“To write the story of the Olympic Championship is a welcome task, albeit, a difficult one,” wrote W.H. Harmon, the Team Manager for the 1904 Hiram College Olympic Gold Medal Basketball team.
This Olympic honor was years in coming. Hiram began playing basketball in 1893-94. In that year, they played in the first intercollegiate game in the state of Ohio, defeating Mount Union 12-1. The College had a team every year since 1897, posting a least a .500 record in 10 of the first 11 seasons, eight of which were winning. In their first six years of competition, Hiram had won four state basketball titles.
Then, in 1903-04, the basketball team posted a 9-1 record. This was noticed on the national stage, and they were invited to participate in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. At that point, basketball was not yet introduced as an Olympic sport. Hiram received the honor, along with two other teams, to show the rest of the nation what basketball was all about.
On the World Fair Court, Hiram’s challengers were Wheaton College and the Latter Day Saints University. The Hiram College team was privileged to practice at home on a wooden, indoor court, which was rare for colleges at the time. However, this fight for victory would be outside on a clay court.
The previous morning, a thunderstorm had drenched the area. Puddles lined the outside of the playing area and slippery courts meant that the game would have to be stopped often to dry off the ball. With such conditions, Wheaton College seemed to be at an advantage – their team played with cleats that could beat the slippery clay.
“The sun blazing down from an almost cloudless sky foretold quick removal,” said Harmon of the soaked ground.
He was right. Hiram won their first game against Wheaton 25-20, as the opposing team’s cleats became caked in dry mud.
Challenging the Latter Day Saints University (now Brigham Young University) as their second rival, the Hiram College Basketball team won with a 25-18 victory on that damp clay court in St. Louis. In that moment, they became the champions of basketball before the world even knew what the sport was.
During the time, basketball wasn’t played with quite the same methods as 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 mid-court 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,” wrote Tom Cammet ’85 in his article Going for the Gold: Hiram’s Glory.
To write the story of the championship is to write the story of Hiram College. The College is passionate and always ready for the new challenges that the world passes.
A legacy to remember
Today, the legacy of the team still lives on. Presented by the Ohio History Connection, the story of Hiram’s Olympic Gold Medal is featured in the Ohio Champion of Sports exhibit at the Ohio History Center in Columbus, Ohio. The exhibit is highly interactive and full of stories told by athletes, owners, and coaches through recorded interview. It opened in March 2019 with a ribbon cutting and remarks ceremony and will remain open until Labor Day 2020.
“The exhibit is an homage to all of the sports greatness that Ohio has offered the rest of the Nation over the last century,” said Jerrod Plate, director of sports information at Hiram College. “Athletic feats, and athletes from the state who helped shape our sports landscape, such as Lebron James, Buster Douglas, and Pete Rose are all on display. Hiram was a perfect inclusion because we remain the only collegiate institution to own a team Olympic medal, a feat which helped shape the game of basketball throughout the state.”
A preview of the exhibit