Twelve men thrown together one summer 20 years ago. Twelve men who stumbled out of a Pearl Harbor barracks three times a day during training camp and then onto a basketball court with screen meshing for walls and with bloodstains on the sidelines from the '41 attack by the Japanese. Twelve men who ate and bitched and slapped at mosquitoes together, who awoke in Munich to terrorists' gunfire together, who suffered perhaps the worst injustice in Olympic history together.
Twelve medals. Twelve medals, each made of 197 grams of silver, 2.99 inches in diameter, 5.9 millimeters thick, worth $28 apiece on the silver market. Twelve medals still lying in a bank vault in Switzerland, waiting for 12 men to claim them.
One decision. Should the 12 men accept the 12 medals now? Are two decades enough? Has the point been made? Or does a principle, like a prayer, need to be murmured again and again?
June 14, 1992
Six seconds. Six seconds left in the final basketball game of the '72 Summer Games in Munich, the U.S. trailing the Soviet Union 49-48, the Americans' unbeaten streak of 63 Olympic basketball games all but ended. Then Doug Collins intercepts a pass, drives toward the basket, gets hammered nearly unconscious against the stanchion with three seconds left, regains his wits and sinks perhaps the two most pressure-filled free throws ever.
Three seconds. The Soviets have the ball. Forbidden by international rules to call timeout after a free throw, they must inbound the ball, and then their coach must push a button on the sidelines, activating a red light, to arrange a timeout. Instead, with their offense in chaos after they inbound, the Soviet coach and bench spill onto the floor, demanding that the clock be stopped, in violation of the rules.
One second. The Bulgarian referee, Artenik Arabadjan, stops the clock, claiming there are fans on the court. Only the Soviet bench is on the court. The referee does not permit a timeout. The Soviets inbound again; the passer steps on the line, but no call is made. His long pass is deflected. The buzzer sounds. The Americans go wild, 50-49 winners of the gold.
No seconds. R. William Jones of Great Britain, the secretary general of the International Amateur Basketball Federation (FIBA), who has absolutely no authority during an Olympic game, descends from the stands and overrules the officials, granting the Soviets their timeout and putting three seconds back on the clock.
The Soviets line up to inbound again. The Brazilian referee, Renato Righetto, orders 6'11" Tom McMillen to back off the inbounds passer—enforcing a rule that doesn't exist in international play—or he'll call a technical foul. McMillen backs off about halfway to the foul line, permitting Ivan Edeshko to hurl a perfect length-of-the-court pass to 6'7" teammate Aleksandr Belov, who leaps over two Americans, grabs the ball and drops it in the basket. The Soviets go wild, 51-50 winners of the gold.
The 12 men of the U.S. team meet in a room in the Olympic Village. Their protest to FIBA's Jury of Appeal has been dismissed by a 3-2 vote—three Communist-bloc votes against. One of the 12 men is a recent university graduate; all of the rest are still students in an era in which young people are locking arms and marching against the war in Vietnam, against racism, against authority, standing up and sitting in for Truth and Justice. Now the 12 men must decide whether they will bow to authority, mount the pedestal and accept The Lie. They look at one another. Not me. Not me. Not me. Soviets can wink, Cubans can shuffle their feet, East Germans can lower their eyes and nod. But not Americans. Not for any price. That is the principle the 12 men believe they are standing up for the next day, when they boycott the awards ceremony and refuse their medals—the only athletes in Olympic history, it is believed, to have done so.
Life picks them up and sweeps them along. Ten of the 12 enter the NBA as first-round picks. There are games to play, checks to cash, women to meet. Now and then, that night in Munich comes back to them unexpectedly, the greatest collision of joy and despair in their lives. Some of them are shocked to find themselves weeping. But most of the time they never think of it at all.
Ten years after the game, a letter arrives at the homes of most of the 12 men. It's from USA Basketball, the amateur sport's governing body in America. Are they ready to let go of the principle yet? Will they take the medals now? Officials are even considering staging a banquet in Los Angeles during the '84 Summer Games, a reunion of the 12 men to accept the silver. "It's up to the kids, and we support them in whatever they choose," says Bill Wall, USA Basketball's executive director. "We all know we got screwed. But I wish they would accept it and put it behind us."
There is one catch, the letter explains. Either all of them get the medals—or none of them does. The International Olympic Committee doesn't want seven men accepting medals while five holdouts howl to the press, reviving all the bitterness. The vote, like a jury's determination of guilt, must be unanimous. The verdict comes back: no medals.
Four more years pass. It's 1986. The Seoul Olympics are coming. The letters arrive in the 12 men's mailboxes again. Are they ready now? Have they softened? The verdict comes back: no medals.
The 20th anniversary approaches. All but one of the players have turned 40. Some are beginning to pause and catch their breath, to look back and understand how that night in Munich fits into the making of their lives. Two of them are balding. One's selling cars, one's selling sneakers, one's selling insurance. One's a U.S. congressman, for god's sake. All but two have children.
Soon it will come again. The letter. The question. To some of them, it is the devil—patient, persistent, seducing them every four years with images of others bending to receive medals as the flags go up and the anthems play and the throats tremble, whispering to them to sell their souls for a piece of silver, waiting for them to weaken.
But would it be weakness, would it be selling? Some of them aren't so sure. Their peers are backing away from lines they drew in the dust during college days. Their friends are sacrificing old principles in increments, in privacy, pointing to children or careers when they need to explain it to themselves. Shouldn't they?
Job: NBA color analyst for TNT
Home: Northbrook, Ill.; Married, two children
You know what those Olympics did? They made me grow up. They opened my eyes. Here I am, a kid from Benton, Illinois, 6,000 people, a kid who started only one year in high school basketball. Then I shoot up 4½ inches and put on 25 pounds in one year, and suddenly I find myself starting for the U.S. Olympic team. I'm marching into the stadium for the opening ceremonies, wearing red, white and blue, and everyone's cheering and the hair's rising on my back—I'm ready to run the 100-meter dash and win it. There's bird crap raining all over us from the white doves they've released—the older athletes who've been in other Olympics are ready for it, they've got newspapers over their heads, but I don't know anything. I'm on Fantasy Island; the world's a fairy tale to me.
And all of a sudden there's people being killed by terrorists in the Olympic Village. We go to eat and see the terrorists up in the balcony of one of the dorms with hand grenades and machine guns. We see helicopters flying over us, tanks coming in. It's like we're in a movie; it's beyond my comprehension. Everything's going wrong. Two of our best sprinters are given the wrong starting times and miss the 100-meter dash. One of our swimmers gets his gold medal taken away because he's taken some asthma medication. We felt, Let's get our gold and go home.
We're losing by one, the Soviets have the ball, the clock's running out. I hide behind the center, bait a guy into throwing a pass, knock it loose and grab it. A Russian goes under me as I'm going up for the layup. I'm KO'd for a few seconds; the coaches run to me. John Bach, one of the assistants, says, "We gotta get somebody in to shoot the foul shots." But coach Hank Iba says, "If Doug can walk, he'll shoot." That electrified me. The coach believed in me.
I can't even remember feeling any pressure. Three dribbles, spin the ball, toss it in, same as in my backyard. I hit 'em both, and we've got the lead. I didn't know what I was made of till then.
And then they take it away from us. This was the first time I'd ever seen that side of life. I remember every moment of it. It's burned in my brain. I got a tape of the last minute; I watched it over and over. The world wasn't a fairy tale, after all. You know what it did? It prepared me for the NBA, where your heart gets broken every other day. It prepared me for life.
I actually got more bitter about that game as the years went on. If my two free throws had stood up, they'd be etched in history. After the Olympics I would watch other people getting gold medals, and I'd feel teary-eyed, I'd feel jealous. I've played in NBA Finals and All-Star Games. My wife has taken my Olympic ring to the jeweler and put a cluster of diamonds in it so it looks like a championship ring. But nothing comes close to the feeling of a 21-year-old kid playing for his country and winning the gold, nothing comes close to the feeling I should've had if they hadn't taken it away from me.
Take that medal now? Hey, I'm a competitor. When the Soviets were playing the Atlanta Hawks in an exhibition game four years ago, someone said he'd like mc to meet the Soviet assistant coach—the guy who threw the length-of-the-court pass for their last basket. I said, "I don't want to meet that guy." When they asked us to vote on the medal, I wrote back and said, "If you want to send the silver medal to me, fine, but don't make any effort. It means nothing to me. I vote no."
Job: Director of Player Personnel, Minnesota Timberwolves
Home: Minneapolis; Married, two children
That night was the end of the world for me. It never goes away. A lie is persistent. I was bitter for a long, long time. I remember one day, about three or four years after those Olympics. I was looking for my passport in some cardboard boxes in the basement because I had to leave the country. And I came upon some pictures of the guys on that team, and some letters from that time, and I just started crying. I sat there for a while, alone in the basement, and cried. I finally let it go that day.
I remember some official walking in after we'd voted not to take the medals, and I told him what we'd decided. He said, "Jim, you're not speaking for everybody." I said, "Yes, I am," and I looked at all the other players with this wild-eyed look, and nobody was going to argue. I don't know. Maybe we need to talk about getting those medals. Maybe we could get them to coat the medals with gold. But no, I've gone 20 years without it and I can go 20 more. To accept that medal now is to agree that we lost that game. I vote no.
Profession: Hardware store owner
Home: Newland, N.C.; Married, three children
Sure, I want that medal. I'm not bitter—I'm just not natured that way. Playing in those Games was the greatest accomplishment of my life. I felt real bad for a year, like we'd let America down. But the way I look at it now, some good things came out of it. Little kids in Russia started putting up hoops, from what I hear. By losing first in Munich, we made it easier for the U.S. team in Seoul when it was beaten in '88.
The trouble is, some of the guys on the team are going to get mad when they hear that I've asked for the medal. Most of them still want to blot it all out. I didn't get any playing time in that final game, so when the guys voted on the medals right after the game, I went along with what they wanted. But I've wanted mine ever since I started having kids. I want them to have it. I vote yes.
Profession: Wall Street stockbroker
Home: Long Beach, N.Y.; Married, no children
Burleson wants to show it to his children and grandchildren, huh? Well, that's nice. But his children and grandchildren didn't play in that game. We did. I guess some guys are getting sentimental. I don't have any kids, but I hope that wouldn't affect my decision.
My friends at work call me 77-1—that was America's record in Olympic basketball before the team lost in '88 in Seoul. Yeah, Wall Street's cold. It's funny. When I got back from the Games, the guys in my dorm at the University of South Carolina stole all my USA stuff. I've hardly got a scrap of evidence that I played in those Games, except for a letter from Richard Nixon on my basement wall, saying, "You're still champs in my eyes." Oh, yeah, and one other thing. When I got back to America, my mother had something for me. It was a gold charm that looks like a gold medal, and when I came home she put it around my neck. I've kept it on ever since—it's the only jewelry I wear. My mom's gold medal, that's good enough for me. The guys on the team who want the silver will never get it. I'll always vote no.
Profession: Licensing manager of NBA International
Home: New York City; Divorced, four children
I'm playing for myself only. I don't really consider myself a member of the United States team. I'm no patriot. I'm going to Munich because my family can use whatever I get out of it. I can't buy this 'Win medals for your country' jazz. There's no glory in Munich for the people of North Philadelphia. They're too busy trying to stay alive to worry about the Games. They don 7 really share much in the country's glory, do they? — MIKE BANTOM, July 1972
Being an American is something that makes me feel proud. My whole philosophy started changing in those Games—I'm a true believer in our country now. I don't say that blindly. But you cannot go through what we did without having your perspectives expand.
It's not that I was against America before those Olympics. It's just that I had a lot of problems with the way things were going. The day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, we walked out of high school and marched to city hall. I protested the war. I protested at St. Joseph's [University] to create a black students' union. Earth Day. Peace Day. I was in it. There was a lot to believe in back then.
I'd never been out of the country before we went to Munich. Once you got to that Olympic Village, you couldn't help but think about the United States in relation to hundreds of other countries. The Cubans couldn't speak to us. The Soviets and the East Europeans dressed and acted like robots. Then I'd look at us, and we were all such diverse personalities. I realized you can choose your aspirations in America without becoming a clone. We open things up to allow individuals to strive; we make it possible for our people to be great. I was never in another protest after coming home from the Games.
We thought the world was out to get us then—I don't know if it was our paranoia or our perception. Maybe it forced me to choose sides. And then all those flags and colors and national anthems got to me. You can't help but feel special when you're in the Olympics. At the time I thought it was just because we were Americans that we got screwed. But after watching the Olympics every four years, I don't think so anymore. Somebody gets screwed every year, not just Americans. It always happens—lifelong dreams and careers end there.
Three or four years later I was out gardening one day. I walked in the house and saw something on the TV—I think it was called Great Olympic Moments. They showed the end of our game, and there I was on the screen after the Russians had scored, sitting on the bench . . . crying. It amazed me. I remembered confusion, anger, screaming, but I never remembered crying. All of a sudden all of the feelings came back. I sat down and started crying all over again.
There's one other thing I remember. It was in 1984, when I was playing for Siena in Italy. The Russians had just shot that Korean airliner down, and a Russian team was playing Siena as part of its tour of Italy. The Russians brought their own ref, and they started roughing us up, and their ref wouldn't call anything. So for two hours I lost my mind.
I elbowed guys in the mouth. I kneed guys. I shot 2 for 20, but I wasn't interested in making shots. I was something to behold. The Russians' coach was the same guy who coached them in '72, and he confronted me at halftime.
"Why are you doing this?" the coach asked me.
I said, "I know who you are and I know what you're doing. You, more than anybody, should know why I hate you sons of bitches."
I guess I accept it a little more now. The only photograph of myself that I have out, on the bookcase in my office, is an action shot in the Olympics. Each time I get that letter about taking the medal, I look at it for a minute, I think about it for a minute, and then I say, "The hell with it." The last time, I started thinking that I'd like to have [the medal] to show my kids. But it was just my ego talking.
The underlying principle is still there. If enough guys want it, I'll go along. But I vote no.
Profession: High school director of development and basketball coach
Home: Charlotte, N.C.; Married, three children
One of my sons is a wheeler-dealer. Turtles, baseball cards, pocket knives—he'll collect and barter anything. He sees that silver medal as a prize he can get. He tells me that when I die, he's going to get that medal and cash it in. I think he's joking. I tell him to hang in there and wait for the gold. Who knows? Maybe in 80 years, like with Jim Thorpe's medals, justice will be done.
I was happy to be on that plane home from Munich. My faith in man was ruined—I'd been awakened to what human beings can do. Even our own Olympic Committee was cajoling us to take that medal. But we made a decision as a team, and I plan on sticking by that. Time changes nothing. I vote no.
Profession: Account salesman for Converse
Home: Paint Lick, Ky.; Married, two children
Article IX: I devise and bequeath at my death that my wife Rita and children Jill and Bryan and their descendants never accept a silver medal from the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, West Germany. — KENNY DAVIS, 1991
Anything can happen after you die. So I figured, I'll put it where they can't get it. I'll spell it out in my will. We won the gold. The silver isn't mine. That's not sour grapes. It's the truth.
I think it bothered me more than the other guys. I was older than them. I came from a little NAIA school, Georgetown College in Kentucky, and I wasn't going on to pro ball like the others. The Olympics was the culmination of all I'd worked for. To have the gold in my hand and watch it slip away. . . . I went back to my room and cried alone that night.
But every time I get to feeling sorry for myself, I think of the Israeli kids who were killed at those Games. I've packed away all my basketball trophies, but I've got a TIME magazine from back then on my office bookshelf. Every once in a while I take the magazine down and open it up to the photograph of that helicopter blowing up with five athletes inside. Think of being in a helicopter with your hands tied behind your back and a hand grenade rolling toward you . . . and compare that to not getting a gold medal. If that final game is the worst injustice that ever happens to the guys on that team, we'll all come out of this life pretty good.
But no, I'll never take that medal. By being adamant, I believe we can stop this kind of thing from ever happening again. Every Olympic official will have to think twice before he ever does something like that to anyone else. That's why I vote no.
Profession: High school history teacher and basketball coach
Home: El Paso; Single, one child
I guess I was paranoid. I thought people were blaming me because I didn't stop Belov from catching that pass and scoring. When I got back to school, at UTEP, I'd go in my room and close the door and not come out. I'd lie there and just think about it. My mind would play tricks and I'd start thinking, If someone else had been back there, would it have happened? But I never should've been put in that situation—those last three seconds never should've been played. Every now and then during a college game a fan would yell at me, "You blew it, you should have stopped it," and that would set me off again.
I spent most of the night after that last Olympic game alone. They picked me for the random drug test, and because of all the emotion, I guess I was drained—I couldn't go to the bathroom. I sat there in that nurse's office for 2½ hours, drinking umpteen glasses of water, thinking about what had just happened. It must have been 3 or 4 a.m. before I finally peed. Just think about it. We were jumping and we were hugging, feeling such exhilaration one moment, and the next we were in a state of shock. And then came the anger, and the anger just goes and goes and goes.
The first scrimmage I played in after the Olympics, I ripped up the cartilage in my knee. I had three operations and an arthroscope, but I never had the mobility again.
It crosses my mind sometimes that I'd like that medal now. The older you get, the anger begins to mellow, the stubbornness isn't quite as strong. It is an Olympic medal, after all, and not many people get one. I watch the Olympics and I imagine the feeling of getting that gold. But my first instinct is still the same. We earned the gold. I vote no.
Profession: U.S. Congressman
Home: Crofton, Md.; Single, no children
That was a long time ago. I don't think about it much. I didn't feel cheated. I didn't feel bitter. I just felt numb, and then life went on. Too many things have happened to me to go on thinking about that.
The only time I've ever come close to feeling that high and that low in such a short space of time was when I first ran for Congress, in 1986. It was 10 p.m., and I was losing by 10,000 votes, and Dan Rather had already declared me a loser on CBS. I'd been out that night shaking hands at the polls, I still felt we could win—and we did, by 428 votes, in triple overtime.
The truth is, that silver medal doesn't mean a lot to me. The whole issue is not a pressing concern in my life. And I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to cut this short, because I have a plane to catch right now. If they want to send the medal to me, fine—but I don't want it, it's still anticlimactic. I vote no.
Profession: Sales manager of an automobile dealership
Home: Spring, Texas; Married, four children
They're ahead in the second half, but we're coming back. I rebound and dunk, and then I dunk again. They stick another guy in, and he's on my back, and then he hits me in the back of the head. I raise my fists and the ref says, "Both of you are gone." There I am, the team's leading scorer in the big game—gone.
Then I have to sit and watch them take it from us. My wife says, "Why don't you go get that medal? So your son can have it." Hell, no. He can wear my Olympic ring. I want my medal. Not no silver. I want my gold. It's probably sitting around some Russian's neck right now. That thing should be in my trophy case in my game room, dead center. I vote no.
Profession: Insurance agency manager
Home: Long Beach, Calif.; Married, two children
I don't want that medal. I hate the thought of taking it now and admitting we got beat. But I got married seven years ago, and my wife wants it. She says, "If they ask you again, you better say yes." She wants something to show the kids. That's the trouble. The guys on that team stick together on this, but the wives don't have the feeling like the husbands do.
I went to Munich last year. I went back to the Olympic Village, back to the stadium. I thought it might bother me more, but it didn't. I wish I had known where they kept those silver medals. Maybe I could've gotten a picture taken of me holding one, and that would've been good enough for my wife. If I were single, I'd vote no. But I'm married, and you know how that is . . . don't you? You're married, right?
Profession: Works with mentally handicapped and retarded children
Home: Houston; Married, two children
I got drunk that night. Went to the Hofbrau House after the game and drank the biggest beer I could find. Then I had another one. Had to crawl to my room. The cabbie driving me back was driving like a lunatic. I told him if he didn't slow down I'd knock him out. I guess he didn't understand me. I put up my fist and said, "You understand this?" I was pissed off that night, but I didn't want to die.
Look, we made our decision, we voted that day. Tom McMillen was the only one who said, "Well . . . let's talk about it." Always the diplomat. We said forget it, we'd brain him if he tried. Nothing's changed. They say time heals all wounds—no, no, no. I'm still pissed. I'll turn over in my grave pissed off if those guys ever accept that medal. That night took a big part of me. There are certain goals you have in your career. I was cheated. I feel robbed.
I'm mad about a lot of things. We could've run them back to Russia, and we played slowdown. We had scorers—Ratleff, Joyce. We had athletes. That's how we finally made our comeback. I said, "Forget this slowdown crap; we gotta go to the basket, we gotta run."
I'm mad that we lost in '88, too. Basketball is America's game. This is ours. We've been getting whipped because the team we've been sending is a joke. The world will see this year. Our pros will be there, and we'll take out all of our frustration for what happened in '72.
I'm still pissed at Dwight Jones for getting thrown out of the game. Know what he said to me one time? He said he doesn't want the silver for himself, but he wants it to show his kids. Man, just use a book or a film to show your kids you were in it—you don't need no medal. I told my son, "You do not accept that silver medal when I'm dead and gone. Your dad deserved the gold, don't you ever take no silver." Some of the guys on that team are punking out on me, they're punking out. But it's got to be unanimous, and they won't get me. I'll always vote no.
There are several intriguing historical footnotes to that scarred 1972 Olympic basketball final. The Brazilian referee, Righetto, who at first refused Jones's order to put time back on the clock for the Soviets, never officiated in an international game again. The Bulgarian referee, Arabadjan, left his country in the '80s and moved to New York City. "That bastard?" cries Bob Paul, press chief of the '72 U.S. Olympic team. "We let him in? My god, we forgive everybody!"
Belov, who scored the winning basket for the Soviets, died in 1978 at the age of 26, supposedly of a heart attack—although rumors persist that he was involved in smuggling and that his death was not from natural causes. Hank Iba, who coached his final game that night in Munich, lives on in Stillwater, Okla., where he is designing a new motion-and-screening offense at the age of 87.
There is one other curious footnote. Of the 12 American players on that team, 10 claim that they still vote no to the silver medals today. The reality is that except for one or two players who didn't turn in their votes in 1982 and 1986, only three voted no to accepting the medals in the first vote, and only two voted no the second time, according to sources at USA Basketball. Could it be that roughly half of the team that made its stand for honesty and integrity in 1972 is . . . fibbing?