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Basketball Meets The CIA In Uganda

This article is more than 7 years old.

In the late '60s and early '70s, a lot of people in the United States were protesting the war in Vietnam.

Jay Mullen, who was teaching at a small women’s college in 1971, was among them. In those days, some men grew beards to signify their opposition to the war, and Jay Mullen did that, and the college administration didn’t much like it:

"They asked him to shave his mustache or his beard, and he decided he didn’t want to do that," journalist Shaun Raviv explained. "He told them to go 'blank' themselves."

Raviv wrote a story for BuzzFeed about Jay Mullen, and he’s going to help tell Mullen's story.

Anyway, because Mullen needed a job, he went to work for the CIA.

I know, I know. But he did.

"They sent him to Uganda, sent his whole family to Uganda, in fact, and this was about eight or nine months, I think, after Idi Amin had taken over power with a pretty violent coup," Raviv said.

It was also when the Soviet Union was attempting to gain influence in Uganda, among many other places, and as part of their Cold War strategy, the U.S. needed to keep track of those attempts and perhaps recruit the odd double agent, which is why Jay Mullen was there. During the day he taught at a university in Kampala, and in his spare time, he played some basketball.

It was one of the things he did, you know, when he wasn’t spying or teaching or hanging out with his family, was just play basketball at the courts there. He was just a guy who liked sports in general.

Shaun Raviv, author of Shooter, Passer, Dictator, Spy

"It was one of the things he did, you know, when he wasn’t spying or teaching or hanging out with his family, was just play basketball at the courts there," Raviv said. "He was just a guy who liked sports in general."

And, as it turned out, a guy who knew more about basketball than the Ugandans with whom he was playing. So that when the coach of the national team, such as it was, fled the country, Mullen got the job. This meant that he was in charge in August of 1972, when the Soviet Union sent a very good men’s team to Uganda, where their third game would be against the team Mullen was coaching.

"He had seen how the Soviets played against two sort of inferior teams of Ugandans, and he saw how rough they played as well," Raviv said. "And so he wanted to prepare his guys, who were much more talented than the other teams, to prepare for rough play. And I think he may have over-prepared them."

The resulting game was a mugging, in terms of the score. When play ended, the Soviets were up about 50. But Mullen had coached the Ugandans to mug the Soviets right back, which is perhaps why — late in the game — the Soviet coach called on the services of his largest, most physical player, Victor Petrokov. Mullen was impressed.

"He described him as like the incredible Hulk, or Yao Ming with muscles, " Raviv said. "He was a sort of eighth man on the Russian team. But at the end of the game, he had a breakaway, and this was after all the roughness was happening. There was aggravation on both sides, coaches yelling at each other in a 'goodwill game.' But at the end of the game, this big guy got a breakaway, got an ally-oop pass and he dunked the ball so hard that the rim broke, and it was exactly one of two indoor rims in the entire country. So the game ended.

"And there’s actually a little – didn’t make it into the story, I think – but the rim sort of hung a bit on one bolt for a little while, and then apparently one of the Ugandan players, he thought it would be pretty funny to sort of finish the job, and he took a ball and threw it through this rim that was hanging out, and the whole crowd apparently laughed."

Which didn’t mean the cold war ended in laughter, exactly, but at least the game did.

A little less than a year later, Jay Mullen — teacher, spy and basketball coach — bailed out of Uganda. In their infinite wisdom, the CIA decided he’d be safer in Sudan. Now he lives in Oregon, and when he was finished telling Shaun Raviv about his days as a spy, Mullen smiled and said, “I really don’t care if anything that interesting ever happens again.”

This segment aired on October 3, 2015.


Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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