#NeverForget

The 1972 US men’s national basketball team was robbed of a Gold medal. For members of the team, like Doug Collins, the painful memory of that experience will never fade.
by August 11, 2016
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We’re never sure whether our children hear a single thing we say. We try to impart wisdom. To teach them the Right Way. But we can’t possibly know what penetrates life’s noisy soundtrack and makes a real impact.

Then, a son stands up at a celebratory dinner and reaches into the pocket of his coat.

And we know.

* * *

It has happened before. The International Olympic Committee has corrected an error and rewarded the proper winners. Even an organization that bestows gigantic moneymaking opportunities on human rights abusers and totalitarian hacks can do the right thing.

More modern drug-testing methods reveal abuses from the past—although we’re still waiting on verdicts from that steroid-laced froth produced by Soviet Bloc athletes in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Corruption is exposed.   Justice is served.

So, why couldn’t members of the maltreated 1972 US Men’s Basketball Team receive the Gold medals they deserved?

“They’ve given out dual Gold medals before,” says Tom McMillen, a forward on the team and later a US Congressman. “We went to the Russians and said that if they let [the IOC] give us Gold medals, we could somehow monetize it for a Russian charity.

“We got roundly turned down on that one. Maybe something will happen on the 50th anniversary, in 2022.”

Don’t count on it, Tom. Even though the 1972 Olympic basketball debacle remains one of the ugliest stains on the tattered IOC cloak, there is no push, globally, for fairness to prevail. Those who lived through and remember the chaotic ending to the Gold medal game between the US and Soviet teams still can’t describe clearly what happened. A collection of unexplained decisions by referees and an amateur basketball official, combined with a charged political climate to create a surreal stew of confusion that turned American victory into stunning defeat. When Alexander Belov caught a length-of-the-court heave from Ivan Edeshko—the third time the play had been attempted—and laid the ball in, the USSR had won more than just a basketball game. It had handed the Americans their first-ever Olympic loss in the sport they had invented, perfected and dominated.

There was a protest, of course. The Americans lost that by a vote of 3-2. Three Soviet bloc apparatchiks voted according to Party dictates, and two Western judges went for justice. The US lost, and to this day not one member of that team has even thought of accepting his silver medal. Team captain Kenny Davis has it in his will that his wife and children may never receive the tainted prize.

“We felt we didn’t deserve the silver medal,” says former NBA player and coach Doug Collins. “If we had lost, fair and square, we would have taken the medal, shaken [the Soviets’] hands and congratulated them.”

* * *

It was a subdued celebration. About 25 of Collins’ family and friends had gathered at a restaurant in 2009 to commemorate his being awarded the Curt Gowdy Media Award by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

Collins enjoyed the moment, and he was thrilled to have the people who had so enriched his life on hand to share the excitement.

Basketball had remained a huge part of his life. Even after that 2009 Hall of Fame honor, Collins would coach again for three years. And he remained part of the Olympic realm, broadcasting basketball at the Games in 2000, ’04 and ’08. (He would be part of the TV team for the 2012 Olympics and will broadcast the ’16 competition in Rio). His son, Chris, had been part of the US coaching staff in 2008 when Mike Krzyzewski took the reins of the “Redeem Team,” which sought to win Gold again after a debacle in ’04 resulted in bronze.

Though Chris didn’t receive an official Gold medal after the US trampled all comers in 2008, the head of USA Basketball, Jerry Colangelo, awarded him and other staffers replicas as thanks for their hard work.

A Collins had finally received the ultimate Olympic reward.

* * *

On the first day of training camp in a dilapidated submarine base at Pearl Harbor, US coach Hank Iba wrote the number 50 on the blackboard.

“What does that mean?” he asked.

When no one answered, Iba said, “We’re going to play the Russians in the Gold-medal game, and they’re not going to score 50 points.”

The 68-year-old Iba had been something of a compromise candidate. He had led the US team to Gold in 1964 and ’68, but he had since retired from coaching at Oklahoma State. Many thought legendary UCLA coach John Wooden would get the gig. But the Wizard wanted to be courted and practically begged. North Carolina’s Dean Smith was deemed too young. Iba was a defensive specialist who demanded his teams play disciplined, halfcourt basketball. That was just about the opposite of what most college players wanted to do but almost a mirror of the Soviet system, which mandated precision and control to make up for the team’s lack of elite athletic ability.

The US basketball team prematurely erupting with celebration at the Summer Olympics. The official ordered three seconds replayed and the Soviets scored defeating the US. (Photo by Rich Clarkson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

“Iba was a really old-school coach,” says Mike Bantom, a forward on the team and now Executive VP of Referee Operations for the NBA. “He had a ball control type of system, and I don’t think any of us were used to that. Most of us were used to playing in systems where we ran the ball and played free. This was a very disciplined approach. We had to learn how to play it.”

The lineup charged with translating that system into Gold wasn’t packed with NBA stars but with amateurs, and eight of the 12 players were 20-year-olds, much younger than the Soviets. And it wasn’t even the best of the available crop. UCLA sophomore Bill Walton, the best college player in the country, did not play for a variety of reasons, including his aching knees and an aversion to trying out or practicing. Providence’s Marvin “Bad News” Barnes, a physical, multitalented forward, showed well during tryouts but wasn’t chosen. And UCLA center Swen Nater, who backed up Walton in Westwood, made the team but left after three days of training in Hawaii, reportedly unhappy with the rigorous pace. His departure robbed the US of its top post scorer. “He would have given us a great inside presence,” Collins says.

Not that anybody was particularly worried. The US had a 55-0 record in Olympic competition since the sport’s introduction in the 1936 Games. The Soviets were clearly the main threat and were committed to using sports as a means of propagating their Communist agenda. But they couldn’t match the US talent. Still, it was clearly the Cold War on hardwood.

The US tore through its first seven opponents, boasting an average margin of victory of 32.9 points. They were ready to face Italy in the semifinals, when all of a sudden, basketball didn’t seem to matter so much anymore.

The Palestinian terrorist group Black September kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes and held them hostage, demanding the release of prisoners. “The security was so bad,” Collins says. “Anyone could get in and out of the [Olympic] Village.” Collins remembers walking with teammate Ed Ratleff, a swingman from Long Beach State, and seeing the ski-masked gunmen on the top floor of a building in the residence.

In the lowest moment of the Olympic movement, the terrorists killed the Israelis. ABC anchor Jim McKay’s emotional declaration, “They’re all gone,” still resonates with those who witnessed the tragedy through non-stop TV coverage. The Games were halted for two days while the world mourned the awful events. But the IOC decided to continue, reasoning that the world needed to heal and move on in the face of such barbarism. It also had little desire to refund money to ticketholders or deal with angry sponsors.

The Italians provided little resistance in the semis, falling 68-38. That set up the game everybody wanted to see, a showdown between the veteran Soviets and the young Americans.

“They had been together for five or 10 years and were subsidized by the state,” says McMillen, who joined the US squad after Nater bolted. “We were playing against a bona fide team of seasoned guys. We were thrust together, playing against the Russians, who were very disciplined and talented but mechanical. They really played their style well.”

In a surreal nod to the US television audience, the Gold-medal game didn’t start until 11:45 pm, Munich time. It’s unlikely the late start played much of a role, but the Soviets’ deliberate patterns and disciplined defense certainly did. The US players knew little about their USSR counterparts, particularly guard Sergei Belov, an accurate shooter who helped the Soviets build a 26-21 halftime lead. “Belov was like Steve Nash, in terms of how he controlled the ball,” Bantom says. “We couldn’t turn him over.” It quickly became clear to those watching that Iba’s deliberate system was working to the USSR’s advantage. The Americans couldn’t play the Soviet style as well as their opponents could.

“We had run against everybody else and had blown them out,” says 7-4 center Tom Burleson, who played at North Carolina State but was held out of the Gold-medal game because he had his fiancée in his room the night before. “We were trying to beat the Soviets at their own game.”

Things were even tougher in the second half. The Soviets inserted deep reserve Mikhail Korkiya to bait starting center Dwight Jones, the Americans’ top scorer and second-leading rebounder, into fighting. It worked. Jones squared off against the USSR scrub and was ejected quickly from the game.

“That’s an old European basketball trick,” says Bantom, who played seven years in Italy after spending eight seasons in the NBA. “We lost our starting center, and they lost their 12th man.”

During the jumpball after Jones’ ejection, power forward Jim Brewer was low-bridged and crashed to the floor, suffering a concussion. Although he played seven more minutes, Brewer was finished. Meanwhile, the American team sputtered offensively and couldn’t create the turnovers it needed to run. The Soviets led by 10 with 10 minutes left and 8 with five remaining. That’s when guards Kevin Joyce and Thomas Henderson decided to defy Iba and open things up. It worked. The US fought back to within one point, 49-48, with under 20 seconds remaining. McMillen blocked a short jumper, but the Soviets regained control under the basket. Collins stole a pass at the foul line and headed downcourt for what would have been the go-ahead layup. He was wiped out by Zurab Sakandelidze and crashed to the ground with 0:03 remaining.

Collins lay on the floor for a half-minute, stunned, before being helped to his feet and staggering to the foul line. US assistant John Bach told Iba to think about which player on the bench he would insert to shoot the free throws, in place of the dazed Collins. Iba didn’t consider it.

“He said, in his gravelly voice, and I’ll never forget it, ‘If Doug can walk, he’s shooting them,’” Collins says. “I thought, I’m not going to let my coach and teammates down. I’m going to make these.”

Despite a spinning head and a sore wrist, Collins stepped up and made both foul shots, giving the US a 50-49 lead. The Soviets inbounded the ball but didn’t get off a shot. The referees stopped action with 0:01 to play, but R. William Jones, then the Secretary General of the International Federation of Amateur Basketball and a man who had openly rooted for the Soviets in the 1952 Olympic final against the Americans, rushed to the floor and instructed the refs to put three seconds on the scoreboard. No worries. The Soviets inbounded the ball but didn’t even attempt a shot. The horn sounded, fans poured onto the floor and the US players celebrated their victory.

A stunned US basketball team after they were defeated by the Soviets at the Summer Olympics. (Photo by Rich Clarkson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

But the revelry was interrupted by an announcement informing everyone that “there are another three seconds left.” The referees had ruled that play had begun before the clock had been reset. Confused, the Americans lined up for one more “final” play. The 6-11 McMillen, who was guarding inbounds passer Edeshko, was told by the refs to give the Soviet player room. Instead of stepping back a couple feet, he retreated to the foul line. Iba refused to insert the 7-4 Burleson into the game to protect the basket, adhering to his disciplinary dictum. So the 6-3 Joyce and 6-7 James Forbes tried to outleap 6-9 Alexander Belov. Joyce couldn’t reach the throw, and Belov knocked Forbes to the floor before catching the pass and hitting a layup that gave the Soviets a 51-50 “victory.”

“I’ve never had any other moment where I was so high and then so low in my life,” McMillen says.

The Americans were dumbfounded. The Soviets were elated. US officials filed a quick protest, to prevent the awarding of the medals in the game’s immediate aftermath. The vote on the objection followed Cold War lines: Communists, 3 Capitalists, 2. The USSR had its Gold. The Americans refused to show up to receive their silver medals, which sit in a vault in Switzerland, never to be delivered.

“We felt we didn’t deserve silver,” Collins says. “It’s not like we were taking a stand. We didn’t deserve silver medals.”

* * *

The clock was winding down, this time on a wonderful night of celebration. As Collins surveyed his family and friends, he felt joy and pride. He was thankful they had helped him commemorate such a big moment.

Then, Chris stood up and reached into his pocket and spoke.

“He was very emotional,” Collins says. “He said, ‘This is 37 years too late, but you finally get a Gold medal,’ and he gave his [2008] medal to me.”

The 1972 Olympic debacle still stings Collins and his teammates. It will for the rest of their days. But sometimes even the biggest disappointments can be soothed by the generous gesture of a son, who reaches into his pocket and pulls out a little bit of gold.

All images: Rich Clarkson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images