Before the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, Doug Collins was invited to speak to the U.S. men’s basketball team at a Las Vegas training camp. Collins talked about his experience at the 1972 Games in Munich.
A tape was shown to the eventual 2008 gold medalists of the last part of the 1972 gold-medal game between the U.S. and Soviet Union. With three seconds left and his team down, 49-48, Collins was knocked hard to the floor on a drive.
Collins had hit his head on a basket support and was slow getting up. Finally, while still woozy, he drilled two free throws for a 50-49 lead.
“They didn’t show the rest of the finish," Collins said. “They wanted to end it on my two free throws to make it look like we’d won."
That’s the way the 12 players from that 1972 team believe it should have finished. Of course, it didn’t.
In perhaps the most controversial sports ending in history, the Soviets got three more attempts to score. After two questionable clock re-settings, a length-of the floor pass found its way to Alexander Belov, who made a layup at the buzzer for what remains in the record books a 51-50 Soviet win.
To this day, the American players don’t acknowledge the loss. They have refused to accept their silver medals, which sit in an International Olympic Committee vault in Switzerland. Team captain Kenny Davis has put in his will that no one in his family ever can accept his.
“If anybody looks at that game rationally, they believe we should have won," Davis said.
Davis has scheduled a team reunion for late August in his native Kentucky. It’s likely the first time all those Olympians have gotten together since 1972.
“It’s going to be a celebration of what a bunch of young guys went through as teammates in 1972, and how it forged our lives," said Collins, who will be an NBC basketball analyst this summer in London for a fourth straight Olympics and says “emotions still become a little raw’’ during medal ceremonies.
Collins, now the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, went on to become a notable NBA player, coach and broadcaster. Tom Henderson (1978 Washington) and Bobby Jones (1983 76ers) won NBA title rings. Tom McMillen went on to serve three terms in Congress.
“Really, it was a basketball highjacking," McMillen says now. “It’s one of those things that’s like groundhog day. It pops its head up generally on anniversaries."
McMillen said the Americans were “political pawns" during the Cold War. Entering the 1972 Olympics, Team USA had won seven straight Olympic basketball gold medals, and the Soviets badly wanted to end that streak.
The Munich Games are most notable for being interrupted by Palestinian terrorists, who captured and eventually killed 11 Israeli coaches and athletes. That does put matters in perspective for the basketball players.
“They came out of there in caskets and we were able to come back home and live full lives," Davis said.
The Games were stopped for 24 hours after the Sept. 5 tragedy. On Sept. 9, the gold-medal game was played.
The Americans fought back from a 10-point second-half deficit to take the lead on Collins' free throws, which McMillen calls “the two gustiest free throws in the history of basketball." The Soviets inbounded, but play was stopped with one second left when a Soviet coach ran out to protest that his team had called a timeout. Great Britain’s William Jones, the international basketball head who had no Olympics jurisdiction and had said before that America’s domination of the sport wasn’t good, then came out of the stands to rule the clock be reset to three seconds.
A long Soviet pass went awry. The Americans ran onto the court to celebrate wildly.
“I feel to this day that we actually won the gold medal twice," Bobby Jones said.
But the Soviets got a third try when it was ruled the clock had been reset improperly. Again given three seconds, the Soviets finally took advantage, as a long inbound pass went to Belov, who scored in between Jim Forbes and Kevin Joyce, who both went sprawling.
“Now, I just leave the room," Forbes said of the replays. “You get tired of seeing yourself look up and watching the guy score the winning basket."
Forbes, who said Belov bumped him, was very angry after it happened but said he’s “not bitter" anymore. Still, Forbes, a longtime high school basketball coach in El Paso, Texas, avoids talking to his players about the game.
“If I complain, I don’t want my players to think that they can have an excuse if we lose," Forbes said.
The Americans still don’t believe they lost, even though a protest was denied by a 3-2 vote, with the votes against them all from Communist bloc nations. McMillen 10 years ago unsuccessfully petitioned the IOC to award duplicate gold medals.
“It was a really good team," Collins said. “But we are bonded together through pain, through the feeling that the game was sort of taken away from us."
Years later, at least there is the option of turning off the game with three seconds left.
--- By Chris Tomasson