LEXINGTON, KY – They were just kids then, schoolboy amateurs brought together in the summer of 1972 to continue their nation’s unblemished record in Olympic basketball. They are men now, husbands and fathers and even grandfathers, some who made a career in the sport, others who found success and struggle in other pursuits.
For the first time in 40 years – basically since their flight home from Munich with neither the gold medals they felt they deserved or the silver medals they refused to accept – all 12 members of the ’72 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team were in the same room this weekend.
They came together for a 40th reunion organized by team captain Kenny Davis and longtime Kentucky sports journalist Billy Reed and, as often is the case at reunions, they reminisced, they laughed … and they dredged up the pain of a legacy denied.
“Last night was surreal,” said Tom Burleson, 60, the 7-foot center from N.C. State. After razzing the Kentucky crowd with some Wolfpack antics, Burleson choked up when he spoke about the bonds between these players, forged by what they had endured to get to the brink of Olympic gold and by what they have gone through in living with the controversial loss ever since.
“The game was a game – it’s like life,” said Burleson, the No. 3 pick in the 1974 NBA draft who played seven pro seasons. “Mistakes after mistakes were made. … But it’s a beautiful thing when you think of the relationships we have from that.”
They all made it, arriving through the day Wednesday: Burleson, Mike Bantom, Jim Brewer, Doug Collins, Jim Forbes, Tom Henderson, Bobby Jones, Dwight Jones, Kevin Joyce, Tom McMillen, Ed Ratleff and Davis, the Georgetown (Ky.) College guard and Converse rep who enlisted his employer’s help to fund the event.
There had been other partial reunions – eight or nine or 10 – but this time they all made it. So did John Bach, longtime college and NBA coach who was an assistant on coach Henry Iba‘s staff. (Iba and assistant Don Haskins of Texas El-Paso are deceased.)
The essentials of what transpired in that 1972 finale against the Soviet Union are widely known because, after all, it remains one of the most notorious endings and famous games in basketball history. People remember and talk about Kentucky-Duke in 1992, the “Willis Reed” Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, Villanova-Georgetown (1985) and N.C. State-Houston (1983) from the Final Four, the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points and a handful more. But there is a staying power to this one because of the shock and intrigue.
Short on star power and straining at the tight leash held by the legendary Iba, the U.S. players wound up raked over by, yes, the military professionals of the U.S.S.R. but more so by the politics, protocol and backroom allegiances of that time.
The Cold War still was quite real. The Soviets were determined to assert athletic superiority as a stand-in for political, economic or cultural. And one international basketball advocate came down from the stands that night with, perhaps, an agenda and altered the outcome.
In the waning seconds, after the U.S. team had trailed pretty much from the start, Collins stole a careless Soviet pass, raced to the basket and got hammered. Dazed, he still sank two of the most pressurized free throws ever. That put the Americans up 50-49.
But even as Collins launched his second foul shot, confusion had begun. A horn blew. The Soviets clamored for a time out but didn’t call it properly – or did they? A hurry-up inbounds play was wiped off and the team in red tried again, with an errant pass that sparked a U.S. celebration. Gold!
But wait: R. William Jones, the 65-year-old co-founder of FIBA with no authority in that Olympic championship moment, showed up on the court and ordered the timekeeper to put three seconds on the clock. A timeout had been called, he said, but missed by the international referees. The U.S.S.R. got a third chance. This time, a long pass wound up in Aleksandr Belov‘s hands for a quick turn and layup.
Unbelievable. The Soviets danced on the court. The U.S. players sulked to their locker room, angrier with each step. In the heat and profanity of the next few minutes, they decided to protest the game (the review panel chosen by Jones was stacked with three Communist-bloc countries and the outcome was upheld 3-2). Someone also said something about not accepting any bleeping silver medals …
So those medals sit in a vault in Switzerland to this day. The Americans skipped the ceremony and resisted every attempt by the IOC to convey them – until even those bureaucrats gave up about 15 years ago.
Four decades later, they still feel cheated. They still feel they won, 50-49. Oh, many of them have replayed the game in their minds and wondered how different things might have been if Iba really had used their athletic ability, letting them run rather than grinding in a halfcourt game. Maybe their lead would have been too fat to steal. They think about better defending that final heave.
But in their hearts, there is no doubt.
“I was always taught not to take anything that didn’t belong to me,” Ratleff said Friday. “If I see a golf ball on the course and it’s not mine, I don’t pick it up. We know we did not win a silver medal. Those aren’t ours.”
At times through the years, a player or three has wavered, thinking about mortality, about what the silver medal might mean to kids or grandkids, even about concepts such as closure and sportsmanship. But Olympic rules require that all of the U.S. players must accept the medals or none of them can.
It never has been close. Davis even has it written in his will that his heirs must never take possession of that silver medal.
When they gathered Wednesday, McMillen – the 12-year NBA veteran who served six years in Congress (D-Md.) – pitched an idea: The ’72 team would agree with Russia and the IOC to have “dual gold” medals bestowed, with both sides then donating the medals to raise funds to aid some of the many grim Russian orphanages.
“We would give a little, the Russians would give a little and the medals would do some good,” McMillen said. “We can all go to our graves playing a basketball game and not having silver medals. Or we can still do something positive for the world. That was the debate I wanted us to have.”
Other members of the ’72 U.S. team respectfully listened to McMillen’s proposal. They teased him about still being a politician. “Dual gold?” Nope, still sounded wrong. Then they took another vote on the silvers. The jury again was unanimous: 12-0.
Twelve angry men? No, but 12 very determined basketball players, then and now.