50 Years Collecting Dust

50 Years Collecting Dust

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin introduced basketball as a completion.  Between 1936 and 1972, the U.S. Men’s Basketball Olympic team compiled a record of 63 wins and zero losses.  The Soviet Union took home the silver or bronze medals in 1952, 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968.  The resentment from the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries toward the U.S. team grew as fiercely as the Cold War.  50 years ago this week, in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the Soviets displayed the lengths to which they would go to dethrone the Americans.

Of course, it is amazing that the 1972 Olympics continued after the terrorist attacks left 17 dead, including 11 members of Israel’s Olympic delegation.  These terrorist attacks started as a hostage situation in the Olympic Village where all athletes resided.  Members of the U.S Men’s basketball team described how German police in sweat suits could be seen running around the Olympic Village.  The facts that they appeared significantly older than the athletes and they carried machine guns kind of gave away the otherwise undercover sweat suit appearance.  Scheduled for four days after the attacks, the U.S. team members were not certain whether the basketball finals would, or even should, be played.

But, the Gold Medal game between the U.S. and Soviet Union took place and it remains one of the greatest controversies in the history of the Olympics.  The contest was close, and concluded with multiple “do-overs”; missed foul calls some might claim were missed intentionally; and assistance for the Soviets not from their players or referees or Soviet coaches, but rather someone in the stands who directly interfered with the game.  Years later, it was reported that the Soviet Union had, a few months before the Olympics, “bestowed gifts” on the man from the stands who so dramatically interfered with the game.

Olympic cheaters and scandals are not novel.  However, most cheaters who have been caught appeared likely to have acted on their own or, at least, without knowledge or assistance from the country they represented.  Steroid use and doping scandals appeared almost routine in the 1980s and 1990s.  In the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, the Marathon was held in sweltering heat.  American runner, Fred Lorz, rested after the nine mile mark and then decided to hitch a ride for the next 11 miles.  He then finished in first place on foot.  Easily discovered, Lorz was stripped of his Gold Medal.  Boris Onischenko, the favorite to win the Pentathlon in 1976, suffered disqualification from the Olympics after the first event of the Pentathlon when officials discovered that Onischenko’s epee sword registered strikes without ever touching an opponent.  Boris the Cheat rigged his fencing sword to register hits with a button he controlled.

Yet, not all scandals involved individual cheaters.  In 1980, in the Moscow games, the Soviets opened large stadium doors while Polish pole vaulter, Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz, attempted his vaults so the wind tunnel effect would adversely impact his performance.  While on the podium claiming his Gold Medal, Kozakiewicz gave the crowd and the Soviet hosts the Bras d’honneur salute.  Sounds like Kozakiewicz might have been raised in Jersey and attended my grade school.

The 1972 Olympic Men’s Basketball final may top them all.  Not only was there conspiracy among many, but there was also the brazen and cavalier attitude in carrying out the screw job three times until it finally succeeded.

For those a generation removed, there was a time when the Olympics mandated amateur status of all athletes.  In basketball, that meant that the U.S. team consisted of college players and not an NBA Dream Team squad.  For the Soviets and their allies, “amateur status” equated to their finest basketball players who all just happened to be career soldiers with their exclusive military assignment to play basketball for their country.  Despite facing these finely honed professional teams who played together for years, the rag tag U. S teams in the Olympics remained undefeated for 36 years.  The 1972 U.S. team easily reached the Gold Medal game.

In the game, the Soviets held a 10 point lead with 10 minutes to play.  The Americans, lead by future NBA No. 1 pick Doug Collins, charged back with their aggressive style and cut the lead to one point with time winding down.  Three players were ejected in the final minutes for their overly zealous fouls.  Collins drove to the hoop with seconds remaining with a Soviet defender essentially throwing Collins off the court.  The referee awarded Collins two free throws for the foul with 3 seconds remaining.

The Soviets had one time out remaining at that point.  Collins sank the first free throw to tie the game at 49.  The television footage confirmed that the scoreboard showed the Soviets still with their one time out.  No horn sounded from the official scorer’s table to signal a time out.  No light appeared on the scorer’s table signifying a time out was called by the Soviet bench.  Collins was handed the ball by the referee and Collins calmly sank the second free throw.  U.S. took the lead 50-49.

Timeouts could not be called after free throws under international rules.  The Soviets had to in-bound the ball and run a play with 3 seconds remaining.  The Soviet player passed the ball in to a teammate.  The Soviet coach then left the designated coaching area and raced to mid-court yelling that he had called a timeout.  The referee stopped the game with one second left on the clock.

The referees conferred at the scorer’s table to sort out the mess when Dr. Renato William Jones left his seat in the stands and ran onto the court.  William Jones engaged the referees demanding that 3 seconds be placed back on the clock with the Soviets awarded the ball.  The referees listened and the Soviets were awarded a “do-over”.  To be clear, William Jones was not a referee in the game.  William Jones was not a referee at all.  William Jones held no official Olympic post.  William Jones attended the game as did all other fans in his capacity as a fan.

Yet, in the international basketball community, Dr. Renato William Jones was far from a nobody.  William Jones was a founding member and Secretary General of the Federation International of Basketball Amateur (FIBA).  William Jones spent decades advancing organized amateur basketball, mostly in Europe.  For all the good he did for the sport, William Jones made no secret of his animosity toward Team USA and the NBA.

Jones later admitted that he had no authority and no standing to interfere in the game, but he believed he had to right a wrong.  Amazingly, the referees completely caved in and did exactly as Jones instructed.  The game clock was re-set to 3 seconds.

During the delay, the Soviets had time to set up a play and they even substituted players.  Tom McMillan, the 6 foot 11 inch center for the U.S., defended the in-bounds pass.  McMillan forced a short in-bounds pass by the Soviets with the player forced to take a long shot with time expiring.  The shot missed with no time left and the U.S. ahead by a point.  Game over!

Not so fast.  Jones, still on the sidelines and still somehow involved, advised the refs that the game clock was not properly re-set to 3 seconds before the the do-over play.  The refs would need to do-over the do-over again.  The refs complied despite the fact that any delay in starting the game clock on the do-over only favored the Soviets in providing extra time.

On the third attempt which was the second do-over, before giving the ball to the Soviet player for the in-bounds pass, the ref moved the 6’ 11” McMillan back a few feet from the out of bounds line.  That step allowed the Soviet player the ability to throw a pass over McMillan and the length of the floor.  The Soviet in-bounder then stepped on the line while throwing a full court pass which, of course, succeeded with the Soviet center hitting a game-winning layup with time expiring.  The third time was the charm for the Soviets.

The U.S. dutifully appealed these actions and the results of the game.  The appeal was blocked when the three then Soviet allies — Poland, Hungary, and Cuba — voted against consideration of any appeal.

Concerning his involvement, Dr. Renato William Jones famously stated: “The Americans have to learn how to lose, even when they think they are right.”  William Jones, perhaps the most knowledgeable person in the arena on basketball rules, claims he was consumed in “getting this right.”  In interfering with the game and demanding multiple do-overs for the Soviets, William Jones overlooked the following.  The Soviet coach leaving the coaching box constituted a technical foul never called.  The Soviet coach stepping on the court during play constituted a technical foul never called.  The Soviet coach calling a timeout in between or after free throws constituted a technical foul never called.  The Soviets substituting players after the free throws for the do-over constituted a technical foul never called.  The referee moving McMillan back from the end line was wrong.  The Soviet player stepping on the line during the in-bounds pass constituted a violation never called.  It appears that the only item for Dr. Jones to get right would be the final score which favored anyone except the U.S.

In subsequent investigations of these relationships, and after the death of William Jones, reporters from Bloomberg confirmed that the Soviet Union “bestowed gifts” on Dr. Renato William Jones two months prior to the 1972 Olympics.  Given his open animosity toward the American team, perhaps William Jones needed no additional encouragement to assist an opponent of the U.S Men’s Basketball program.  Details of this payoff may not be well understood, but the actions have not been denied by Jones’ defenders or Russia.

The 1972 U.S. Men’s Basketball team refused to take the podium and refused the Silver Medals.  The medals remain in the offices of the International Olympic Commission collecting dust for 50 years now.  The Soviet team has been hailed as heroes in Russia.  In 2017, the movie Going Vertical was released in Russia which tells the story from the perspective of the Soviet Union.  The bravery of Soviet players standing up to the Americans is noted throughout while Dr. Jones stands as a defender of the rules who demanded only fair play.  Apparently the myriad of technical fouls and rule violations by the Soviets, as well as the bribery money paid to Dr. Jones, failed to even merit a mention in this film.  Why allow the facts to get in the way of a good story?

50 years later, can the 1972 basketball game between the U.S. and Soviet Union assist in resolving conflict?  Most fundamentally, the experience of this U.S. Olympic team reminds us that risk can never be fully evaluated.  For any litigation or dispute sought to be settled, the parties must be reminded that resolution brings certainty and finality, but proceeding in litigation involves inherent risks.  Many risks can be identified and some of those matters can even be quantified.

For instance, it may be reasonable to speculate that referees would miss fouls or violations in a basketball game.  The Soviet player stepping on the line on the in-bounds pass may fall in this category even if part of a game-winning play.  It is more difficult, but still possible, to foresee that the referees would miss illegal player substitutions by the Soviets at critical moments.  However, it is neither reasonable nor realistic to foretell a person from the stands charging the court then interfering with the officiating of the game – and doing so multiple times.  This scenario could only be dreamed up in a work of fiction, but yet it took place in plain sight with the world watching it live on television.

But such is the world of litigation.  On the eve of a trial involving serious personal injuries and substantial property losses, the judge announced that each weekend, he plays golf with three of the plaintiffs’  lawyers.  The judge sees no issue with such purely social outings, but wanted to place the issue on the record just for clarity.  When this happened to me, I thought the judge should simply have stated: “For those not already aware, the fix is in.”

In discussing the uncertainties of litigation risk, it is important to reflect on the obvious such as how legal positions may be impacted with evidentiary rulings or how themes may resonate with juries.  It remains perhaps more critical to explain that the unanticipated and even unknown Dr. Renato William Jones may come out of the stands with only 3 seconds left to take away your victory. Be careful about what you do not know and cannot control.

Recommended Posts