Men’s basketball made its debut at the Berlin Summer Olympics in 1936 and Team Canada wasted no time making it onto the podium taking home a silver medal. With no previous tournament of its kind, there was little surprise when Canada won silver—the game was invented by a Canadian after all! (That very same Canadian inventor, James Naismith, tossed the opening jump ball of the tournament.) And while Canada fell to the United States in the gold medal game, many thought they would return to the next Olympic Games and give it another shot.
Of course, World War II delayed the next Summer Olympic Games until 1948, leading to Canada falling down the ranks and finishing ninth place in 1948, ‘52, and ‘56. And still, to this day, Canada has not medalled at the Olympics in men’s basketball since that inaugural silver in 1936, casting that initial squad as Canadian legends.
Chuck Chapman was one of those legends. In Victoria during the 1930s and 40s, Chapman played for local teams the Blue Ribbons and the Dominos. Both the Blue Ribbons and the Dominos competed against teams from across the country, winning five National Championships in dominating fashion during Chapman's 19-year career.
Chuck and his brother, Art, grew up on Shelbourne Street, playing basketball with a hoop they had tied to a tree. "He said when he started playing in high school, he could guess what the other players were doing," says Chuck Chapman's daughter, Fern Johnson.
Being able to read the other players’ intentions came in handy as the Blue Ribbons played the Harlem Globetrotters back when they were a competitive team—and won! The Globetrotters’ manager remarked that Chapman was the best Canadian he had ever seen play basketball.
In their heyday, the Blue Ribbons and the Dominos were premier entertainment for the citizens of Victoria. 2,000-3,000 fans would pack the Vic High Gymnasium to watch them play—with some students even hiding in their lockers to secure the best seats for that night's game.
Even with all their talent and fanfare, the Victoria team did not win the National Championship in 1936. The title went to the Windsor Fords of Ontario, who as the National Champions, were automatically selected to represent Canada in that year’s Olympic Games. However, for Chuck, his brother Art, and two other BC boys, the Olympic dream was not over. The Windsor Fords decided they needed a boost from a few of the better BC players and invited them to join their team for the Berlin Olympics.
To get to Berlin, Chuck, Art, and their fellow BCers travelled cross-country by train to join the men from Windsor before setting sail to Europe with the US team. They even got to know famous track and field star Jesse Owens while on the ship—he would go on to win four gold medals in those ‘36 Games.
Since basketball was in its infancy at the games, the court was set up outside on clay tennis courts. And while that was fine when the sun was shining it made for some tricky gameplay when the skies opened up the court turned to mud. In the Gold Medal game, that’s exactly what happened. Canada was playing their shipmates from the US for the Gold Medal and the entire clay court turned to mud.
"It was very muddy," Fern Johnson recalls her father telling her. "Dad made some comments about them being up to their ankles in mud, and of course, you couldn't dribble the ball in it. So it was a bit of a different kind of a game—an airborne game."
Chuck Chapman was the tallest member of the Canadian team but came in around the same height as the shortest member of the US team. With the muddy court and soaking ball, the game became one for passing. The final score of the Gold Medal game was a dismal 18-9 for the United States. Still, Canada took home a silver medal for the first-ever Olympic basketball tournament. 1936 was the first and last year basketball was ever played outside during the Olympics.
Chuck and Art Chapman returned home from Germany as Olympic Silver Medallists and would continue to play—and win—in Victoria for another decade. Chuck passed away in 2002, leaving behind his basketball legacy.
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We would like to give a special thank you to Fern Johnson for sharing her father’s story and amazing memorabilia for this piece.