Operation Put-Back

On September 10, 1972, at the Olympic Games in Munich, the United States played the Soviet Union for the gold medal in men’s basketball. America fielded its youngest team ever: Mike Bantam, Jim Brewer, Tom Burleson, Doug Collins, Kenny Davis, James Forbes, Tom Henderson, Bobby Jones, Dwight Jones, Kevin Joyce, Tom McMillen, and Ed Ratleff. The Americans, all collegians, faced a more experienced Soviet team—for all practical purposes, a professional squad.

The Soviets led most of the way, but in the closing seconds, with the United States behind 49-48, Illinois State’s Doug Collins picked off a Soviet pass and drove for a layup. Soviet player Zurab Sakandelidze rammed Collins into the basket stand, like something out of NASCAR. The American crashed to the floor, down, but not out. 

After some moments, the battered Collins got up, stepped to the line, and in one of the great plays of all time, sank both free throws to put Team USA ahead 50-49. Three seconds remained, and the Soviets failed to score. The buzzer sounded, and the Americans celebrated their victory, maintaining their flawless Olympic record. 

As the Americans celebrated, Renato William Jones, Secretary General of FIBA, the international basketball organization, came out of the stands and ordered the officials to put three seconds back on the clock. Jones, a friend of the Soviet Union, had no authority to make such a demand but the Olympic officials duly complied. 

They put time back on the clock not once, not twice, but three times. The third time the Soviets scored a basket, and the Olympic officials gave them the gold medal. The Americans decided not to show up for the silver because they had won the gold fair and square on the court. Jones didn’t think so. 

“The Americans have to learn how to lose,” Jones famously proclaimed, “even when they think they are right.” 

In Montreal four years later, the United States again fielded an all-collegian squad of Phil Ford, Steve Sheppard, Adrian Dantley, Walter Davis, Quinn Buckner, Ernie Grunfeld, Kenny Carr, Scott May, Michael Armstrong, Phil Hubbard, and Mitch Kupchak. Coached by the great Dean Smith, the Americans went 7-0 to reclaim the gold. By then, the 1972 gold theft had become official, and gutless U.S. officials passed up every chance for an easy put-back. 

More than a few Olympic athletes have had to return gold medals due to doping scandals, and that extends to entire teams. In 2017, for example, the International Olympic Committee found that in 2008 Jamaican sprinter Nesta Carter, teammate of Usain Bolt, had violated anti-doping rules. Therefore, the entire Jamaican 4×100-meter relay team would have to return their gold medals, which now belong to the team from Trinidad. 

In the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, American Jim Thorpe won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon. Those medals were taken away when it emerged that, prior to the games, Thorpe had played minor league baseball, which was not even an Olympic sport. This July, on the 110th anniversary of Thorpe’s 1912 wins, the International Olympic Committee restored Thorpe’s gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon. That opens the way for the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team to get justice. 

After 50 years, the time has come for the Americans to get the gold medals they won and hear their national anthem. This should take place in an official, public ceremony shown around the world. The USSR squad can take their silver medals or be listed as ahead 2-0 in an unfinished consolation game. 

Fifty years after Munich, the time has also come to remove Renato William Jones from the Basketball Hall of Fame. The hall is no place for a man who held that the game is not won on the court, who contended that the Americans “must learn how to lose,” and who engineered the worst theft in the history of sports.

For all but the willfully blind, there’s a broader lesson here.

The Soviet Union’s best fell to a group of American collegians barely out of their teens. Ponder the results of the Soviets against a team of NBA all-stars, which then included players such as Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elvin Hayes, Gail Goodrich, Wes Unseld, Oscar Robertson, and so forth. 

Except for military power, the Soviet Union was never great and never more than a 17th-rate tyranny ruling captive nations by sheer terror. Given the pretension of “scientific” socialism, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics must rank as one of the greatest failures in human history. 

Human rights, free markets, and free elections made the West a winner. Instead of building on those strengths, Western politicians have steadily bulked up government, imposed draconian regulations, quashed the entrepreneurial energy of the people, and restricted their constitutional rights and freedoms. 

In effect, Americans appear to be taking Jones’ advice and learning how to lose. This madness must not continue. So shut the hell up, get back our gold, and let the people win again. Do it now, or stand aside for someone who will. 

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About Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books including Bill of Writes and Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation. His journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (London) and many other publications. Billingsley serves as a policy fellow with the Independent Institute.

Photo: Rich Clarkson & Assoc. via GETTY IMAGES