In the Wrong Place at the Right Time
Oct. 18, 2012
By Larry Stewart
My favorite recollection of the night Mary Lou Retton nailed that 10 on the vault at Pauley Pavilion was what a colleague of mine at the Los Angeles Times pulled off, ending up right next to Retton's personal coach, Bela Karolyi.
During those Olympics, I was assigned to write columns critiquing the TV coverage and also help out editing stories. The entire Sports staff of the Times worked day and night. There were no days off and most of us stayed at a hotel two blocks from the Times building. We worked, we slept and we ate when we could. There was time for nothing else.
For 10 days prior to the Olympics and through the 16 days of competition, the staff put out special sections of either 44 pages or 40. It was an Olympic task of journalism, led by sports editor Bill Dwyre.
I was in the office watching the television coverage when Retton did her magic. We were all stunned to see one of the younger members of the staff, Rick Reilly, on TV right next to Karolyi, the former Romanian who coached Nadia Comaneci when she scored the first perfect 10 in Olympic competition during the uneven parallel bars competition in 1976 Olympics at Montreal.
Don Peters, the women's Olympic coach, was on the floor of Pauley Pavilion. Karolyi and other personal coaches weren't allowed on the floor. I learned later by watching Bud Greenspan's film on the 1984 Olympics that Karolyi finagled a credential as an equipment representative, which allowed him to stand in a photographers' well that was close enough to the floor so that he could bark out commands to his prized student.
So how did Reilly end up next to him? I never knew until a recent phone conversation.
Reilly wasn't the main writer covering the gymnastics competition that night. He was at Pauley to write a sidebar, which is a journalism term for a secondary story. The main writer was Richard Hoffer.
Both Hoffer and Reilly ended up moving on to Sports Illustrated. Reilly is now with ESPN and ESPN.com and recognized as possibly the top sportswriter in the country. In 1984, he already had the reputation of doing just about anything to get a good story.
"I saw where Bela was and thought I had to get down where he was," Reilly told me recently. "I turned my credential around and as I approached a security person I pointed and said, `I'm trying to get over there.' Amazingly, the security person let me through."
Reilly, wearing horned-rim glasses, can easily be spotted throughout on any highlight tape of that evening. He's the one who looks uncomfortable, like someone who knows he's someplace he's not supposed to be.
"I could hear everything Bela was yelling at Mary Lou, or at least I thought I could. I wrote he kept yelling 'Little Body,' which made sense to me at the time. Two days later someone told me he was yelling, 'Little Buddy.'"
Well, the story may not have been error-free, but it was certainly memorable. Particularly because the instant Mary Lou nailed her first 10 in the vault, Bela, looking for someone to hug, hugged Reilly.
During my recent phone conversation with Retton, I asked her if she knew who the young man in the horned-rim glasses lurking around Karolyi was. I was surprised that she didn't.
"That was Rick Reilly?!" was her response when I told her. "I always wondered who that was. I never knew."
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