Bill Dennis remembers the stories his father-in-law Bill Wheatley would tell about playing in the 1936 Olympics.
It was the first time basketball was a medal sport in the international event, and the United States won gold in Berlin. As team captain, Wheatley went up to the podium during the medal ceremony and received the Olympic wreath and first basketball gold medal from James Naismith, who invented the game. His teammates each received their medals afterward.
“Going to the Olympics and then winning and being the first person to receive the Olympic gold medal for basketball was an extreme honor for him,” the 78-year-old Dennis told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home in El Cerrito, California. “He couldn’t describe the feeling to get the medal, the crowds and everything.”
With the sport’s popularity still in its infancy — and before the birth of the NBA — the Olympic organizers had the games played on an outdoor dirt court. The United States beat the Philippines 56-23 in the quarterfinals, and then defeated Mexico 25-10 in the semifinals to advance to the gold medal game against Canada.
The championship was then played during a rainstorm with puddles all over the court that made dribbling difficult. The U.S. won 19-8, helped by its height advantage that allowed it to pass the ball a little more efficiently.
“He’d say, ‘You can’t believe it. You’d take the damn ball and you’re dribbling, and the damn ball’s not bouncing,’” Dennis recalls Wheatley saying. “He said, ‘It was just dirt and puddles and water. ... It was hard to go back and forth on the court. It was miserable.’ They were thrilled they won the game.”
Wheatley, a native of Gypsum, Kansas, was playing AAU basketball for his company team while working for Globe Oil & Refining Co. at the time he made the Olympic team. After the Berlin Games, Wheatley played AAU ball for several years, and then got into coaching before going into carpentry in the late 1940s.
Dennis married Wheatley’s daughter Suzanne in 1968, and remembers an incident a few years later when his father-in-law’s house was burglarized. Several silver coins were stolen out of a television cabinet but the gold medal in the same drawer was left behind. Wheatley was then persuaded to send some items, including the gold medal and AAU championship trophies to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Wheatley died in 1992, and when the Hall of Fame returned the items to his family they went to Dennis as executor of Wheatley’s estate. Now, he’s decided to sell them as part of Heritage Auctions’ Winter Platinum Night Sports Auction offerings.
Dennis says Wheatley had told him, “If you ever want to sell the medal, just do it. Somebody will appreciate it. I decided it was time for the medal to move on.”
Heritage has estimated the medal could go for more than $60,000. In 2015, the medal awarded to Wheatley’s teammate Carl Shy was sold at auction for $66,000.
Another notable item available in the auction is a signed letter by baseball star Lou Gehrig to his doctors at the Mayo Clinic in which he discusses his ALS. The letter is dated Dec. 2, 1939 — nearly five months after his “Luckiest Man” speech at Yankee Stadium. The four-page letter, estimated to be valued around $80,000, concludes with a pencil signature and a note to his doctor saying he was providing “a specimen of my handwriting.”
“A look into this letter and into his correspondence with his doctors makes for a really neat piece,” said Chris Ivy, Heritage’s director of sports auctions. “To be able to have what very well could be his last signed letter would be very interesting to a collector and something that really was able to set their collection apart as one of the elite autograph collections in the world.”
Bidding on the items in the auction ends Sunday.