A Canadian is auctioning off the game ball used in the first Olympic gold medal basketball game.
Jimmy Stewart, 74, owns the ball. Stewart’s father, James, was a member of the Canadian team, the Windsor Ford V8’s from Windsor, Ont. They placed second, losing to the United States in a game played outdoors in the rain on a muddy tennis court.
After the game, Stewart's mother discretely walked off the muddy Berlin court with the ball wrapped in a blanket.
“The weather caused the spectators to wear Hudson Bay blankets for protection from cold and protection from the rain,” Stewart said. “[My father] walked over to my mother and told her to put it under the blanket and keep it as a souvenir.”
The story goes that James Stewart showed his teammates the ball while steaming back to Canada on a ship.
The ball — a lumpy, oblong piece of leather that looks more like a volleyball than a basketball — has been in the Stewart family ever since. It's marked with the manufacturer's name, "Berg," on one side and the word "Basket-Ball."
“It has not been handled in many, many years – 75 now,” Stewart said. “It has been on display a few times.”
Otherwise, it’s also been stored safely in a vault, said Stewart, who now lives in Pickering, near Toronto.
Stewart said he thought of giving the ball to a museum or hall of fame, including the Windsor-Essex Sports Hall of Fame, now that it has a permanent home and display in the Windsor’s new $78-million aquatic centre.
“But I changed my mind,” he said.
“Our family never became very interested in the game, other than myself. We got to the point it was not being shared with people,” Stewart said. “We’ve come to the point now, with the [original] rules of basketball going for $4 million, I thought it was time to put it to auction and see what we can get for the ball.”
The rules penned by Canadian James Naismith sold for $4.4 million US. It was subject of an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, for which sports marketer Keith Zimmerman was interviewed.
Zimmerman worked with the Naismith family for years.
Rich Hughes, author of Netting Out Basketball 1936, a book that details the sport at the 1936 Olympic Games, put Stewart in touch with Zimmerman.
Hoping for 'six figures'
Zimmerman is helping Stewart sell the ball through Golden Auctions. Zimmerman says at least one auction house has previously authenticated the ball but says the story alone is enough — the way it was acquired and the fact James Naismith handed out the medals after the game.
“There is plenty of provenance on the ball. That ball has been been with the family from the day it left Berlin to the day it got back to Canada. There is story after story. There are all kinds of tracings,” Zimmerman said.
He expects the ball to net “six figures.”
”But when it’s one of a kind like this, really, nobody knows,” Zimmerman said.
A 1936 gold medal won by Jesse Owens recently sold for $1.47 million US. Zimmerman doesn’t expect the ball to fetch quite that much.
'I don't want to be disappointed.' - Jimmy Stewart
“We’d be really happy if it was in that $250,000 to $750,000 range,” he said.
Stewart won’t say what he hopes to get.
“I’m hoping that it’s quite high. But I’d rather not say,” he said “I don’t want to be disappointed.”
Zimmerman said almost no one in the U.S. knows the ball even exists, but the story is starting to make the rounds. Stewart said he was just interviewed by Sports Illustrated.
The ball will be auctioned off July 12.