It was Los Angeles' first world-class basketball team, a dream team before anyone used the term, and they brought Olympic gold home to Southern California. Since then, West, Jabbar, Magic and Shaq have come along. Basketball has gained the power to turn teenagers into millionaires. And the tale of those first champions has faded, except in the memory of a tall, beautiful, brown-eyed lady of 90, who keeps it alive in a cluttered house on a quiet street in Glendale.
"As far back as I can remember, it's been basketball," says Mary Agnes Lubin. She sits at the table in her sun room and smooths the tablecloth with her large, supple hands. Before her, a scrapbook is opened to old black-and-white pictures of ballplayers in stiff poses. "My husband was a basketball bum," she says with a wry smile. "But it was basketball that got him involved in a little bit of history."
The bit of history that was lived by Frank J. Lubin, and shared by Mary Agnes, began America's remarkable dominance of Olympic basketball, which will again be on display next month in Sydney, Australia. Capturing the gold 64 years ago would have been adventure enough, but the Lubins' odyssey took them from a gym in Wichita, Kan., to a life well beyond sports, into love and war and geopolitics.
DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION, BEFORE THE BIRTH OF professional leagues, amateur basketball was big-time entertainment in the United States. In Southern California, teams were sponsored by movie studios and other large businesses, sporting such names as the Universals and the Paramounts. They played to packed gyms and auditoriums (sometimes onstage), routinely trounced the top college teams and occasionally traveled across the country for games. National championships were conducted by the Amateur Athletic Union, which precluded participation by the handful of existing professional teams, such as the original Celtics from New York and the Harlem Globetrotters.
"These amateur teams received the coverage in the sports pages and drew the crowds," says Robert Bradley of the Assn. for Professional Basketball Research. "Before the national pro leagues, they were the big-time teams." Once the National Basketball Assn. was established in 1949, amateur teams became a source of talent. K.C. Jones was an Amateur Athletic Union All-American before he was an NBA star. So too were Bob Boozer and Cazzie Russell.
In 1932, one of the best amateur teams in the West was the Pasadena Majors, which was backed by a local bakery. Lubin, a former UCLA All-American who stood 6-foot-6 1/2, was the Majors' starting center. He was an intimidating defensive player, an aggressive rebounder and so shy that he nearly lost the love of his life, Mary Agnes. The two met that year in Wichita when the Majors were playing a local men's squad at a sold-out arena. Mary Agnes, who played for a Wichita women's team, was in the crowd. She cheered for the home team but remembers spending much of the night gazing at the opposing team's center. She knew she had to meet him. As luck would have it, a telegram for one of Lubin's teammates arrived the next day at the hotel telegraph office where Mary Agnes worked. When she telephoned to announce the arrival of the telegram, Lubin answered, and she started a conversation by asking him about a cut finger he had suffered during the game.
Later in the day, she called again and told Lubin that she was going to a basketball game in Kansas City. They met there and afterward went to a dance, where sparks flew. But the tall young man soon went home to California. "We stayed in touch long distance," recalls Mary Agnes. "That same year my sister and I and two girlfriends all came out to Los Angeles for the 1932 Olympics. They saw the Olympics. I saw Frank Lubin."
Though she didn't know it at the time, Mary Agnes was Lubin's first real date, and when they kissed, it was his first. But Lubin was profoundly shy and couldn't manage to say what he felt about her. So after Mary Agnes returned to Wichita, she began seeing someone else, a Kansas boy. He eventually asked her to marry, and though she hesitated at first, she eventually said yes.
With the wedding plans underway, Mary Agnes and her sister decided to take one last trip together. The sisters were extraordinarily close and, for the times, remarkably free to do as they wished. They headed back to California. It was the summer of 1934. She looked up Lubin, who suddenly found his voice.
"When I told him I was engaged, he immediately said, 'No! You have to marry me!' " she recalls. "I took my engagement ring off and gave it to my sister. Frank gave me his fraternity pin and that was it." In February 1935, Mary Agnes Wahlmeier and Frank Lubin were married. "By then Frank had been hired as a grip at Universal Pictures," she says. "Even though it was the Depression, they always made movies, and I knew he was going to always make a living."
Frank Lubin did work on movies. But he first attracted Universal's attention because he was well over 6 feet and could shoot very well. In those days, Universal claimed several of the best players in the country, including Charlie Hyatt, a University of Pittsburgh graduate whom Lubin thought the top player in America. Hyatt was instrumental in recruiting a new coach for the Universal team who helped Lubin become more mobile. As Lubin recalled for an Amateur Athletic Foundation oral history project, "I could shoot either left or right-handed. And I had a quick step at the beginning to get away from the defensive man. So I started scoring . . . ."
The studio team was good enough to sweep the competition in Southern California and make annual trips to the AAU championships in Denver. They traveled by car or bus and played in many of the cities they passed through on the way. The team's mission, in addition to basketball, was to promote Universal movies, and in 1935, the big release was "Bride of Frankenstein." So before each game, Lubin would be made up like the movie monster and sent out to work the crowd. Lubin recalled that he wore "raised shoes, about six inches high, the ragged coat, a little headdress and the little metal things they put on my neck. And I really looked like Frankenstein . . . . I'd come out before the games and stimulate the crowd, walk in front of them and they'd get excited. I'd go back to the dressing room after five or 10 minutes, and our team is already playing, and maybe losing, and I'd come back out in my regular uniform and start playing in the game."
With Lubin in the lineup, the Universal team won everywhere it played, until it reached Denver and the AAU finals. There the Universals ran into the Globe Oilers of McPherson, Kan. "They had a 6-foot-9, a 6-foot-11 and a 6-foot-7 man in their front line," Lubin remembered. The Universals lost by 13 points.
In an ordinary year, that second-place finish at the national championship tournament would have marked the end of the season. But the International Olympic Committee had announced it would add basketball to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. U.S. officials brought the top five college teams, the best YMCA team and the top two AAU teams to New York to play for the right to represent their country.
The Universal team got into trouble even before the tournament began when the U.S. Olympic Committee found out that two of the athletes had once played semipro baseball, for which they were paid $10 per game. The payments meant the players had forfeited their amateur status, and they were banned by the U.S. Olympic Committee. Lubin was interrogated as part of the investigation, but was cleared by the others, who said he had never taken money to compete.
With just seven men, Universal proceeded to knock off the University of Arkansas and the YMCA team. Then, on April 5, 1936, in Madison Square Garden, they lined up once again against the fearsome Oilers. This time Lubin and his teammates played more aggressive defense and tried to run past the Oilers' big men on fast-breaks. "We were running around in the corners and getting shots that they never expected us to take," he recalled. The Universals "made the Kansans take most of their shots off balance, cut them down to their own size with the tenacity of their guarding and outsmarted them," the studio's in-house newspaper reported. The 44-43 upset victory gave the Universals the right to represent the United States in Berlin. Frank "Frankenstein" Lubin was the second-highest scorer for the team, with 11 points.
UNIVERSAL PICTURES WAS OBVIOUSLY proud of its team, but the idea of sending players to Hitler's Berlin for games that promised to be a showcase for Nazi pride was a problem. In the end, studio executives decided not to support the trip and warned that any player who went to Germany might not have a job when he came back.
The players, including Sam Balter, who was Jewish, chose to go anyway. They crossed the country on money they raised playing exhibitions, reaching New York in time to board the USS Manhattan to cross the Atlantic. On the nine-day voyage to Germany, the Universals and seven other players selected to fill out the team worked out on the ship's deck. When they landed, they were taken directly to the Olympic Village--and were shocked when they saw the basketball arena. It was an outdoor court, with a surface of gravel, surrounded by a low concrete wall. Why the deplorable conditions? "Hitler . . . didn't have a team," Lubin recalled.
On that gravel court, with a crowd composed of family, friends and a handful of other athletes, the Americans swept through the field, reaching the finals to play against Canada in the pouring rain. With the water held in by the concrete wall, the court became one giant puddle. Dribbling the basketball was out of the question. Passing and shooting were the only options. "There must have been two inches of water on the court," Lubin recounted. "Nobody wanted to catch the ball because the water would splash in their faces."
The Americans managed to sink a few more waterlogged shots than the Canadians did, winning 19 to 8.
Isolated in the Olympic Village, Lubin saw little of Nazism--except for flags and the Fuhrer himself--until the games ended, when an official from the Lithuanian Olympic Committee (Lubin's father was Lithuanian) took him on a tour of Berlin. Decades later, Lubin recalled the shock of seeing signs that designated which restaurants served Jews and which did not. At a swimming hall he saw a warning--"Juden Verboten"--that had been removed during the games but reinstalled after the closing ceremonies. Even then, Lubin knew "it was a harbinger of things to come."
SHORTLY AFTER THE GAMES, THE LITHUANIANS BROUGHT THE Lubins to their country, where Frank was welcomed like a long-lost son by the president. (Lubin's father had left Lithuania during a Russian occupation.) He was honored at one banquet after another and then drafted to train local athletes in basketball. He was asked to coach and play for the national team through one tournament, and then another. Gradually, the visit turned into a job, one that lasted three years, with Mary Agnes at his side. Lubin, known to the locals as Pranas Lubinas, transformed the Lithuanians into a European powerhouse.
Through those years, Frank and Mary Agnes Lubin had been reading about the Nazi campaign against the Jews and felt the gathering of the storm that would become World War II. Austria agreed to be annexed by the Nazis in 1938. In 1939, as the German army massed for its invasion of Poland, the Lubins went to Italy for a basketball tournament. They intended it to be their last campaign for the Lithuanian team before they hurried back to America. More than 50 years later, Mary Agnes recalls the fear that slowly enveloped her.
"We traveled through Poland and then Germany just as the war was starting," she says. "In Milan, I sat right in front of Mussolini's son at the basketball game and we had quite a chat." When they left Milan, the Lubins intended to return to Lithuania through Germany. But they were stopped at a border crossing and refused entry. The war had begun and American citizens needed special visas. Remembering her contact with the younger Mussolini, Mary Agnes called him and he arranged for the proper papers.
Back in Lithuania, the Lubins found a country breaking down. The shelves of grocery stores had been emptied and fears of an invasion were rampant. The money they had saved in a local bank to pay for their return to the United States had mysteriously disappeared. Friends and teammates came to their aid, putting up the cash for two tickets on a ship that took them to Estonia and then Norway, where they boarded an ocean liner for New York. Twice on the way, German U-boat submarines, prowling the North Atlantic, surfaced to stop the ship. On one of those encounters, Nazi officers boarded and inspected the vessel before letting it proceed. "I guess we all held our breath," recalls Mary Agnes. "And we were pretty happy to see America again."
THE LUBINS CAME HOME TO SETTLE IN GLENDALE AND RAISE a son and a daughter, who would eventually fill their lives with grandchildren. Even though years had passed, Universal Pictures stuck to its position and refused to take Frank Lubin and the other players back as employees. But Lubin still held a union card and soon found work with 20th Century Fox. He picked up basketball again, too, and played for another 20 years. In 1941, he and the rest of the Fox team won the national amateur championship. He served in the Air Force during the war and played on an Air Force team that split two games with the Globetrotters.
After the war, Lubin followed basketball closely, both in America and Lithuania, which had been absorbed into the Soviet Union. Thanks to Lubin's legacy, Lithuanian players remained prominent on the Soviet team until their country gained independence at the end of the Cold War. In 1989, on the 50th anniversary of Lithuania's 1939 triumph in the European games, Lubin returned to the country to be celebrated as the godfather of what had become a national sport.
Lubin played long before big money was part of the sport, but Mary Agnes says the game made her husband rich in many ways. It filled his life, and hers, with wholly unexpected excitement, achievement, adventure and love. On July 8 last year, sometime after dawn, he awoke and turned in the bed he had shared with her for 60 years. He gently touched her hand and curled himself beside her. These lazy, unhurried moments are life's sweetest part, and Mary Agnes and Frank had come to savor them. They dozed together for about an hour. When she awoke, she recalls, tears flooding her eyes, "The old boy was gone." He was 89.
On hearing of Lubin's death, the Lithuanian government sent its condolences and is creating a postage stamp to honor him. At the funeral, friends and neighbors came forward with tales of a big man's quiet kindness. One told how Lubin had met him and his wife at the doctor's office so that he could carry her up the stairs. Others recalled how he had paid their bills during hard times or counseled their children when they got into trouble.
The stories confirmed for Mary Agnes a truth that she realized at the very first Olympic basketball game, and will be recalling during the 2000 Games, the first that her husband won't be around to see. "I believe my husband really won the gold medal in life," she says, "not just basketball."