New Documentary Tells Story Of McPherson Basketball Stars

Aug 1, 2012

Against the backdrop of the 2012 summer Olympics a small Kansas town is working to spread the word about their 1936 Olympic gold medal winning basketball stars with a new documentary.

The McPherson Globe Refiners aren’t a well-known basketball team.

They were sponsored by the Globe Refining Company and affiliated with the Amateur Athletic Union or AAU - the standard back in the early 20th century.

They were also short lived, but in their two-year existence they won 2nd place in the AAU championships in 1935, then 1st place in 1936.

Their 1936 win qualified them, along with the 2nd place team The Universal Studio’s Universals, to send players to the Olympics.

A new documentary, Oil and Gold, traces the McPherson Globe Refiners and the six players who brought home the first Olympic gold in basketball.

Keith Cantrell grew up in McPherson and is the director of the documentary, which is being produced by the Mcpherson Convention & Visitors Bureau in collaboration with the Kansas Humanities Council.

“I never really heard about the basketball team and when I tell people I am doing the documentary in McPherson they are like, now wait, what did you say?” says Cantrell.

“They won the Olympic gold medal? I don’t think the citizens of McPherson have really heard that much about it, which is why it is exciting that we are doing it now, so hopefully we’ll create some more awareness about it.”

The McPherson Refiners were led by Wichita University coach Gene Johnson and featured star players, Francis Johnson, brother of Gene, Joe Fortenberry, Bill Wheatley, Tex Gibbons, Jack Ragland, and Willard Schmidt, all of who played in the 1936 Olympics.

Anne Hassler, the director of the Mcpherson convention and visitors bureau decided to make the film after nominating the Olympic team as one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas

“And we didn’t even make the top 24 to be considered,” says Hassler.

“And I thought what’s the problem? This is such a great story. There is such a wonderful dramatic element … you have this lightning rod of gene Johnson always bringing drama and interaction with his brother Francis that he coached that was on the team, and the backdrop of the Olympics in Nazi Germany.”

Hassler says they were fortunate in the documentary project, finding Olympic footage in Canada, tape recordings of reunions of the team in 1972 and 1986, and a wealth of articles, pictures and medals kept by player Joe Fortenberry’s son.

“Francis Johnson got to tell a funny story about how he forgot to put his shorts on and went to a game with only his warm up sweats,” she says laughing.

“We got to hear Gene Johnson talk about how he came up with the different ideas that he implemented.”

Gene Johnson from tape recording: “They all said, you go ahead, you will end up in last place. I didn’t think we would. So, at the end of the season we had won first place in the league. And all the and all the wiseacres had to shut up. And George Gardener who coached down in Hutchinson, after we had beaten him three straight times and he had the all stars of all stars, he said gosh Gene it isn’t basketball, and I said well, maybe not,  but the kids love to play it and the crowd loves to watch it, and we always win so it’s a darn good substitute.”

McPherson Museum Curator Brett Whitenack says Coach Gene Johnson is credited with changing the face of basketball by introducing new strategies and techniques.

“Gene you could say might have been the inventor of the fast break and the full court press,” he says. “Back then basketball was a lot slower then it is now and gene really sped up the tempo.”

The refiners were also the first team to dunk, a Time Magazine journalist coined the term in an article written about the team after he witnessed the team ‘dunking the basketball like donuts in coffee’ during practice.

“Now they couldn’t do this in the game, but they would do this before the game to intimidate their opponents,” says Whitenack.

“Joe was 6’8” and Willard was 6’9” They were billed as the tallest team in the world and big men weren’t in the game like they are today.”

Hassler says there’s something inherent about Kansas that makes it a magnet for basketball talent.

“You know it is a sport that you can go out and play on your driveway or by the barn or something like that, it is pretty basic and fundamental, so it lends it self to the Kansas farm.”

She hopes her documentary, Oil and Gold: The McPherson Globe Refiners Basketball story will help restore some of the state’s best talent to their rightful place in sports history.

Oil and Gold will be screened at the Mcpherson opera house in McPherson at 7pm on August 11. The film will be followed by a panel discussion.