KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It looks like something you’d find in an attic of a house built before World War II.
The sphere used in the first Olympic gold-medal basketball game, the Nazi-run Games of 1936 in Berlin, is undersized, deflated and stitched together like a volleyball. And it’s taken up temporary residence in Overland Park, Kan., and is bouncing toward the open market.
Promoter Keith Zimmerman has the ball, and he’s interested in finding a buyer. He’s selling the ball on behalf of the owner, Jimmy Stewart Jr., of Windsor, Ontario.
“It’s an incredible piece of sports history,” Zimmerman said.
Basketball had been played in the United States for 45 years but was in its infancy internationally by 1936. The International Basketball Federation set the rules, and for the Olympics there would be no more than seven players per game. That meant the U.S. team, composed mostly of players from squads from McPherson, Kan., and Los Angeles, would alternate games.
Also, the games would be played outdoors on courts made of clay and sand.
The gold-medal game between the U.S. and Canada was played in a drizzle in the first half and downpour in the second. The water remained on the court, and players chased around a waterlogged ball.
After the United States’ 19-8 victory, a game played in front of the game’s inventor, James Naismith, the ball ended up in the hands of a Canadian player, Jimmy Stewart.
“Dad was smart enough to pick up a souvenir,” Stewart Jr. said.
The muddy ball with markings of the manufacturer “Berg” one side and “Basket-Ball” on the other, made it away from the soaked courts under a blanket that Stewart’s wife, Mary, was using to ward off the chill, and on the ship it sailed back to Canada. The ball remained with Stewart until he died in 1990. His son, who also played basketball for national teams, has kept it since.
Stewart liked the idea of the ball staying in Canada — its silver in 1936 is the nation’s lone Olympic basketball medal, but at age 75, he sought for a future home for the ball.
“I wanted to pass it down in my family, but there was no interest in it, so I decided to sell it,” Stewart said.
Last year, Stewart went to Heritage Auctions, a leading memorabilia house, but had no luck. He didn’t like the way the ball was being promoted, and no sale was made.
The ball’s odyssey to Overland Park started even earlier. Stewart spoke to Rich Hughes, whose 2011 book “Netting Out Basketball 1936” details the inaugural Olympic quest, from the process of selecting the American and Canadian teams through the Olympic Games.
Hughes passed along Zimmerman’s name. For several years Zimmerman had a friendship with Ian Naismith, James’ grandson, and was helping him find a buyer for basketball’s original rules. The friendship had dissolved by the time the rules were sold at auction to David and Suzanne Booth. David is a Kansas alumnus who paid $4,338,500, about twice the expected asking price and the most ever paid for a piece of sports memorabilia at the time. It since has been eclipsed by a Babe Ruth jersey.
Zimmerman is hopeful the Olympic basketball can fetch six figures and was encouraged when one of Jesse Owens’ gold medals from the same Olympics sold at auction for $1.4 million last year.
“The ball has never resided in the United States,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a chance for an American to buy it and bring it home.”
Stewart has another idea.
“I wanted to keep it in Canada,” he said.
That’s where the ball will reside if it’s not purchased. Stewart has made arrangements with the Windsor Essex County Hall of Fame, where his father was inducted in 1989. Also, the 14 members of Canada’s 1936 Olympic team were from Windsor.
But some kind of deal, where the ball could be displayed in both countries might be the ideal scenario. After all, James Naismith was born in Canada and became an American citizen during his 40-year career working at Kansas. The United States and Canada played for the first title.
“How about here half the year,” Zimmerman said, “and there half the year?”