Globe Refiners started McPherson's basketball success

By Steve Sell
August 12, 2016

McPherson is a basketball town. 

In Kansas, it may be THE basketball town.

The old wise tale is that when a child is born, in its crib is a basketball. You can’t go down a street without seeing a basketball goal or two or three in the driveway. They start them at an early age, traveling teams as young as the third grade. By the time kids reach the middle school, some of them have more than 100 games under their belts.

Of course, McPherson is the gold standard of Kansas high school basketball. While the boys team doesn’t have as many state titles as Wyandotte and the girls as many championships as private school Miege, for pure longevity the MHS program arguably has sustained at a higher level than any other.

The town's basketball prowess got its start, however, with the McPherson Globe Refiners, a town team that thrilled thousands in these parts and were adored by millions after six members helped the United States Olympic team win the gold medal at the contentious 1936 Games, much to the dismay of crazed Germany dictator Adolf Hitler, who was hoping the Games would prove that his country was the world's super power. 

It's a team that revolutionized how the game was played—"firehouse basketball" as it was known to some. It all came together under coach Gene Johnson, the John Wooden of his era in terms of strategic creativity.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 80 years since the U.S. team defeated Canada on that rainy day that turned the outdoor court into a quagmire. With Joe Fortenberry and Willard Schmidt towering a half-foot over their opponents, the U.S. team played volleyball on the backboards and were difficult to shoot over.

The 80th anniversary of McPherson’s founding basketball fathers will take place on Saturday at the McPherson Museum. Expected to be on hand are family members of some of the players who helped create this legendary team that grew to almost mythical proportions.

There are many activities planned and it should be a fun night for all. There will even be a trolley ride to the Community Building, where much of the trivia about the team is housed as that's where it played its home games.

I can remember in 1986 when there was a town-wide celebration of the 50th anniversary of the team, which drew a crowd from everywhere. I enjoyed my time talking with team guard Bill Wheatley, who was such a character as he shared with me many stories about those golden years.

The Globe team put McPherson on the map. While it was like a meteor flashing through the sky as it was together only a short time, its impact was everlasting. Many years ago I loved talking to some of the "old-timers" around town who never missed watching the team play. The tales almost seemed too tall — just like the team, which was billed as "The World's Tallest Team" — but who am I to question? The team was so talented and so good and the players were like rock stars. Yet they still worked everyday jobs and played ball at night.

The Globe team had an obvious effect on McPherson as basketball became a staple. From Jack Randle to Jay Frazier to Mike Henson and now with Kurt Kinnamon, the boys' program has provided more thrills than any town should expect with 13 state championships. And girls coaches John Hoffman, Scott Schaefer and Chris Strathman guided eight teams to state championships. 

You have to wonder, would basketball success in McPherson been achieved without the Globe Refiners? Probably so, but that team certainly deserves a mark in the assist column.