Joe Fortenberry’s legacy in basketball has always been valuable to his son, Oliver Fortenberry. Now, the Globe Refiner’s gold medal has some value too.
In June this year, Oliver Fortenberry dusted off his father’s Olympic gold medal and brought a trunk of memorabilia to Fort Worth, Texas, in hopes of appearing on “Antiques Roadshow.” The episode will air at 7 p.m. Monday on KPTS.
“I took everything he had down there. I brought so much stuff they could hardly deal with it,” Oliver Fortenberry laughed. “I always wanted to know what they were worth, and I want to ensure that my dad’s legacy and McPherson’s team legacy is remembered, not forgotten.”
The McPherson Globe Refiners were a local men's basketball team sponsored by the Globe Refining Company and affiliated with the Amateur Athletic Union. The team was led by Coach Gene Johnson from at the time Wichita University and featured star players Francis Johnson, Joe Fortenberry, Bill Wheatley, Tex Gibbons, Jack Ragland and Willard Schmidt.
During their two-year existence, the McPherson Globe Refiners won second place in the 1935 AAU championship game and first place in 1936. They paired up with players from Universal Studios and represented the United States at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the first year basketball was an official medal sport. The team returned home with the first-ever Olympic gold medal in basketball after defeating Canada 19-8.
“When I told the appraiser about my dad and he started reading up on him, his eyes got wide and he saw that this was more important than he realized. Now, I don’t keep the medal under the bed, I keep it in a nicer place,” Oliver Fortenberry laughed. “It just makes me feel good to see that my dad was appreciated. Having them appraised really validates that legacy.”
Of course, Joe Fortenberry’s career didn’t end at the Olympics. Basketball historians earmark Joe Fortenberry’s chapter because of how he changed the game.
“After every basket, you used to have a jump ball, so there was no such thing as a fast break and it was a pretty slow game. They had to quit doing a jump ball after every made basket because my dad would out-jump everyone and get the ball again,” Oliver Fortenberry said. “My dad is also credited as being the reason why they have a goal-tending rule. He would just jump up and grab the ball so they had to make a rule against it.”
Joe Fortenberry, whom Oliver Fortenberry affectionately calls “Pop,” also started one of the sport’s trademark plays — dunking the ball.
“Pop and Willard Schmidt are credited as the first to dunk the ball. No one had seen that before,” Oliver Fortenberry said. “There was an article in the New York Times in 1936 and that was the first uses of the word ‘dunk’ in basketball. The writer said that Fortenberry and Schmidt were doing a new sort of layup, where they go up above the rim and drop the ball in the basket like they’re dunking a doughnut. He had been doing it since college in the early 1930s and his coach told him not to do it because it wasn’t elegant and shouldn’t be part of the game.”
On “Antiques Roadshow,” Oliver Fortenberry’s appraiser remembered a gold medal from another member of the team he appraised in 2014, but that medal wasn’t exactly the best benchmark in its condition.
“The other medal was owned by Carl Shy. He was one of the Universal Studios guys. After he died, his wife had taken the medal, drilled a hole in it, put it on a chain and wore it as a necklace for 20 years. It was all beat up, no gold left, and had a hold drilled in it,” Oliver Fortenberry said. “This same appraiser had appraised it at $30,000 based on what other gold medals from that Olympics had gone for, so I knew my dad’s would be worth much more just because it doesn’t have a hole in it and it was Joe Fortenberry’s, who went on to be one of the biggest basketball stars of the 1930s.”
Oliver Fortenberry hopes the episode of “Antiques Roadshow” will give the team enough visibility to propel them into the Hall of Fame.
“The appraiser mentioned that they should be in the Hall of Fame — that was his immediate reaction. When people hear their story, they can’t believe that this first basketball team in the Olympics isn’t in the Hall of Fame,” Oliver Fortenberry said. “It’s important history, not just sports history. This story has the backdrop of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and then you combine a Hollywood, Universal Studios team with kids from the middle of dusty Kansas to go to Germany and confront Hitler. That’s just asking for a movie.”
Maybe some day, that movie will happen. Oliver Fortenberry’s cousin Beth, who was an assistant producer on “Field of Dreams,” is pushing for a Globe Refiners film based on her screenplay and novel to be published soon.
“They’ve been up for the Hall of Fame before, but they’re up again this year. Antiques Roadshow is a big deal, it’s been on for 21 years and lots of people watch it, so maybe we can get somewhere this time. The more interest I can raise for Pop and the team, maybe we can get more interest into that movie and eventually get them into the Hall of Fame.”
Though he hasn’t been formally recognized, Joe Fortenberry’s fame bled into Oliver Fortenberry’s growing-up years, sometimes to his benefit.
“I can’t tell you the number of times that people would hear my name and automatically ask me if I was related to Joe Fortenberry. It was like I was the child of Michael Jordan,” Oliver Fortenberry said. “After high school, a few friends of mine were hanging out at a friend’s house one night and the parents came home unexpectedly. We all came to attention and the father started asked who we were, so he got to me and I said ‘Oliver Fortenberry,’ and he asked if I was related to Joe Fortenberry. I said ‘he’s my dad’, and he was just so excited because he loved watching my dad play and we were all golden with him after that.”
Oliver Fortenberry really looks up to his father — not because Joe Fortenberry was 6-foot-7, but because he demonstrated strong character on and off the court.
“Just this week, I was in Amarillo National Bank and I had the medal with me so I thought I’d see if the owners wanted to see it. The Weir family owns the bank, and as we got talking, Richard Weir arrived and he told me that he has a list of people that he looks up to and admires and my dad was one of them,” Oliver Fortenberry said. “That meant a lot to me to hear this titan of the banking industry looked up to my dad, not only because of his physical ability, but because he was a great guy.”
Out of the public eye, Joe Fortenberry was never above a quick game with his son.
“He was just as good of a person as could be. When I was about 16, my dad was about 55. I was out shooting basketballs on the driveway and Pop came home with his overcoat, and hat and pipe. He was throwing me the ball, then he wondered if he could still do that. He takes off his overcoat and hat, with his pipe still in his pocket, and he jumps up and dunks the ball two handed with his suit on. His pipe went flying and he said with this grin, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever do that again.' He was such a remarkable athlete — all these guys smoked and he didn’t keep working out after he quit ball ,but he was just naturally gifted.”
Contact Cheyenne Derksen Schroeder by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MacSentinel.