The Creighton giant who helped invent the slam dunk

Jun 29, 2021

The story of Creighton University's lithe giant, whose team played the muddiest game of basketball in Olympic history.

Featured Testimonial About Creighton University

Creighton at the Olympics

With the Tokyo Olympics upon us, we’re writing about the Creighton alumni who have competed in the Games. Here’s the full list of Olympian Bluejays.

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By Micah Mertes

They’re among the most historically significant Games in Olympic history. The arena: 1936 Berlin. Host: Hitler’s Nazi party.

The last Olympics before WWII came at a time of mounting political tension, with a mass boycott threatened over the German government’s antisemitic policies. The star of those Games was unquestionably Jesse Owens, whose performance earned him four gold medals in the face of a fascist government. But for our purposes, the 1936 Olympics were also notable for featuring two Olympic athletes from Creighton University — one a student at the time, the other an alum.

This is the story of the lithe giant whose team played the muddiest game of basketball in Olympic history. Here you can read about the boxer who couldn’t quit Creighton.

Willard Schmidt

Willard Schmidt, BA'34

The 1936 Olympic basketball final between the U.S. and Canada was pretty weird, to say the least.

For starters, the ball was better suited to soccer than basketball. The game itself was played outdoors … on a gravel court … in the middle of a thunderstorm.

Willard Schmidt
Willard Schmidt

SBNation writes: “Not only did the ball get slippery; it was so wet out that it ended up downright waterlogged … increasingly high winds made it almost impossible to pass. To top things off, the ‘gravel’ court turned out to have been a gravel-on-dirt court, which quickly degraded into ‘mudpit.’”

The final score was just 19-8, winning the Americans the gold in the first appearance of basketball as an official Olympic medal event. James Naismith, inventor of basketball, awarded the medals.

One of the players on that team was 6-foot-9 Creighton alum Willard Schmidt.

A few years before Berlin, Schmidt helped Creighton win a Missouri Valley Conference championship. After graduation, he played for the McPherson Globe Refiners, an amateur team sponsored by a Kansas oil refinery and billed as “the tallest team in the world” (thanks in part to Schmidt). Six players from that team ended up going to Berlin. But Schmidt himself almost didn’t make it.

According to the Omaha World-Herald, just a few weeks before the Games, Schmidt stepped on a piece of tin and cut his left heel open. But he managed to power through, becoming Nebraska’s first Olympic basketball player.

Another thing about Schmidt: He’s credited as one of the first two players to “dunk” the ball.

Willard Schmidt

When the Globe Refiners competed in the Olympic trials, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times sportswriter Arthur J. Daley was there. Watching Schmidt and his 6-foot-8 teammate Joe Fortenberry warm up, Daley noted their unusual layup style and inadvertently immortalized an American idiom.

Daley wrote: “The McPherson version of a layup shot left observers simply flabbergasted. Joe Fortenberry and Willard Schmidt did not use an ordinary curling toss. Not those giants. They left the floor, reached up and pitched the ball downward into the hoop, much like a cafeteria customer dunking a roll in coffee.''

Read about the boxer who couldn’t quit Creighton.