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First Dream, First Love, First Gold

In Another Time, in a Forbidding Place, a Team of Universal Studios Employees Played Its Way to the First Olympic Gold Medal in Basketball

August 20, 2000|Michael D'Antonio | Michael D'Antonio's last piece for the magazine was about couples who choose not to marry

It was Los Angeles' first world-class basketball team, a dream team before anyone used the term, and they brought Olympic gold home to Southern California. Since then, West, Jabbar, Magic and Shaq have come along. Basketball has gained the power to turn teenagers into millionaires. And the tale of those first champions has faded, except in the memory of a tall, beautiful, brown-eyed lady of 90, who keeps it alive in a cluttered house on a quiet street in Glendale.

"As far back as I can remember, it's been basketball," says Mary Agnes Lubin. She sits at the table in her sun room and smooths the tablecloth with her large, supple hands. Before her, a scrapbook is opened to old black-and-white pictures of ballplayers in stiff poses. "My husband was a basketball bum," she says with a wry smile. "But it was basketball that got him involved in a little bit of history."

The bit of history that was lived by Frank J. Lubin, and shared by Mary Agnes, began America's remarkable dominance of Olympic basketball, which will again be on display next month in Sydney, Australia. Capturing the gold 64 years ago would have been adventure enough, but the Lubins' odyssey took them from a gym in Wichita, Kan., to a life well beyond sports, into love and war and geopolitics.

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DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION, BEFORE THE BIRTH OF professional leagues, amateur basketball was big-time entertainment in the United States. In Southern California, teams were sponsored by movie studios and other large businesses, sporting such names as the Universals and the Paramounts. They played to packed gyms and auditoriums (sometimes onstage), routinely trounced the top college teams and occasionally traveled across the country for games. National championships were conducted by the Amateur Athletic Union, which precluded participation by the handful of existing professional teams, such as the original Celtics from New York and the Harlem Globetrotters.

"These amateur teams received the coverage in the sports pages and drew the crowds," says Robert Bradley of the Assn. for Professional Basketball Research. "Before the national pro leagues, they were the big-time teams." Once the National Basketball Assn. was established in 1949, amateur teams became a source of talent. K.C. Jones was an Amateur Athletic Union All-American before he was an NBA star. So too were Bob Boozer and Cazzie Russell.

In 1932, one of the best amateur teams in the West was the Pasadena Majors, which was backed by a local bakery. Lubin, a former UCLA All-American who stood 6-foot-6 1/2, was the Majors' starting center. He was an intimidating defensive player, an aggressive rebounder and so shy that he nearly lost the love of his life, Mary Agnes. The two met that year in Wichita when the Majors were playing a local men's squad at a sold-out arena. Mary Agnes, who played for a Wichita women's team, was in the crowd. She cheered for the home team but remembers spending much of the night gazing at the opposing team's center. She knew she had to meet him. As luck would have it, a telegram for one of Lubin's teammates arrived the next day at the hotel telegraph office where Mary Agnes worked. When she telephoned to announce the arrival of the telegram, Lubin answered, and she started a conversation by asking him about a cut finger he had suffered during the game.

Later in the day, she called again and told Lubin that she was going to a basketball game in Kansas City. They met there and afterward went to a dance, where sparks flew. But the tall young man soon went home to California. "We stayed in touch long distance," recalls Mary Agnes. "That same year my sister and I and two girlfriends all came out to Los Angeles for the 1932 Olympics. They saw the Olympics. I saw Frank Lubin."

Though she didn't know it at the time, Mary Agnes was Lubin's first real date, and when they kissed, it was his first. But Lubin was profoundly shy and couldn't manage to say what he felt about her. So after Mary Agnes returned to Wichita, she began seeing someone else, a Kansas boy. He eventually asked her to marry, and though she hesitated at first, she eventually said yes.

With the wedding plans underway, Mary Agnes and her sister decided to take one last trip together. The sisters were extraordinarily close and, for the times, remarkably free to do as they wished. They headed back to California. It was the summer of 1934. She looked up Lubin, who suddenly found his voice.

"When I told him I was engaged, he immediately said, 'No! You have to marry me!' " she recalls. "I took my engagement ring off and gave it to my sister. Frank gave me his fraternity pin and that was it." In February 1935, Mary Agnes Wahlmeier and Frank Lubin were married. "By then Frank had been hired as a grip at Universal Pictures," she says. "Even though it was the Depression, they always made movies, and I knew he was going to always make a living."

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