Yeah, yeah, yeah…we all know that referees, umpires, and the like are human, too. But that doesn’t mean we can’t ridicule them unrelentingly, especially when they happen to make mistakes so unnerving that the only thing to do is to construct a list chronicling the incompetence in a historical light. Here are some of the most controversial.
Brett’s Possession in the Bronx
For as good of a player as Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett was, he will perhaps be remembered best for the satanic streak that possessed him that fateful July day in the Bronx. And to think it was all in vain.
A career .305 hitter who collected over 3,100 hits, Brett was enjoying a celebratory sip of Gatorade after his ninth-inning home run off Goose Gossage gave the Kansas City Royals a 5-4 lead over the New York Yankees when fiery Yankee manager Billy Martin began to cry foul.
After receiving confirmation from New York third baseman Craig Nettles, Martin claimed that Brett’s bat was in violation of Rule 1.10(b), which states that no player’s bat may be “covered or treated with any material or substance to improve the grip” any more than 18 inches from the end.
Following a lengthy investigation by his crew, which included a cavity search on Brett just for the hell of it, infamously deliberate home plate umpire Tim McClellan sauntered towards the Royals’ dugout and threw up the out sign, nullifying Brett’s heroics and giving the Yanks a midseason win. What ensued will forever be the most irrelevant, albeit entertaining, tirade in baseball history.
The look in Brett’s eyes, the flailing of his arms, and his absolute fury in the moment are unforgettably emblazoned on the minds of everyone that has ever seen the clip. His meltdown was a riveting climax to an exciting game, albeit one that would officially end in a very odd but pedestrian manner more than three weeks later.
After the Royals’ 5-4 lead in the ninth was controversially morphed into a 4-3 New York victory, the Royals’ vehement protests were acknowledged by American League president Lee MacPhail, who overruled McClellan and allowed Brett’s home run to stand.
On Aug. 18, 1983, the two teams met on a scheduled off day to play the remaining inning and a third. With Brett in his hotel room, the Royals put the Yankees down in order in the bottom of the ninth to make the game official—officially.
A.J. A-Okay With Missed Call
Nine years and three days after Jeffrey Maier decided to single-handedly alter baseball history with his antics in the Bronx, the winds of scandal blew vigorously through the South Side of Chicago, ultimately bringing about a long awaited reversal of fortune for an organization characterized by conspiracy and a significant championship drought.
As of 2005, the Chicago White Sox were known for two things: the well-documented Black Sox Scandal that tainted the 1919 World Series and a run of title futility that stretched 88 years, surpassed only by their cross-town neighbors, the Chicago Cubs. But a season after the Boston Red Sox put to rest a curse of their own, the White Sox seemed determined to end any and all superstition.
Postseason expectations were higher than ever in the Windy City as the White Sox concluded the 2005 season with an American League-high 99 wins and the second-highest winning percentage in franchise history.
All season, a rock solid starting rotation and a lineup void of all-or-nothing power hitters had reflected manager Ozzie Guillen’s philosophy, which heavily emphasized a need for effective defense and opportunistic speed—and the playoffs were no different.
However, despite having home-field advantage by virtue of their regular season record, the White Sox lost Game 1 of the ALCS to the Los Angeles Angels, a team that unmistakably mirrored Chicago’s playing. An American League team excelling at a National League style of play, the Angels excelled at playing small ball and relying on timely hitting and defense. Thus, it came as little surprise that manager Mike Scioscia’s team waltzed into enemy territory at U.S. Cellular Field with a possibility of returning home with a commanding two-games-to-none series lead.
After Mark Buehrle became the second White Sox pitcher in as many nights to pitch nine innings (in fact, Chicago hurlers would throw four straight complete games in the series), Chicago entered bottom of the inning with a chance to end a tied game in walk-off fashion.
With two outs in the inning, Chicago catcher A.J. Pierzynski appeared to have sent the two teams into extra frames when he struck out against Angels reliever Kelvin Escobar. In the midst of his dejected walk back to the home dugout, Pierzynski quickly altered his path, instead tearing a streak towards first base after he realized that home plate umpire Doug Eddings had ruled that Anaheim backstop Josh Paul did not catch the ball cleanly on the final strike.
All the while, knowing well that he had snared Pierzynski’s swing-and-miss before the ball hit the dirt, Paul ignored Eddings’ call, confidently flipped the ball back to the mound, and joined the rest of his teammates in their procession off the field. As the Angels enthusiastically challenged the call on the field, Pierzynski stood delighted on first base as television replays visibly showed that Eddings’ view of the play was incorrect, which meant that Paul was not required to either tag Pierzynski or throw down to first base in order to record the inning’s final out.
Since baseball had not instant replay provision to review the video, the call stood and the inning continued. Pinch runner Pablo Ozuna, brought in to replace the slow Pierzynski, promptly stole second without a throw. Moments later he scored the game-winning run when Joe Crede’s double drove him in.
The controversy undeniably rattled Anaheim. Once staring a potential 2-0 series lead in the face, the Angels instead returned to California disappointed with their one win in Chicago. Although they now were equipped with the benefit of playing three consecutive games at their home park, it made little impact. Anaheim lost all three games, scoring just seven runs in the process.
Lost in the controversial nature of Chicago’s first league championship series win since 1959 was the historic performance by its starting rotation. Beginning in Game 2, the four-headed monster of Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, and Freddie Garcia went the distance in four straight victories, marking the first time since 1928 (New York Yankees) that a team had accomplished such a feat. As a result, the White Sox bullpen pitched a total of two-thirds of an inning against Anaheim.
As it turns out, Anaheim’s victory in Game 1 of the ALCS would be Chicago’s last defeat of the 2005 postseason. The White Sox would pummel the Houston Astros in a four-game sweep in the Fall Classic for the franchise’s first title since 1917.
Phil Luckett Ruins Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh
In a span of less than three full NFL seasons, referee Phil Luckett was directly involved in three of the league’s most suspect rulings. In January of 2000 it was the Music City Miracle, in which the Tennessee Titans used a questionable lateral to beat the Buffalo Bills in the waning seconds of a wild card playoff game.
Two years earlier, in December of 1998, the veteran Luckett headed the crew that erroneously allowed a quarterback sneak touchdown by the New York Jets’ Vinny Testaverde to stand in a game against the Seattle Seahawks when television replays clearly showed that the ball did not break the plane of the goal line.
But to Pittsburgh fans, Luckett’s most glaring display of ineptitude occurred in the Steelers’ game against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day in 1998. With the teams deadlocked at the end of regulation, Luckett and the captains stood at midfield for the vital coin toss that would decide who got the ball first in overtime. The coin spiraling through the air, Pittsburgh’s Jerome Bettis clearly blurted out “tails,” as recorded by CBS cameras and microphones on the field. The coin landed tails.
But, apparently, Luckett heard otherwise. By virtue of what he thought he heard Bettis say (evidently, “heads”), Luckett immediately declared the Lions the winner of the coin toss. Naturally, Detroit elected to receive the ball in the sudden death period. Meanwhile, Bettis’ befuddlement showed in a Renee Zellweger-esque stare as he and teammate Carnell Lake pleaded their case.
The Lions received the kickoff and promptly moved into field goal range for kicker Jason Hanson, who booted the game-winner. But Detroit’s 19-16 win didn’t mean an end to the Luckett backlash. In the days that followed the debacle, NFL commissioner Paul Taglibue reviewed the statements made by Luckett, Bettis, and Lake amidst unrelenting scrutiny from every corner of the gridiron landscape.
According to Luckett, who claimed he heard Bettis call “heads-tails,” he was merely enacting NFL Rule 5-3, which, concerning the coin toss, states that the official is obligated to hold the player to his initial decision. On the other side, Bettis insisted he started to call “heads” but stopped himself while the coin was in the air. So what was interpreted as “heads-tails” by Luckett was actually “hea…tails,” which would technically stand to be a legal declaration of “tails.”
Childish, indeed. But such is the petty he said/he said love affair between Luckett and Bettis that led to a complete overhaul of the coin toss procedure in the NFL. On Nov. 30, 1998, league officials mandated that the visiting team captain make a determination before the coin is flipped. What a novel concept.
Hull Puts His Best Foot Forward
The 1998-99 NHL season was in dire need of some excitement. Before the league decided to open things up following the lockout of 2005, the NHL resembled a defensive wasteland where no semblance of offensive ingenuity dare tread. The ‘98-99 campaign was perhaps the defining moment in the league’s inability to wow fans with a wide-open style of play.
With defensive strategies like the left-wing lock and neutral zone trap still enjoying mainstay status, scoring in the NHL near the turn of the millennium was at an absolute premium. Only two teams out of 27 that season summoned enough offense to produce an average of more than three goals a game. Even more ghastly, 160 shutouts, or one every 14 games, were recorded.
Mercifully headed towards the end of this season of unprecedented offensive deficiency, Commissioner Gary Bettman could only hope the Dallas Stars and Buffalo Sabres would produce something worthy of debate and conversation, if not an onslaught of attacking hockey, in the Stanley Cup Finals. And he got it—on the final play of the season.
Dallas had rampaged its way through the league en route to a President’s Trophy with a record of 51-19-12 and 114 points. The Stars also took advantage of the clutching and grabbing that ruled the day to lead the league in fewest goals allowed (168), a stingy 2.04 per game. In sum, the Stars were hockey’s most dominant team, finishing the season nine points ahead of any other team and 16 points ahead of their closest Western Conference foe.
By stark comparison, Buffalo, even with 91 points, barely inched its way into the playoffs. However, the Sabres, one of the Eastern Conference’s lowest-scoring teams in the regular season, flipped the switch in the postseason. Through three rounds, coach Lindy Ruff’s crew turned on the afterburners, scoring a blistering 3.3 goals a game while losing just three games.
The stage was now set: the irresistible offensive force of the Sabres versus the immovable defensive blob of Dallas. Unfortunately, the series played out in the same fashion that many thought it would – ploddingly. After five games the teams had combined for all of 19 goals, and the Stars held a slim three-games-to-two lead. The Stars would ultimately take the Cup, but not before providing the controversial twist that Bettman had so adamantly yearned for.
Knotted at a goal apiece, Dallas and Buffalo were again mired in a defensive clinic. The struggle continued for nearly six periods – almost two full games – taking the game deep into the wee hours of the following morning. Finally, at 14:51 of the third overtime, Dallas Jere Lehtinen sent a weak shot from the left faceoff dot toward vaunted Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek…who proceeded to cough up a crucial rebound.
Ready to pounce on the loose puck was Dallas forward and future Hall-of-Famer Brett Hull, who had raced towards the goal the moment Lehtinen released his shot. With one skate visibly planted in the restricted shaded area of the goal crease, Hull gained possession of the loose puck. He quickly had to evade an oncoming Buffalo defender, resulting in him pulling his foot back out of the crease. Now with nothing but the sprawling Hasek between him and Cup glory, Hull kicked the puck to his stick and slid in the Cup-clinching goal…but not before positioning his foot once again inside the restricted area.
Buffalo personnel and fans immediately argued the goal, citing the NHL’s “skate in the crease” rule that had a propensity for causing confusion. In 1999, the rule stated that if a player scored with his skate preceding the puck into the crease, the goal was disallowed. However, the refs allowed Hull’s goal to stand, and following the Stars’ victory NHL officials ruled that since Hull’s skate was not in the crease when he kicked the puck to his stick, his possession of the puck superceded any ensuing activity, including placing a skate in the crease prior to scoring. Got that? Buffalo players and fans didn’t buy it either.
Two days later, Bettman aroused suspicions hockey fans everywhere when he announced that the NHL was abandoning its video replay procedure that reviewed goals in question. Bettman argued that replays threatened the spontaneity of the game. It wasn’t long after this that the NHL completely retooled the crease rule. As it stands now, under Rule 78.5, the only way a player in the crease can have his goal disallowed is if that player was deemed to have substantially interfered with the goaltender.
Denkinger’s “Royal” Foul-Up
Baseball’s human element that makes it a sport like no other comes with a trade-off: it can cripple a team just as easily as it can uplift one. And never has a judgment call so deflated a squad, and turned the tables so rapidly, as with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1985 World Series.
In game six, still flying high off an exhilarating NLCS win over the Los Angeles Dodgers where they won four straight after falling behind two games to none, the Cardinals were three outs away from capturing their second title in four seasons. With his team up 1-0 over Kansas City, St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog brought in rookie closer Todd Worrell to shut the door.
The leadoff man in the Royals’ ninth was light-hitting Jorge Orta. True to form, Orta trickled a ball down the first base line that needed about 20 bounces to reach Jack Clark. Running stride for stride with Orta to cover first base, Worrell managed to reach the base first, where he received a nearly errant flip from Clark. Using every bit of his lanky 6’5” frame, Worrell, with his right foot firmly planted on the base, snared the ball well before Orta arrived.
The bang-bang play deserved a split-second decision from first base umpire Don Denkinger, a veteran of 16 seasons who had worked two previous World Series. But Denkinger emphatically ruled Orta safe, sending the Cardinals into a tizzy that would not dissipate until after St. Louis had suffered a meltdown of epic proportions.
Clark subsequent misplayed a foul popup, giving Kansas City’s Steve Balboni a second life at the plate, which he promptly make good on with a single. After a sacrifice bunt and passed ball put runners on second and third, former Cardinal Dane Iorg blooped the biggest hit of his career into right field, scoring pinch runner Onix Concepcion and Jim Sundberg with the tying and winning runs.
But the worst was yet to come for St. Louis. With Denkinger now behind the plate for a decisive Game 7, Herzog and his players completely unraveled in an 11-0 loss. Herzog and pitcher Joaquin Andujar were both ejected in the fifth inning for arguing balls and strikes, a widely-known baseball no-no. Andujar, who later demolished a toilet in the Cards’ clubhouse, had been relieving St. Louis starter John Tudor. Tudor, the historically reliable lefty who was the staff ace in 1985, had been removed from the game for allowing five runs and four walks in less than three innings.
Denkinger, who would officiate games for another 13 seasons after his historical gaffe, admitted later that he got caught too close to the play and that his proximity to the base contributed to the call. Following the Royals’ victory in Game 6, the first person Denkinger saw after leaving the field was Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, whom he asked if he had gotten the Orta call correct.
Ueberroth replied with a straightforward “No, you didn’t.”
The “Hand of God” Picks Maradona
When Argentina and England met in the quarterfinals of the 1986 World Cup, a tremendous mutual disdain had been brewing for decades.
Twenty years earlier in a 1966 World Cup game against England, Argentine captain Antonio Ubaldo Rattin protested what he thought was an unwarranted red card by sitting on a red carpet reserved solely for the Queen of England. Though England eventually won the Cup that year, they never forgot the slight.
The hatred grew in 1982 when the two soccer powerhouses waged war over the Falkland Islands, located east of Argentina in the South Atlantic. Needless to say, when the countries met for the second time in the game’s greatest tournament four years later, neither side had trouble getting pumped up for the match.
After an uneventful first half, a “miraculous” finish immortalized the game forever as the playmaking ability of attacking midfielder Diego Maradona, a little divine intervention, or perhaps a combination of both allowed Argentina to take the lead six minutes into the second half.
After passing to teammate Jorge Valdano at the edge of the 18-yard box, Maradona made a mad run for the net. Valdano lost control of the ball, causing it to bounce up in the air to unsuspecting English defender Steve Hodge. Hodge then failed miserably in his clearing attempt, inadvertently lofting a reachable ball near the net for the hard-charging Maradona, who was now midway into his run to the goal.
His path unimpeded, Maradona found himself one-on-one with England keeper Peter Shilton for the now infamous 50/50 ball. All things considered, the diminutive Maradona had no business out-leaping the 6’1” Shilton, who had a considerable height advantage of over six inches. His right arm fully extended in an attempt to punch the ball out, Shilton’s efforts were in vain as the ball glanced off the raised clenched left fist of Maradona—and was sent careening into the open net.
Excluding referee Ali Bin Nasser, everyone who witnessed the play instantly acknowledged the illegal means by which Maradona scored, including British announcers, who led their nation in an absolute parade of hate for the Argentine soccer god in the aftermath of the controversial goal.
British ire then reached a boiling point when in a press conference following Argentina’s 2-1 victory, a delirious Maradona said his feat was accomplished “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” This implication that Maradona actually scored the goal legally—and with a little help from the big guy upstairs—enraged Brits everywhere even more, prompting the U.K. press to insinuate that it actually may have been the Devil may have been at work that day in Mexico City.
As outrageous as it may be that the Hand of God goal was allowed to stand, what has been forgotten is the fact that the English failed to show a pulse the remaining 39 minutes, allowing Maradona to somehow outdo himself. A mere five minutes after his first goal, the charismatic Maradona seemingly levitated his way through the British defense on a historical run that spanned nearly three-fourths of the pitch. The result was an unforgettable display of soccer prowess and a moment that has been dubbed the Goal of the Century.
Some 20 years after Argentina rode its celebrity midfielder to a World Cup title, Maradona allegedly apologized to the people of England for his illegal goal in January of 2008 in an interview with British tabloid The Sun. Maradona himself refuted the claim less than a week later to Argentine reporters, saying, “I did not ask forgiveness from England.”
Jeffrey Maier’s Yankee-sized Hand Job
Only in New York can a 12-year-old kid receive the key to the city. And only in the case of a franchise with the storied past of the New York Yankees can a blatant error in officiating trigger a four-ring dynasty.
What was Jeffrey Maier doing so close to that railing anyway? You can blame it on destiny, or you can blame it on shoddy parenting. Whatever your reasoning, it’s possible that without the heroics of Maier, the Yankees very well may not have won the World Series in 1996—and three consecutive titles from 1998-2000.
On the cusp of capturing an all-important Game 1 on the road, the Baltimore Orioles needed just six outs to get a leg up in the 1996 American League Championship Series. With a 1-0 series lead, and three consecutive home games looming, the O’s would have been in sparkling shape to claim the franchise’s first World Series title since 1983.
But a pubescent youngster from Jersey would have other plans. His Yanks down 4-3 in the eighth, Maier was situated in the right field stands, urging his team to come back, and patiently awaiting his history-altering moment. With the swing of a bat, Maier’s fifteen minutes of fame came hurtling towards him in the form of a deep fly ball off the bat of Yankee leadoff man Derek Jeter.
In an youthful move of anticipation, Maier quickly arose from his seat and made a mad dash for the outfield wall, just to the left of the 312-foot mark, as Baltimore rightfielder Tony Tarasco headed for the same spot. As the ball was about to land in the glove of Tarasco, just short of being the game-typing home run, Maier thrust out his own glove trying to catch the ball.
Maier’s outstretched glove snagged the ball and proceeded to deflect it over the wall, much to the consternation of Tarasco, who pointed an angry finger and even more menacing stare upwards at the shell-shocked Maier. Right field line umpire Rich Garcia arrived on the scene moments later and ruled the ball a home run, engendering an angry objection by indignant Orioles manager Davey Johnson.
Not even the heroics of Bernie Williams’ game-winning home run in the 11th inning could measure up to the young Yankee fan’s theatrics. Maier interfering with a catchable ball and gathering it in as a home run was all anyone could talk about. Now a folk hero and footnote in Yankees lore, a frenzied media storm followed Maier for the remainder of the 1996 postseason, including appearances on national talk shows. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the disputed home run call ended up propelling New York to a five-game series win over Baltimore and the franchise’s first championship in 15 seasons when they beat the Atlanta Braves in the World Series.
Though Baltimore recovered admirably to win Game 2, 5-3, the following evening, the Maier incident, for all intents and purposes, effectively took the wind out of the team’s sails. When the series moved to Baltimore’s Camden Yards for three consecutive games, the O’s stood in solid position to claim the series nonetheless, but the Yankees won all three road games to clinch.
After the first game of the series, the Orioles fervently contested Jeter’s home run, but their protests fell on deaf ears. Because judgment calls cannot be challenged, American League President Gene Budig, after admitting fan interference, ruled in favor of New York. Adding insult to injury, Budig also deemed the ball to be uncatchable, although video replays suggest just the opposite.
Ironically enough, more than 12 years later, a 24-year-old Maier is now pursuing a career in professional baseball. In fact, after Maier completed a noteworthy career as Wesleyan University’s all-time leader in hits, the Orioles were rumored to have been interested in drafting their former nemesis. Those reports have since been denied.
No Tucking Way
The snowy conditions of the NFL’s 2002 AFC Divisional Playoff game between the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders were so bad that players could hardly see grass, nevermind yard markers. But with the tremendous controversy that defined New England’s 16-13 win, the weather is not even near the top of the list of what the Raiders and their fans will remember from that game.
Leading 13-10 with less then two minutes remaining, John Gruden’s Raiders had fought off the best efforts of the favored Patriots and a then-little-known quarterback by the name of Tom Brady. But with time running down, Brady was leading the Pats down the field on a potential game-winning drive.
With the heavy snow, throwing the ball was a treacherous venture. Brady dropped back to pass and pump faked, but then Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson emerged from the wall of white and crushed him, jarring the ball loose. The ball was recovered by Raider linebacker Greg Biekert and the play was initially ruled a fumble, all but ensuring an Oakland victory.
However, because the play occurred within the final two minutes of a playoff game, the fumble was subject to a booth review—a rule that will forever be the bane of every Oakland fan’s existence. Emerging from his deliberation under the hood, referee Walt Coleman, citing NFL Rule 3, Section 21, Article 2, Note 2, explained that Brady’s arm was still going forward and, therefore, the fumble was actually an incomplete pass, even though Brady was brought down while having two hands on the football.
Now known by its cut-and-dried moniker, the “tuck” rule asserts that for any player attempting a forward pass to fumble, that player must first securely tuck the ball into his body prior to losing possession of the ball. (For an alternate definition, check the Urban Dictionary).
The result was the birth of a dynasty, as the Patriots were catapulted by Adam’s Vinatieri’s game-tying and game-winning field goals and into a string of three championships in four seasons, beginning with an improbable win over St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI.
In the postgame press conference, the Raiders’ frustration was eloquently summed up by Woodson, who referred to Coleman’s ruling as “a bullshit call.” The following season, after breezing through the regular season en route to a Super Bowl appearance under first-year head coach Bill Callahan, the Raiders would find no excuses in a lackluster 48-21 Super Bowl loss to Gruden and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Four Downs Not Enough for Buffs
Of the 48,856 that filled the bleachers at Faurot Field on October 6, 1990 hoping to witness a landmark victory, not a single one of them expected the home team to make history in a losing cause.
Much to the delight of their fans, the Missouri Tigers, mired down in six consecutive losing seasons, appeared to be on the verge of shocking the college football world. After scoring late in the fourth quarter to take a 31-27 lead over the twelfth-ranked Colorado Buffaloes, the Tigers were one stout defensive stand away from snatching the program’s biggest win in decades. And they got it—that is until the members of the officiating crew decided to ditch their counting skills and help out the visiting team a bit.
How? Clearly influenced by the chains on the field that were incorrectly marked, referee J.C. Louderback and his band of zebras inexplicably gave the CU offense an extra down that will forever be emblazoned in Mizzou lore.
After quarterback Charles Johnson stopped the clock with a spike on what should have been fourth down—and a game-ending turnover on downs—Colorado scored on a one-yard plunge by Johnson for the 33-31 win. Certain that their Tigers had yet again turned back Colorado at the goal line, Missouri fans were in the midst of storming the field as officials were ruling the play a touchdown.
When the dust from one of college football’s biggest follies had settled, the two teams headed down two totally different paths.
Missouri won only two more games the rest of the season, finishing 4-7, and would not have a winning campaign for another seven years.
Meanwhile, controversy continued to follow Colorado, albeit to the school’s only national title. Head coach Bill McCartney—who later admitted he would not consider forfeiting the Missouri victory because he felt the “lousy” Faurot Field Omniturf, which caused footing problems for both teams, prevented his team from blowing the Tigers out—led the Buffaloes to a 10-9 victory over Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl that is still defined by a questionable clipping call on an Irish punt return.
The Forgotten Silver Medal
“The Americans have to learn how to lose, even when they think they are right.”
It’s been more than 26 years since former International Basketball Federation secretary general R. William Jones gave our nation this bit of scrupulous advice. And if Americans still aren’t ready to listen today, they sure as hell weren’t ready to take heed immediately following what was perhaps the most dubious miscall in not only Olympic history, but possibly in all the celebrated history of U.S. sports.
Played during a relatively calm period of the Cold War, the men’s basketball gold medal game of the 1972 Summer Olympics matched the traditionally dominant Americans against a talented Soviet squad that had yet to make an international impression. Ultimately, a victory over the U.S. would serve as that impression and do nothing to ease the superpowers’ strained relationship.
Though the route to the final match was the same for both sides, each arrived at the gold medal game via contrasting styles. The Americans, winners of the previous seven gold medals and undefeated (63-0) in Olympic play, were fueled by a smothering style of defense that allowed just 44.5 points a game. Conversely, in compiling a 7-0 record in pool play, the Soviets boasted a high-tempo, frantically paced offense that ran their opponents right out of the gymnasium. The Soviet Union scored nearly 92 points a game prior to their meeting with the U.S., including two performances that exceeded 100 points.
Like all great matchups, it was strength versus strength. As the game wound down to the final seconds, it seemed the U.S. had succeeded at imposing its will on the Soviets. Trailing 49-48 with three ticks left, U.S. guard Doug Collins hit two free throws to give his team a slim advantage. That’s when the madness began to seep in.
During Collins’ second attempt, the horn signaling the end of regulation sounded prematurely. Unfazed, the Soviets quickly in-bounded the ball and stormed down the court, but their efforts for a last-second win were unsuccessful. The game was presumed to be over. But Brazilian referee Renaldo Righetto claimed to have stopped play with a second left to address the horn problem and the ensuing disturbance at the scorer’s table. At the same time, the Soviets argued they had called a timeout prior to Collins’ free throws.
The final verdict was to reset the game clock to three seconds. But fate being the bitch that she is, the Soviet Union put the ball in play and misfired on a second game-winning field-goal attempt. However, they did so before officials had the clock effectively reset, which resulted in yet another American celebration being thwarted.
Despite having no official authority to have a say in the matter, the aforementioned Jones requested that the clock be reset to three seconds – again. It is still unclear as to why Jones made such a determination. Perhaps the fact that the Americans smoked his native Italy by 30 points in the semifinals two days earlier had a little something to do with it. Regardless, a now third Soviet in-bounds pass was caught by Aleksandr Belov, who avoided U.S. defenders Kevin Joyce and Jim Forbes to put in an uncontested layup for the Soviet win as the horn, now in working order, went off.
Understandably frustrated, the U.S. team filed a protest to appeal the result of the game. However, the Americans’ fate had already been sealed. A five-man jury influenced by Cold War politics defeated the appeal by a count of 3 to 2. Inspired by Jones’ postgame comments, members of the U.S. team and coaching staff refused to attend the customary medal ceremony in defiance of their erroneous second-place finish. To this day, those silver medals still sit unclaimed in a vault in Switzerland.
And to ensure that their wishes are forever respected, several players on that U.S. team have mandated in their wills that no heir have access to their silver medals.