Documenting Basketball Cards from the First ‘Dream Team’

Talk ‘Dream Team’ basketball and you’re likely to be discussing the iconic 1992 Olympics team, led by the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and others. But the first Olympics basketball team, of course, came much earlier.

There was technically a Team USA of sorts in the 1904 Olympics. But the game was played only as a demonstration sport as it was so new (it had only been invented a little more than a decade earlier by James Naismith) and featured only a series of games between local YMCAs and small colleges. The first real appearance of basketball in the Olympics didn’t happen until 1936. And even then, it was clear that the sport was not exactly ready for prime time.

A basketball tournament occurred at those games featuring a total of 23 teams. Even though it was a new sport to the Olympics, there was great interest. The 23 teams were actually the most of any team sport in the Olympic games that year. While teams were included from all around the world, the three medal-winning countries were all from North America — the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Unsurprisingly, the Americans won the gold/championship defeating Canada (silver), while the Mexicans won the 3rd place game against Poland.

While Canada and Mexico both field strong teams, easily defeating other opponents, the Americans were clearly the top squad in the tournament. Now, the Dream Team moniker I used was a bit misleading. That’s because, like the teams that would follow for many years, the Americans used only amateur players from college. Eight of the 14 players came from western schools, including UCLA, Washington, Los Angeles City College, and USC, with others coming from elsewhere, including Wichita State, West Texas State, Southwestern, Creighton, and Kansas Wesleyan. But with the NBA not even founded yet, these were still some of the best players around.

Leading the way for the Americans was a player named Joe Fortenberry. Along with Willard Schmidt, Fortenberry (from West Texas State) was the tallest player on the team at 6’8″. He was a captain on the team and in addition to playing in college, Fortenberry (like most of the other players on the team) played AAU ball and led his team to the 1936 National Championship just before the Olympics.

Fortenberry was not only the star of Team USA but he was the star of the entire basketball tournament, averaging an Olympic best 14.5 points per game. That might not seem like much but his average was drastically brought down by the final game, which the U.S. won 19-8. The low score was accounted for by the fact that it was played outdoors on a muddy court with rain occurring before and even during the game. Fortenberry had nearly half of the team’s total in that game and his eight points were as much as the entire Canadian team combined. After leading his team to gold, Fortenberry would continue to play AAU basketball as the NBA would not appear for another decade later. He is also known for being one of the first (if not the first) players to dunk a basketball.

Trading Cards

While there are few pre-war basketball cards, the 1936 Team USA squad is featured on at least two cards. The Olympics were held in Berlin that year and we’re fortunate that the Germans loved themselves some trading cards in the 1930s. Many companies rushed to create sets of cards featuring Olympians.

Unfortunately, these sets are very difficult to checklist. Some of the sets are extremely difficult to find and some (like the Reemtsma cards) are a bit easier but massive with several hundred cards. Finding good checklists for entire 1936 Olympics sets is not easy.

The most popular cards in these sets are generally the cards of track star Jesse Owens, who dominated the games, or of German ruler Adolf Hitler. But cards of other popular sports, including basketball and hockey, are among the next tier of key cards.

One of the Team USA basketball cards is found in the 1936 Pet Cremer Olympia set. This card features the star of the team, Fortenberry, up high at the rim. While it’s his back, it’s still a great image as it shows just how easily he towered over most of the other players. That’s the black and white card shown here. One thing that’s great about this card is that it is a picture from the iconic gold medal championship game against Canada.

The other card that knowingly features Team USA is a color card for Muhlen Franck. This card features a color image of Fortenberry going up for an apparent layup and is the only other card I know featuring Fortenberry (and maybe even Team USA basketball from that year in general).

These cards, it should be pointed out, are often called tobacco cards. However, that is not correct. Pet Cremer was a brand of soap or laundry detergent while Muhlen Franck was a coffee brand.

I should be clear here — there could be additional Team USA basketball cards from the 1936 Olympics as there were several sets created. To date, though, these are the only two that I know of.

If you’re looking for either card, neither is particularly easy to find. And dealers understanding their rarity can often ask quite a bit for them. Same goes for the Muhlen Franck card. To date, only seven of these have been graded by PSA and, like the Pet Cremer card, they are quite rare.

Asking prices can be all over the board for these. I have seen a handful sold by international sellers around $25 or so, but they rarely appear for sale and American sellers can ask for significantly more than that. These are, after all, the only known cards featuring that historic team and a historic player in Fortenberry. Just as I am not aware of other Team USA cards from that year, I do not know of any other contemporary sets in which Fortenberry appears.

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