic basketball team. Decades later, theU.S. Olympic basketball team would be dubbed the Dream Team, and a new collectionof superstars would command the world’s attention at the Summer Olympics every four years. But for Oscar Robertson and Jerry West to win Olympic gold in1960, for Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird to win in 1992, or forKobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant to taste gold more recently, there had to be this bunch of no-names walking up the plank at Pier 60 in 1936.
As the SS Manhattan
pushed back just past noon, fans tossed their caps into the air; some even threw them in the river. Bill Wheatley looked out at thousands of cheering New Yorkers and considered how far he’d come as a basketball player. He’d been cut from his college team. The coach told him he was no good. Now he was sailing to Europe to play the game he loved on the world’s largest stage.
The ship pushed farther away, and the scene at the pier began to thin out, people clutching their flags and heading back home and to work.
But pacing along the shore was a man who seemed out of place, different fromthe thousands who surrounded him. He walked silently, carrying a sign. It wasan odd sign; the letters weren’t all that neatly written. And its message was startling. BOYCOTT NAZI GERMANY, LAND OF DARKNESS. BOYCOTT HITLER. KEEP AMERICA FREE. FIGHT FOR RACE TOLERANCE, DEMOCRACY AND PEACE. I SPENT 10 MONTHS IN A NAZI JAIL FOR DEFENDING THESE PRINCIPLES
Boycott? It was too late now. The SS Manhattan
had left Pier 60 and was onits way toward the Statue of Liberty and the Atlantic Ocean.
The people listening at home had turned off their radios. In seventeen days, the Olympics would begin with elaborate opening ceremonies broadcast from Berlin. The solitary protest of the courageous man with the sign, Richard Roiderer, would be long forgotten by then.
But maybe people should have paid closer attention. The man who stood alone understood there was more to this Olympics than met the eye. In Adolf Hitler’s Berlin, all was not as it seemed.
Copyright © 2019 by Andrew Maraniss. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.