1956 Melbourne Olympics Basketball – Australia’s First Basketball Heroes

1956 Olympics Australia
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Melbourne 1956

Melbourne and Australia were very different places in 1956.

Television was only introduced starting in Melbourne just 18 days before the games commenced on 22 November.

Australia had a population of just under 10 million and Melbourne just 1.6 million.

Flinders Street, Melbourne in 1956
Flinders Street, Melbourne in 1956

The games were awarded to Melbourne at a meeting of the IOC in Rome in 1949, but it was not all smooth sailing, with a lot of internal bickering and posturing about venues etc, which delayed the building program and nearly cost Melbourne the right to stage the games on 3 separate occasions.

Melbourne only won the successful bid over Buenos Aires by one vote, for the right to stage the First Games to be staged in the Southern Hemisphere.

Sir Robert Menzies was the Prime Minister and Sir William Slim the Governor General, whilst in Victoria, Sir Henry Bolte was Premier and Sir Dallas Brooks Governor .

A Different Time

Remember that it was a very different time, only 11 years since the end of WW2 , with the thoughts of the war and the difficulties it posed, still very fresh in peoples minds and all of the thousands of returned servicemen.

1956 saw the Russian Invasion of Hungary and the 2 countries were paired to play against each other in Water Polo , an event which became known as “ The Blood in the Water “ match which Hungary won 4-0, before going on to win the Gold Medal. Some say that the Russian team was given an all expenses paid trip to the Siberian Salt mines when they returned home. 

“ Blood in the Water “  -  Hungary v Russia Water Polo
“ Blood in the Water “ – Hungary v Russia Water Polo

It was also the year of the massive River Murray flood in August , the biggest flood in recorded history, with the unbelievable flood level peaks still showing today in the Towns all along the River. Hotels on the river front had water up into their first floor balconies.

International Travel  was still then only for the privileged few, with all aircraft operating still propeller driven, the Jet engine passenger planes did not commence operating until later. The major aircraft of the time was the Triple tailed Lockheed Super Constellation.

The 90 seat Lockheed Super Constellation
The 90 seat Lockheed Super Constellation

This obviously restricted the number of International visitors that attended. Even domestically, most people travelled by road or by train, and many Aussies took the opportunity for this once in a lifetime event, it would be 46 years before another chance to attend the games in Australia came around.

3314 athletes from 72 nations competed, with Australia having a team of 294 athletes, 250 men and 44 women.

The Australian Flagbearer was Mervyn Wood the Rower , who also won a Bronze Medal in the Double Sculls.

There were 19 sports competing in 151 events at  venues in Melbourne, Ballarat and Stockholm , yes the Swedish capital staged the Equestrian events due to issues with horses being quarantined for a lengthy period after arriving in Australia.

Opening Ceremony

The opening ceremony was held at the MCG in front of 107,700 people and was opened by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh who stayed aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia which had positioned to Melbourne for the games.

The Australian Team marches at the Opening Ceremony
The Australian Team marches at the Opening Ceremony

The honour of lighting the Olympic flame was give to 19 year old Ron Clarke, who despite later going on to hold every World Record from 2 miles to 20 Kilometres , was never to win a Gold Medal.

Medal Count

Australia performed brilliantly, punching way above their weight and finished 3rd in the overall medal count, which was won by the Soviets ( really several Countries under the Soviet banner ) and the United States.

  • Soviets  –  98  –  37 gold, 29 silver, 32 bronze
  • USA   –  74   –  32 gold, 25 silver, 17 bronze
  • Australia  –  35  –  13 Gold, 8 silver, 14 Bronze
1956 Olympics Australia
Betty Cuthbert winning the 100m Gold Medal with Marlene Matthews the Bronze

8 of Australia’s Gold Medals came in swimming and we achieved an amazing clean sweep in the Womens 100 m freestyle event finishing 1, 2 & 3 with Dawn Fraser, Lorraine Crapp and Faith Leech and not surprisingly also won the 4 x 100 freestyle relay with Sandra Morgan added. Dawn won 2 gold and a Silver Medal, before going on to win Gold again in the 100m Freestyle in Rome and then Tokyo, a remarkable feat which stamped her as an absolute Champion and a much loved Aussie.

Dawn Fraser , Lorraine Crapp , Faith Leech & Sandra Morgan
Dawn Fraser , Lorraine Crapp , Faith Leech & Sandra Morgan – 4 x 100 m Freestyle Relay Gold Medal

Murray Rose also won 3 Gold medals and like our Dawnie also became a household name.

Murray Rose
Murray Rose – Won 3 Gold Medals – “ The Golden Boy “

Following a suggestion from a young 17 year old Chinese Australian, the closing ceremony was staged as a free event with all athletes mingling freely with each other throughout, a style which has become a feature of all closing ceremonies since.

Australian Rules Exhibition

One interesting addition to the Melbourne Games, was an exhibition of Australian Rules Football which was played in front of an enthusiastic if somewhat confused crowd of around 25,000, including the Duke of Edinburugh, who was seated alongside the VAFA Secretary Jack Fullerton, who tried to explain to him the intricacies of our National game.

Playing in the match were several, who went on to make a name for themselves including Lindsay Gaze, Ray Gabelich ( Collingwood ), Dick Fenton – Smith and Denis Cordner ( Melbourne ) and Brendan Edwards ( Hawthorn ).

Melbourne & Australia, were now firmly on the International Sporting Map.

Our First Basketball Heroes

Through the YMCA movement, Basketball spread very quickly to Australia, with the first recorded game staged in Adelaide on 17th February  1897, between the YMCA and The OBI ( Our Boys Institute ) and the early development of Basketball in Australia subsequently took place in Adelaide.

The game then spread quickly across Australia and as it only required 5 players per team, it became very popular in Regional Australia and became a popular way for Football players to keep fit in the Summer months.

The development of all sports was hindered however by the depression and the two World Wars, including Basketball.

The Victorian Basketball Association was formed in 1931, followed quickly by NSW before the Australian Basketball Union was started in 1939, later changed to the Australian Basketball Federation, which still operates today.

The National Men’s Championship commenced in 1946, just 10 years before the Melbourne Olympics.

As the Host Nation, Australia was awarded with an entry to all sports including  Basketball, so our relatively inexperienced leading players were quickly organised into a team to play against the best players in the World.

Fortunately an influx of European refugees who arrived in Australian in the early 1950’s bolstered Australia’s playing ability significantly, in fact 6  of Australia’s team of 12 were recently arrived migrants.

Australian Basketball Team

The Australian team was coached by Victorian stalwart Ken Watson, who again coached the Australian team at the Mexico Games. Regrettably that team which included Ray Watson, Ken’s son, supposedly suffered from some major internal state based divisions and failed to progress beyond the Qualfying Rounds in Monterey .

The team for the Melbourne games consisted of  –

  • 5 from South Australia
  • 4 from Victoria
  • 3 from New South Wales

Due to a lack of funding they were unable to get together as a team prior to the games and so were coached by correspondence, finally gathering together in Melbourne just a week or so prior to the Games commencing.

They did manage a couple of practice matches, but as you would expect, went into the Games very under prepared.

They were placed in Group D with Brazil and Chile, but unfortunately lost both matches, 89 – 66 to Brazil and 78 – 56 to Chile.

That then placed them in a playoff for position 9 – 15 with Formosa ( Taiwan ), Singapore and Thailand , where they lost to Formosa 86 – 73, but defeated Thailand 87 – 48 and Singapore 98 – 74, which allowed them to progress to the playoff for 9 – 12.

They lost to Canada 83 – 38 and then lost again to Formosa 87 – 70 to finish in 12th place.

1956 Olympics Australia
Australia playing Formosa China

USA won the Gold Medal, their 4th consecutive Gold, they had never been beaten in Olympic competition,  defeating the Soviet Union 89 – 55 and Uruguay took out the Bronze beating France 71 – 62.

USA Team 1956 Olympics Australia
Gold Medal winning USA Team – Including Boston Celtics legends Bill Russell and K C Jones

USA The Youngest Team

The USA team was comprised entirely of College players and as such were the youngest team in the Tournament.

Two of those players were from the University of San Francisco, Bill Russell and KC Jones, both went on to have outstanding careers in the NBA with the Boston Celtics under legendary Coach Red Auerbach.

1956 Olympics Australia
Future Boston Celtics legends Bill Russell and KC Jones won Gold in Melbourne

Russell won 11 NBA titles, yes that is correct 11 and Jones 8. They also both won 2 titles each coaching the Celtics, Russell  as a playing coach and both are members of the NBA Hall of Fame.

Russell is rated as the best player ever to play the game by many and was also an outstanding College athlete.

Had he performed at his best, he would have won the High Jump Gold Medal in Melbourne.

As a result of their experience and the lessons learnt, Australia has attended every Olympic games since, although failing to qualify in 1960 in Rome and 1968 in Mexico.

One of the lessons learnt was that in preparation for the 1960 Games in Rome, Coach Erik Erkins from Adelaide had the entire team assemble in Adelaide for the 3 months prior to the games and compete as a team in the local competition.

Regrettably they were unable to qualify at the pre games qualification tournament, where the USA again won Gold and featured future Legends, Walt Bellamy, Darrall Imhoff, Jerry Lucas, Oscar Robertson and Jerry west ( Wow ).

The Heroes

Those who were a part of our team of AUSTRALIA’S FIRST BASKETBALL HEROES were  –

Inga Freidenfelds  – Captain – Forward  –  6’1”  –   Born in Latvia  –  representing South Australia

Averaged 14.9 pts per game – A true gentleman of the game, also Captained the team for the 1960 games in Rome, a Member of the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame.

Inga Freidenfelds
Inga Freidenfelds  – Team Captain
Inga Friedenfelds scores against Formosa ( Taiwan )

Algis Ignatavicius  –   Guard / Forward – 6’0”  –  Born in Lithuania  –  representing South Australia.

11.6 pts per game. An outstanding shooter, was rated by the visiting Harlem Globetrotters in the early fifties as the Best player n Australia and one who was good enough to play overseas. Is a legend in South Australia for his prolific scoring.

Algis Ignatavicius
Algis Ignatavicius at the 1956 Olympics
Then and now photo of Algis Ignatavicius

Colin Burdett  – Forward –  6’1”  –  representing South Australia

0.9 pts per game. Represented South Australia for 5 years and was a gifted athlete in Baseball and Cricket also representing his state in Junior Baseball.

George ( Juris ) Dancis  –  Centre – 6’6”  –  born in Latvia  –  representing South Australia

Led the team in scoring with 16.3 pts as well as being the leading rebounder in the competition with 108, Bill Russell had 103. He also was selected in the 1960 Olympic team and is a member of the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame. His brother Maik also represented Australia in 2 Olympic teams 1964 Tokyo and 1968 Mexico

Juris ( George ) Dancis

Peter Sutton   – Forward – 5’11”  –   representing South Australia

1.6 pts per game. Represented South Australia 7 times. Was a talented sportsman and very respected for his speed and ability on the fast break.

Stan Dargis  –  Guard  – 5’10”   –  born in Lithuania  –  representing Victoria

1.3 pts per game. Represented Victoria from 1950 – 56 and was selected in the All Australian Team in 1950, 51, 54, 55 & 56.

Peter Demos ( Demetropoulos )  –  Guard – 6’1”  –  born in Greece  –  representing Victoria 

1.6 pts per game  –  Represented Victoria for 5 years , selected in the All Australian team 4 times.

Peter ( Peteris ) Bumbers  – Guard –  6’1”  –  born in Latvia  –  representing Victoria 

11.4 pts per game. Well respected as a good shooter and prolific scorer and very difficult to defend. At 30 years he was the oldest player in the Australian team. Played for Victoria many times and was selected in the All Australian team on numerous occasions.

Peter Bumbers scoring a layup during the games

Geoff Heskett   – Guard / Forward 6’2”  –   representing Victoria

 5.0 pts per game. Was also an excellent Tennis player. Represented Victoria in Basketball from 1951 – 56 and was MVP of the Melbourne competition in 1954 & 55. selected in the All Australian team from 1951 – 56.

Geoff Heskett scoring from a rebound

Bruce Flick  –  Guard – 5’9”   –   representing NSW

2.0 pts per game. Renowned for his speed, Bruce came out of the “ Playgrounds” basketball scene in Sydney. Played for NSW for many years up until 1962 and is a member of the NSW Hall of Fame

Ken Finch  – Guard –  5’10”   –  representing NSW 

1956 Olympics Australia
Ken Finch from NSW

0.7 pts per game. Another graduate of the Sydney “ Playgrounds “, went on to the Newtown Police Boys Club with Bruce Flick and Olympic Assistant coach Harry Burgess. A smooth moving playmaker. He became a Police Superintendent following his Basketball career and was also inducted into the NSW Hall of Fame.

Mervyn Moy  –   Guard  – 6’0”   –   representing NSW 

2.6 pts per game. Played for Sydney YMCA before joining Ken Finch and Bruce Flick at the Newtown Police Boys Club. Played for NSW many times and also went on to become a Police Superintendent. A member of the NSW Hall of Fame    

Coach  –  Ken Watson  –  Victorian Basketball icon, Player, Coach, Administrator

Coach Ken Watson
Coach Ken Watson

As the team was spread over 3 states and due to a lack of funding could only assemble in Melbourne a week before the games, he was able to spend time with his 4 Victorian players, but was forced to Coach the other South Australian and NSW players by correspondence ( remember no fax, email or phone calls possible, only letters ).

Went on to Coach Australia again at the 1968 Mexico games with his son Ray in the team. Another son Ian also represented Australia at the 1972 Olympics

Assistant Coach  –  Harry Burgess  –  NSW – Very widely loved and respected, he was very involved in developing the game in NSW through the Newtown Police Boys Club and then the Paratels, who eventually evolved into Canterbury Bankstown in the early days of the NBL. Tough but fair, he was a splendid tactician and student of the game, but also a teacher, developing the skills of both players and Coaches.

Assistant Coach Harry Burgess
Assistant Coach Harry Burgess in his playing days

Host Nation Players

So this team who only got to play because Australia was the Host Nation, was thrust onto the International stage to compete against the best players in the world in front of the eyes of the International Media.

A team of passionate, enthusiastic and dedicated part timers, who all had athletic talent and ability, but lacked any real experience against this level of competition.

They rose to the occasion and acquitted themselves admirably, and had they been afforded the opportunity to spend more time together and play more practice matches, then I think that there is no doubt that they would have achieved a better result.

What they did do however, was to show the basketball world that Australia had arrived as a worthy member of the International Basketball community, which has been proven correct with the continued growth and improvement in International competition since.

Who could have possibly believed that 60 years later, Australia would playoff for a Medal and have some hundreds of players that have competed in the US College system and some 20 or more that have played in the NBA.

So our absolute best congratulations to our team of Basketball pioneers, we admire your efforts and salute your achievements.

You are indeed –  Australia’s First Basketball Heroes.

1956 Melbourne Olympics Basketball – Australia’s First Basketball Heroes

2 Responses

  1. This is informative and precious. Great to honour the pioneering days. I love the painting of coach Ken Watson, a wonderful gentleman. We met in 1975 at Albert Park basketball stadium. Brough back nice memories.

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