Long before youngsters retooled “bad” into slang with connotations meaning “good,” Gene Johnson was doing the same thing and making basketball history.
The former University of Wichita coach (1928-33) took a cue from a horrible Mexican team and transformed it into a concept that took him and a bunch of Kansas players to this country’s first basketball gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Now, the 84-year-old former basketball innovator watches television at his home in Overland Park and sees Georgetown and Louisville and “most all the good teams” use the same tactic he pioneered 50 years ago – full-court zone pressure defense.
Eleven former members of Globe Refinery basketball teams, including Johnson and four members of the ’36 Olympic team, are scheduled to attend a reunion today and Friday in McPherson, marking the 50th anniversary of the Olympic team.
Fifty years ago, Johnson was considered a renegade, a maverick with his “fire department” style.
His teams were “bad” – in the most idiomatic sense of the word, as in “look out for these guys.”
“We pushed the ball up the floor and forced the game into bad basketball, and we played bad basketball better than anybody,” said Johnson.
“One AAU coach, George Gardner of the Reno Creameries, said it wasn’t basketball at all,” Johnson recalled. “I said, ‘Well, if it’s not, it will do. Because the crowd loves to watch it, boys love to play it and we nearly always win.’ ”
That they did. He led the Shockers to a 14-2 record in his final season there, then took Globe to the national AAU finals twice, winning the title once.
Johnson did well even before he discovered the zone press. He is still the third winningest coach in WSU history with a .755 winning percentage (74-24) and in 1929 led the Wichita Henrys to the first of their three national AAU titles. The Mexican team? They were terrible, said Johnson, but they double-teamed the ball all over the floor.
His Shockers faced them on a goodwill tour to Mexico.
“We were able to beat them because we were a better team, but they chased us all over the floor and upset us so badly.”
He applied a few safeguards and the rest is history. It was a style of basketball for which WU became famous.
But it wasn’t Johnson who brought it to the Shockers. He practiced it only in his last year there – 1933. It was Ralph Miller, who picked it up from another coach who had learned it from Johnson. Miller used it to make WSU a national power in the 1960s.
Miller gives Johnson full credit for the concept. Johnson broke the mold while Hall of Famers Hank Iba of Oklahoma A&M and Phog Allen of the University of Kansas still were perfecting their theories of half-court basketball with set plays and ball control.
You won’t find Johnson’s name in the basketball history books alongside those of Iba or Allen or basketball inventor James Naismith. That doesn’t bother Johnson.
“I watch basketball on television and I feel proud,” said the Emporia native. “I sort of feel like I invented the modern game.”
Johnson’s teams at Wichita and Kansas Wesleyan never finished lower than second in their leagues.
Johnson said he never wrote a book, and he didn’t stay in the college ranks long enough to make his mark like Iba and Allen.
“Wichita cut my salary twice so I went,” he said. “The AAU was like the pros in its day.”
The AAU was where the money was, and Johnson coached the Globe Refiners of McPherson to the National AAU championship and eventually to the world championship in those ’36 Olympics.
Sound like the beginning of a dynasty? Well, it wasn’t. Globe, which moved its headquarters from Blackwell, Okla., to Wichita in 1936, decided not to sponsor the team in 1937.
“When I organized the team I went to the head man of the company (I.A. O’Shaughnessy) and he thought it was a great idea, but the sales manager thought I went over his head and he never forgave us,” said Johnson.
“It’s a hell of a note to come home with a world championship basketball team and have to disband it,” said Johnson.
“We got lots of publicity. If I had coached the team today with all the television, I would have been a rich man.”
The team split up. A few of the players who still worked at the Globe refinery played a low-key brand of ball in 1937, but things never were the same. Johnson and his “fire department” technique soared to the top of the basketball world in the 1930s. It was a golden era of basketball in Kansas. His Globe Refiners finished as national AAU runnerup in 1935 to the Wichita Henrys, then won the title in 1936.
During the same period, the Wichita Henrys were winning three national AAU titles and Wichita’s Forum for nine of the 11 years between 1929 and 1939 was the site of the national AAU women’s tournament with Wichita’s Thurstons a perennial national power.
Nobody in this era had a more lasting effect on basketball than Johnson. Still, he said he is not bitter that he wasn’t able to stay around long enough to get into the history books.
“I didn’t care that much about the publicity,” he said.
For a man who didn’t care, he had the Barnum and Bailey touch. John Kieran, New York sports columnist, called him the “Dizzy Dean of basketball.”
The Refiners were billed as the world’s tallest team and and they scored points at a dizzying clip.
Johnson never was bashful about his team’s abilities. He didn’t use poetry, as former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali did, but he made predictions.
Before going against a team of New York-area college all-stars coached by the legendary Clair Bee of Long Island University, Johnson said, “If we can’t beat a bunch of college guys, I’m a very, very bad coach.”
His comments so inspired the collegians that the Refiners found themselves trailing by 14 points before pulling out a 45-43 victory before 7,000 fans in Madison Square Garden.
Johnson said he wasn’t bragging.
“I was sincere about it,” he said. “We proved we were the best team in the world. I felt a coach ought to be honest. If you think you can win, you ought to say so.
“It was kind of unusual, because if you say that and don’t win, you’re kind of a goat.”
Johnson lived up to his boasting all but six times in 1936 with a 34-6 record. He said one of those losses was the result of an agreement to try not to embarrass one foe.
It was at the Olympic trials in Madison Square Garden. The Refiners beat Hollywood’s Universal Studios team four of five times in 1936, including a 47-35 conquest in the title game of the national AAU tournament.
Jimmy Needles, who had built St. Ignatius (now San Francisco University) into a national power, was coach of the Universal team. In the finals of the Olympic trials, Universal won 44-43.
“We didn’t use the zone press, on purpose,” said Johnson. “Jimmy came to me and said, ‘Gene, don’t beat us by 15 or 20 points like you always do.’ I was to be the Olympic coach anyway, and both teams were going to the Olympics, so we agreed to take it easy on them.”
The records say that Needles was the head coach at the Olympics but Johnson said he was. Only seven players were allowed to suit up for each game so the U.S. platooned in the Olympics, the Universals playing one game and the Refiners the next.
’’We had a private agreement that I would coach the team, “ said Johnson. “You see who played in the final game, don’t you? Four of my players, one of theirs and one sub from the University of Washington.”
It was always the zone press that did the trick for Johnson. In the only year he used the zone press at Wichita U., 1933, the results were phenomenal. His ’33 Shockers were 14-2 and beat foes by an average of 47-34. Meanwhile, by comparison, Allen’s KU Jayhawkers were winning by average scores of 32-23. Scoring 47 points in 1933 was tantamount to scoring 94 points today. Johnson’s 1936 AAU champions averaged almost 50 points a game and had a winning margin of 13.4 points.
The leading scorers on that team were the coach’s brother, Francis, at 10.7 points a game, and 6-foot-9 center Joe Fortenbery at 9.4.
Francis, at 6-1, played on a towering front line that included 6-10 Willard Schmidt, a former Creighton University player. Fortenberry was from Happy, Texas, and had played for West Texas Teachers College (now West Texas State). Francis and guard Jack Ragland of Wichita both played for Coach Johnson at Wichita University. The other starter was Bill Wheatley, who at 6-4 was taller than many centers of the day. He was from Kipp High near Gypsum.
Fortenberry and Schmidt were two of the earliest players to dunk a basketball.
“When we played in Madison Square Garden it was the first time anybody in New York had ever seen a dunk,” said Coach Johnson. “They were fascinated. We didn’t do it in the game but in the warmups and stuff.
“We didn’t have any players that anybody would want,” said Coach Johnson. “We had a pickup team. But it was our style that gave us a chance to do individual things.
“Wheatley had never played anything but high school ball but he made All-America both years. So did Francis and Joe Fortenberry.”
It was always the zone press that won for Johnson. It was a 2-2-1 formation almost identical to the one Louisville uses today. Georgetown uses zone pressure, too. Coach John Wooden used zone presses (3-1-1 and 3-2) to lead UCLA to 10 NCAA championships. And Miller still is using zone pressure successfully at Oregon State.
“We double-teamed the ball,” said Johnson. “One man could never get the ball, but two could get the ball or force a bad pass.
“I had a brother, Harold Johnson, who coached successfully for 16 years at Parsons High School. His teams couldn’t have beat anybody, but with the zone press he beat nearly everybody.”
Johnson coached at Kansas Wesleyan for six years after leaving Globe.
“Then I went into insurance and made 10 times more money than I ever made coaching.”
Although coaching never was rewarding for Johnson financially, he says he was rewarded in other ways. The 1936 team got plenty of attention at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
“We all got medals and things,” said Johnson. “They honored our team particularly and introduced us between halves.
“We were the first ones to win a gold medal in the Olympics. They can’t take that away from us.”