Going for the Gold: Hiram's Glory
by Tom Cammett '85
Being the first to do something brings with it a great sense of accomplishment and sets the standard for others to follow. The trailblazing spirit, which has been exemplified by Hiram College throughout the past 150 years, was evident when seven players, two advisors, and a mascot boarded a train bound for St. Louis, Missouri, in July of 1904 to compete at the Olympic Games in the demonstration sport of basketball at the World's Fair.
In what was the third Olympic competition of the modern era,
Hiram showcased itself in a sport that would soon gain worldwide
popularity--basketball. Hiram was selected as one of the three
teams to compete for the Olympic Intercollegiate World's
Championship as a result of its position as one of the top
collegiate squads in the state of Ohio. That tradition dates back
to Hiram's second season of collegiate basektball competition
(1898-1899) when the Terriers were crowned state champions. They
repeated as state champions in 1899-1900, 1900-1901, and
Hiram's excellence in basketball stemmed from what the founder of the game, James Naismith, believed were its natural benefits. His creation was ideal for small groups of athletes for fitness and recreation during the winter months. It was also a game that could be enjoyed by all regardless of the competitor's stature. Thus, basketball was a game perfectly suited for Hiram College. Its requirement of five players in uniforms that amounted to a sleeveless jersey, shorts, and canvas and gum rubber soled shoes was perfect for an institution with a small student body and limited budget.
The style of play and the rules governing what was and what wasn't allowed in those early days were very different from what we know today. The baskets were attached to the top of a pole, not a backboard. The ball had laces on the outside, similar to a football, which put passing at a premium over dribbling. You could not shoot after dribbling, only after receiving a pass. There was no three-second rule. Only shots taken using the "set-shot" style of shooting counted in the scoring. Each team would perform a center jump at midcourt following each successful basket. There was no shot clock to speed up play, so games were low-scoring affairs that highlighted ball movement to create open shots.
As they prepared for the first game in the Olympic contest, Hiram found itself with one obstacle to overcome. This particular competition would be played outdoors on a clay field which was adjacent to the Physical Culture Building. Hiram was used to playing indoors on a wooden court, so this new "arena" would provide Hiram with a challenge in addition to their muscular opponents from Illinois, Wheaton College.
The Terriers entered the competition with confidence as they had compiled a 9-1 record during the previous season. A veteran squad led by forwards J.J. Line and Paul Wilson, center J. Wallis Smith, and guard L. Hurd and C. Clarke, Hiram would battle Wheaton, 1903's national champions.
Wheaton jumped out to an early lead in the game's first five minutes with the assist of the cleated shoes the team wore on the clay court that had been muddied by a severe thunderstorm the previous evening. As a result of the previous day's deluge, the competition between Hiram and Wheaton had to be stopped several times to dry the ball off when it rolled into puddles which lined the sidelines.
However, Hiram's spirit would not be dampened on that day. Wilson, Line, Smith, Hurd, and Clarke set about the business of making their plays. They received an assist when the sun's warm rays shown through on what was described as an almost cloudless morning and quickly dried up any remnants from the previous day's downpour. Wheaton's cleated shoes soon became caked with mud and were a hindrance rather than an advantage. Wheaton's lead, which had been gained by playing an up-tempo style that they could not sustain, soon evaporated like puddles around the playing surface. Hiram, utilizing the methodical passing-style that had won them so many games the previous spring, was able to chip away at the deficit point by point, tying the game at 15-15 at the intermission. Hiram maintained its clever play in the second half to come away with a 25-20 victory.
Following a quiet luncheon, underneath a large pavilion, Hiram posed for a team picture and watched as Wheaton battled the squad from the Latter Day Saints University, which is now Brigham Young University. Wheaton prevailed 40-35 which meant Hiram would play L.D.S.U. for the championship.
An hour's respite was provided for the L.D.S.U. squad to recuperate. Hiram jumped out to an early lead and never looked back. Hiram's quintet made several remarkable plays in a game that was marked by finesse and skill. In the end, Hiram took the championship with a brilliant 25-18 victory.
Following the presentation of the gold medals to Hiram's squad and a team photo with the ornately decorated championship banner, Hiram's group ate a quiet dinner then proceeded to the midway of the Fair where they celebrated their championship late into the night.
Hiram's accomplishment becomes even more significant when you realize that no other college team has ever, nor may any ever again, have the chance to win an Olympic Championship.
Others have also recognized Hiram's accomplishment. Recently the writers at Sports Illustrated selected Hiram's Olympic Championship as one of the Most Intriguing Events of the 20th Century. Senior writer Jack McCallum said, "Once I received the background information on the the tournament from Hiram, it became apparent that this was truly a unique occurrence. My editors were looking for an intriguing sporting event from early in the 20th century and this event fit perfectly. As I learned more about the competition it became evident that this was something the like of which we may never see again."
W.H. Harmon put it best when he described in the 1906 edition of the Spider Web what it meant to him to serve as the manager of Hiram's Olympic championship squad. "The trip was of undoubted benefit to Hiram. But the real benefit is to be derived from the lessons taught us by this victory. The self-sacrifice and perseverance shown by this particular team are seldom found in any school or team. Throughout the course of hard training and the strenuous season that preceded the games themselves, the spirit exhibited by the boys cannot be too highly commended. It proved to me, possibly more than any one thing in my college career, what Hiram training, and the Hiram spirit is capable of...Vanity is not conducive to a good team and Hiram cannot afford to let the standard be lowered. Cherish always the memory of this triumph." Cherish it we shall.