In March of 1948, Adolph Rupp and the Fab Five hung the program’s first NCAA Championship banner. A couple months later, Adolph Rupp and the Fab Five hung Olympic gold medals around their necks, in London no less. It was the beginning of an era of dominance for both Kentucky Basketball and Team USA, which, let’s be honest, might as well be one in the same. There’s little doubt Anthony Davis will enjoy the same success in London as his brethren 64 years ago. It’s a nice full circle you see, filled with the Olympic triumphs of fellow Wildcats like Billy Evans, who won gold in Melbourne’s ’56 Games, and Adrian Smith in Rome in 1960, and most recently we watched Tayshaun Prince and Team USA conquer Beijing.
Well, Kentucky Basketball’s Olympic prowess dates back much further than that. Back before the days of Rupp, Groza and Beard. But you’ve never heard that story…until now.
Basketball’s official induction to the Olympics came in Berlin in 1936. However, few people know that the sport actually debuted, briefly, in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. Barely a decade old and hardly evolved from its peach-basket origins, basketball’s cameo was considered a “demonstration” of sorts here in its homeland. With the world largely oblivious to this new american past time, Team USA made quick work of its three challengers and put away a chippy Newfoundland squad in the championship, 8-2. Leading the way for Team USA with 2 field goals and 4 swipes? None other than Kentucky’s own Chester Arthur Peel…the forgotten Olympian.
Chester Arthur Peel came to UK in the Fall of 1902 on a cattle scholarship, and like most students on campus, had never touched a basketball before arriving in Lexington from Foggy Lick. But basketball has a way of finding people all its own, and boy, did it find Peel. The story goes, Peel was walking back from class to his residence at aging Haggin Hall when a ball of leather rolled to his feet.
“Say there fella, could ya toss us our basketball?”
“Basketball. Aint ya hear of it?”
“Nah, whatd’ya do with her?”
“Well, ya see that basket up there? Well, son, you put that up into that.”
“You just keep doin’ it, boy. Why don’t you give her a try?”
Without much thought, Peel dropped his books and took aim the basket.
“Stand right here and just let her fly.”
That was the extent of the man’s instruction and Peel wasn’t one to ask, so right there, about 5ft. from the goal that he reckoned to be a dozen feet off the ground, Peel wound the ball up like he was getting ready to deliver to Ty Cobb and hurled the leather well past the goal where it rolled down a hill and nearly took out a nearby picnic. He heard the laughter.
“Well, son, that’s not exactly how ya do it.”
“You expect people to play this game?”
“That’s exactly what I’m expectin. Name’s Mustaine. Bill Mustaine, and I’m up here starting up a school basketball club. Now, we’ll have to work on your form and put a little fat on those bones but I like your height. Whatcha say?”
It took a few days of contemplation, but Peel was looking for something to keep him from going back to Foggy Lick and Mustain struck him as an honest man, almost noble. The uniforms were a touch dainty but he liked using his 6’3″ frame to reach over his teammates and employ the occasional shove. He earned the nickname “Stench,” a hard-earned moniker he was quite proud of.
By the time the inaugural season came around the following winter Peel had worked his way into the starting lineup and led the Wildcats to a staggering 3-0 record in the ’03 season, culminating in an upset victory of the High Street YMCA to take the city crown.
What he lacked in wit was compensated by vigor. His feet were constructed like flippers, yet he moved with the unmistakable grace of a cattle farmer hurrying about the morning’s chores. He even developed a signature move–the Peel n’ Pop–where he’d wind up like a ball player and hurl the leather at the defender’s head, rendering them down and out and himself wide open. His exploits that season earned him a telegram from Washington DC inviting him to tryout for the National Team that would travel to St. Louis for the Olympics and show the world America’s newest invention.
Not only did Peel make the squad, he famously scored the winning set shot in the 1904 finals against Newfoundland whilst suffering through an excruciating bout of hay fever. It would later be determined Peel was suffering from the onset of Polio. While ineligible to receive medals, each player was given a commemorative nickel and a clean bath. They had to fend for their own way home.
Peel triumphantly returned to Foggy Lick with a college diploma and a new perspective on life. He did not return with his commemorative nickel, which he’d given away the night he got it in exchange for directions to the nearest barber shop. He was never one for keepsakes anyhow, insisting the only thing in life worth holding onto was good company.
For the next twenty years, Peel tended to the family farm. Sometimes he’d tend to his wife Hazel and together raised four beautiful children–and a fifth, who was born “funny.” He’d built a basket up on the barn for his boys but mostly for himself. Some nights he’d be right back there under the bright lights setting fundamental picks, hitting set-shot after set-shot and whipping two-handed chest passes to his old friends and foes. His Polio would worsen with each turn of the page however, and by the age of 40 he could no longer perform his daily cattle call. Of course, it didn’t help that five years prior he’d severed a thumb and most of an index on his good hand in a freak tilling mishap.
While the world waged war, Peel fought his own battles with disability and a couple new demons who’d recently introduced themselves as Wild Turkey and the down and outs. On his worst days he’d sit on his porch with his drink, cursing the emptiness of his soul and his harvest and his damned disease. Only Hank Williams crying on the phonograph could break the silence. On his good days he’d think about basketball.
It was around the time Hazel succumbed to the measles and the marines hoisted the flag on Iwo Jima that Peel had an epiphany. He thought back to that very day on campus, when basketball literally fell before his feet, into his heart and carried him on the journey a god-fearin boy from Foggy Lick never could’ve imagined. He’d found a powder down at Early’s Drugs that when mixed with his water bought him a few hours of relief from the storm. In these moments his thoughts were clearer and he’d lose himself in the way he used to be and where he was heading and eventually set off again on the right path.
Peel found a second career as a motivational speaker on the Polio circuit. He filled fellow sufferers with hope, confidence, and what at the time was believed to be the breakthrough vaccine, but years later was determined that it was not.
Chester Arthur “Stench” Peel took his last breath in 1952. Ravaged by polio, maimed by tiller and hardened by time, the forgotten Olympian left the world with an endearing legacy and mountains of debt. It was said that up until his dying day you could always find him on his porch with his old hound and his radio tuned to the Cats. You know, he’d never asked to be remembered, then again, he’d never asked for anything at all.