In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the XVIII Olympiad, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”
Jerry Shipp didn’t like to lose. He didn’t shake hands with opponents after games. He admitted that a basketball game to him was war, and in the heat of battle, he wasn’t a good sport. A shooting guard on the US men’s basketball team, Shipp had a chip on his shoulder, one that had grown since his days in an orphanage in Tipton, Oklahoma.
The two-meter tall shooting guard, whose unorthodox shooting form was often deadly from a distance, Shipp became the highest scorer ever for Southeastern State College (now known as Southeastern Oklahoma State University). Drafted by the New York Knicks in 1959, Shipp decided that he needed a steady job and higher pay than what he could get in the NBA. He opted for work at the oil company Phillips, which also had a team in the corporate league, the now-defunct National Industrial Basketball League (NIBL). He would go on to lead the Phillips 66ers to three consecutive championships in the NIBL, while also playing on the national men’s basketball squad.
In 1962, Shipp was on the US squad that played the Soviet national team in Lubbock, Texas, in an exhibition match. In contrast to the 1960 squad that featured future hall-of-famers Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Walt Bellamy, and Jerry Lucas, the 1962 team prepping for the Tokyo Games was considered a team of no-names, “a second-rate representative for Uncle Sam,” not only losing to the Soviets 66-63, but ending the game in unsportsmanlike fashion.
Sam Blair, a sports columnist from the Dallas Morning News, wrote that in the last moments of the game, the Soviet center, Alexsandr Petrov, and Shipp were fighting over possession of the ball when Shipp swung arms and elbows clipping Petrov across the chin and sending him to the hard court.
“It was a pretty shameful moment for the US for Shipp swung in a fit of anger after retreating madly to tie up Petrov, who had slipped free down court in the last hectic seconds to take a high-lob pass and was preparing to sink a simple layup. Fortunately, the Russian had a cooler temper or more self-discipline than Shipp did.” As Shipp recalled, famed sports columnist Blackie Sherrod wrote that he was trying to start World War III.
No US team had ever lost a basketball game in the Olympics through 1960. And yet, just as the Tokyo Olympics were about to start, the US press was predicting that the streak would end. And if any team was going to do it, it would have to be the Soviet team, runners-up to the US in the previous three Olympics.
The coach of the US men’s basketball team was Hank Iba, a basketball legend. He coached teams to NCAA championships in 1945 and 1946, and to medals in the Olympics in 1964, 1968, and 1972. And yet, even legends get criticized. “The 12 men selected yesterday for the October duty in Tokyo have the best chance in history to lose one,” wrote columnist George Meyers.
Iba knew he didn’t have the firepower of the 1960 team. “Our big problem is that we have no one man who’ll get us twenty points every game,” he pointed out. “So it has to be a team effort. But when a team has played together as short a time as this one has, it’s bound to get sloppy at times.” Sloppy, yes, but it did not bode well that the team lost its last two exhibition games in the United States prior to shipping off to Hawaii for a training camp just before the Olympics.
Fortunately, Coach Iba was one of the toughest, most well-prepared coaches of his time. Center Luke Jackson said that the team was constantly practicing. “Coach Iba wouldn’t let up. When we first came in the locker room, he gave each of us a notepad and said, ‘I want you to learn these plays. Those who don’t learn, won’t play.’ And then he walked out of the room. We practiced those plays. And those who didn’t learn them, didn’t play.”
“Those five-hour practices a day—those were tough,” recalled forward Jeff Mullins. “He had his Iba-isms. If you had a turnover he would say in his raspy voice, ‘Can’t have that, boys. Can’t have that.'”
The US team crushed the team from South Korea 116-50 in one of the early contests of the Tokyo Olympics. Jackson said that after the game, “Iba took us to practice and worked us until our feet fell off. He said that we didn’t rebound well. He was just putting it on our mind that every game was important. You have to do things the same way every time. I’m sure we were hot-dogging against the Koreans. And we realized that this guy was serious.”
Prior to the finals, the American men’s team didn’t lose, despite what many had predicted. And so, the USSR and the USA teams both went into the gold medal round undefeated, playing for geopolitical bragging rights and Olympic glory at the beautiful Kenzo Tange-designed Gymnasium Annex in Yoyogi.
In the first eight minutes, the Americans played sluggishly as the Soviets jumped to a lead. Iba admitted jitters. “I’ve been in this business a long time,” he said to reporters after the game. “I know if you get so sure you’re going to win, you usually get knocked on your bottom. But we never talked about it.”
Toward the middle of the first half, Jackson woke up, grabbing rebounds and sinking baskets. And then, the rest of the team got going. Joe Caldwell started pouring in points. He was joined by Bill Bradley (he of Princeton, the Knicks, and the US Senate), Larry Brown (he of the countless university and pro coaching roles), Walt Hazzard, and Shipp, who led the US team in scoring average in the tournament and did not cause World War III.
In the end, the US men’s team continued its dominance, defeating the Soviet Union 73-59, and registering its forty-seventh straight victory since basketball became an Olympic sport at the 1936 Berlin Games. It was one of the last of the USA’s thirty-five total gold medals gathered at the Tokyo Olympics and marked the first time that the US won more gold medals than the Soviet Union since the powerful communist nation was allowed into the Olympics in 1952.
But the Cold War was not on Shipp’s mind when the gold medal was placed around his neck. Shipp had played countless times against the Soviets, knew them inside out, and would have run through a brick wall to defeat them. But it was not triumph over the Russians that caused his breath to shorten or his heart to tremor. It was the realization that the long climb out of his childhood, one filled with hurt, insecurity, and loneliness, was over.
As he stood on the medal stand, waiting for his gold medal, memories of the orphanage where he grew up and the school he attended flooded his mind’s eye. He remembered his high school algebra teacher, Miss Maynard, who, instead of nurturing him, told him he was never going to learn anything. Out of frustration, Shipp once completed an algebra test by putting a zero on it, and submitting it as is. The teacher told him, “You will never amount to anything. You’ll be in jail one day.”
And so, at the moment the twenty-seven-year-old bent at the waist to receive his gold medal, the volcano at the pit of his stomach, roiling with the bilious lava of his youth, erupted.
I straightened up and I saw the camera pointing at me with the red light on, and I shouted, “Old Lady Maynard, I hope you’re watching, ‘cause I made something out of myself!” I never forgot it. I was still angry. My teammate, George Wilson, was standing next to me and asked me what that was all about. But I never told him.
I now realize that Lotus Maynard played such a big part in my life. I just got to thinking that my anger was hurting nobody but me. I realized, in fact, that she drove me to success. Now I go back and I say, “Mrs. Maynard, thank you.”