Andrew Maraniss is the author of the new young adult book Games of Deception: The True Story of the First U.S. Olympic Basketball Team at the 1936 Olympics in Hitler's Germany. He also has written the book Strong Inside. He is a contributor to theundefeated.com, and is a visiting author at Vanderbilt University's athletic department. He lives in Brentwood, Tennessee.
Q: You've written about basketball before--what got you interested in the U.S. basketball team that went to the 1936 Olympics in Germany?
A: Well, it was thanks to my first basketball book you mentioned, Strong Inside, which was a biography of Perry Wallace, the first African American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference.
I was visiting the University of Kansas to speak at the Dole Institute of Politics about that book, and took a detour to see Allen Fieldhouse, the legendary home of the Jayhawks basketball team.
They have James Naismith’s original rules of basketball under glass there, kind of like the Constitution at the National Archives. Next to the rules was a photo of Naismith, the inventor of the game, standing with some Japanese basketball players in the 1930s.
The person showing me around mentioned that Naismith was able to see his invention make its Olympic debut.
When I asked which Olympics those were, and he said it was the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, I knew this would make for a fascinating book, merging the story of the invention and growth of such a popular game with important themes related to fascism, propaganda and antisemitism.
Q: What kind of research did you need to do for this book, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?
A: I visited numerous archives to learn as much as I could about the invention and growth of basketball, the 1936 Olympics, and the state of the world at that time. This included trips to Springfield College, where Naismith invented basketball, and to his boyhood home of Almonte Ontario.
I spent time at the Avery Brundage archives at the University of Illinois, the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas, the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, and many more.
I also visited with the sons and daughters of some of the 1936 U.S. basketball players, and spent time in McPherson, Kansas, where half of the players had worked at an oil refinery, and at the Universal Pictures archives, since the other half of the team worked at the movie studio.
I was surprised to learn about the level of coordination between Avery Brundage and Nazi officials to influence public opinion in the United States. He was asking the Germans to send “positive” coverage of the Nazi regime to American newspapers in an effort to combat a growing Olympic boycott movement in the United States.
I was also surprised to learn that the first player to dunk a basketball played on this Olympic team, and that the gold medal game was played outside on a clay tennis court in a driving rainstorm that made dribbling the ball impossible.
Q: What would you say is the legacy today of this basketball team and what they experienced?
A: In a purely basketball sense, these players were ahead of their time and left a mark on the game. They were tall, they dunked, they played a full-court pressure defense and they ran a fast break offense.
In winning a gold medal in Berlin, they launched what has been American dominance of the Olympic basketball tournament ever since. For there to be a Dream Team in 1992 with Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird, or more recent Olympians like Kevin Durant and LeBron James, first there had to be this bunch of no-names in 1936.
On a political level, this team is also yet another example that politics and sports have always been linked. The only Jewish American gold medalist at the 1936 Hitler Olympics was a member of this basketball team, Sam Balter. He had to make a decision about whether he would compete in Nazi Germany after he qualified for the team.
He decided the best thing he could do was to go to Berlin, compete well, and win a gold medal. That was basically the same attitude Jesse Owens had. They could refute notions of Aryan supremacy through their athletic excellence.
Of course, even though they did win gold medals, it’s hard to say if anyone learned the lessons when you consider the Holocaust and the enduring racism in the United States.
There’s no greater example of the connections between sports and politics than the Olympics, and the ’36 Games were the ultimate illustration of that in so many ways that I explore in the book.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I hope the biggest takeaway is the idea of speaking out against injustice; not being a silent bystander. So many people have eloquently written about that as the most important lesson of the Holocaust. That is a lesson we need to remember today more than I can ever remember in my lifetime.
I met a 97-year-old Holocaust survivor in Cincinnati who had attended the 1936 Olympics as a 13-year-old Jewish kid living in Berlin. He escaped the following year and later joined the U.S. Army and interrogated Nazi POWs. Today he visits with schoolchildren in Cincinnati twice a month to talk about the Holocaust.
I asked him what he tells the kids when they ask him how we can prevent anything like that from happening again. He said the kids already know the answer to that question, and typically they’ve said the answer out loud that very morning with their hands over their hearts.
He said the answer is to always remember the last five words of the pledge of allegiance: “liberty and justice for all.” With an emphasis on “for all.” Not just liberty and justice for some people, some group deemed superior, but for all people. He says we’ve seen what can happen when we forget that.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am now writing what will be my third book. It will be called Singled Out, and it’s a biography of a fascinating man named Glenn Burke, who was the first openly gay Major League Baseball player for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland A’s in the late 1970s. He also invented the “high five” and died of AIDS in the mid-1990s.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: My books are written for teens and adults. I love visiting middle schools and high schools to share these stories. I think that sports-related books can be appealing to many kids. I write about important issues of social justice in what I hope is an accessible and exciting way. I’ve visited schools in 25 states so far and hope to get to all 50! Teachers and librarians can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if they are interested in arranging a visit.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Andrew Maraniss.