GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- On a soft August evening deep in Kentucky’s beautiful rolling hills, Doug Collins sat in the tasting room at Woodford Reserve distillery. At that moment in 2012, he was a professional basketball coach, a broadcaster, a husband, father and grandfather. A moment later, eyes alight, it was Sept. 9, 1972. He was a kid flying to the rim.
Eight seconds to play, the United States a point down to the Soviet Union. Collins had stolen the ball near his own free-throw line. He had a step on the only defender in his peripheral vision. Laying out, he knew he could be airborne to the rim before the Soviet player arrived. He also knew he would get hammered. The Soviet could not allow a layup. He hurled himself against Collins, who went down hard, his head sliding under the goal support.
Three seconds to play now, and Collins was disoriented. He had been unconscious for maybe 10 seconds. A mouse popped up under his left eye. He manipulated his left wrist to see if the ache meant anything bad. As he gathered his senses, Collins heard a U.S. coach ask who ought to get off the bench to shoot the free throws. The next voice was the rasp of Henry Iba, the head coach, the legend whose teams had won the previous two Olympics. "If Doug can walk," Iba said, "he’s shooting."
It was about to become the most famous game in basketball history, and certainly the most controversial. Laettner’s dagger in Kentucky’s heart, Willis Reed dragging himself onto the Garden floor, Magic in the paint against the 76ers, Wilt’s 100 -- all are nice. But the U.S.-Soviet Union game in Munich is the only one of which Richard Nixon said, "Well, we got screwed," and Leonid Brezhnev, amused, said, "I now know there is a God above."
Collins heard Iba’s confidence in him. The coach had put the kid and his teammates through three weeks of training-camp hell at Pearl Harbor. They worked out three times a day in an arena with a floor clear-coat varnished to preserve the blood stains of men who had been brought there on Dec. 7, 1941. The Americans had never lost in the Olympics. The winning streak stood at 63 straight games, seven straight gold medals.
One point down, three seconds to play, Collins had two free throws coming.
Made the first. Game tied at 49.
Then, as always at the line, Collins bounced the ball three times, caught it, spun it, brought it up -- and heard a buzzer, a sound indicating a stop in play. But Collins did not hesitate. That made free throw gave the Americans their first lead, 50-49. Iba had made his team two promises at the end of training camp: "Each and every one of you will be better men, and I promise you the Russians won’t score 50 points."
The old Collins, in that distillery this past weekend, said the kid Collins had no big-picture thoughts on those free throws. It wasn’t about the Cold War, the chill so real that some American children were taught to hide under their school desks in case of a nuclear attack. It wasn’t even about winning for the United States. Collins said he wanted those free throws for his teammates, the 11 players who had been through the months of preparation and training for this night, the 11 who had come back from 10 points down in this game.
Now, with three seconds left, with the Soviets hurriedly in-bounding the ball, the Americans would win.
Only they didn’t.
They lost, 51-50, on a field goal that came on the last of the Soviets’ three possessions in those last three seconds.
Wait. Three possessions? In three seconds? How the hell?
* * *
They came to Kentucky this past weekend because their captain, Kenny Davis, a scoring machine from little Georgetown College, had put together a reunion. It brought all 12 players together for the first time since Munich. They’re grayer and heavier and there’s a hitch in most giddyups. The reunion made it clear that whatever Iba’s failings may have been in 1972 -- he was 68, retired from coaching for two years, a proponent of deliberate offense in an age of runners -- he succeeded in creating a team of bright, articulate, generous men.
Even now, his "boys," as he called them, remember with survivors’ pride the three-a-days at Pearl Harbor. They remember Iba’s roaring insistence that two defenders -- only two, if they were tough enough -- could defeat five men on a fast break. "STOP ‘EM!" was his order, and he left the rest up to their courage. Assistant coach Johnny Bach, now 88, remembers Iba telling him to give the players a break. "Let ‘em open their laces," Iba said, "and I’ll send in lunch." Lunch was a cup of bouillon and three crackers.
They rode a bus together again, this time a tour bus, again hearing the banter of jocks on the road. Bach came with Iba stories (the legendary coach died in 1993): "He once said, ‘Johnny, wouldn’t it be great, in my whole life, I’ve only wanted one thing -- a shutout in basketball.’" A DUI joke: "Trooper stops a juggler for speeding. Juggler says he’s headed home to get his balls. Cop says he loves jugglers, ‘prove it and I’ll let you go. Juggle these flares when I light ‘em.’ So he’s juggling the flares, and a car pulls up behind ‘em. Guy gets out, walks to the cop, hands up. ‘Might as well take me in right now,’ the guy says. ‘I can’t pass that test.’" Collins did a manic backward windmilling of his arms to suggest an old buddy’s habit of changing his story to fit the moment: "Backstroking faster than Michael Phelps!"
They remembered the horror of the Israeli massacre five days before the gold-medal game. From their own building, they had seen terrorists in ski masks carrying machine guns. They saw an Israeli athlete dragged by his hair into view. The big center Tom Burleson said he’d walked around Munich that day and was walking to the Olympic Village through an underground garage when he was stopped by German soldiers. He said they put a gun to his head and told him to face a wall. "The terrorists were taking the Israelis to a waiting helicopter," Burleson said. "I could hear the shuffling feet of the hostages and I could hear them crying. They knew they were walking to their death." The next day, longtime IOC president Avery Brundage declared, "The Games must go on." The Americans were exhausted. Henderson said, "I was ready to go home." They beat Italy in a semifinal the next day, then faced the Soviets.
For 40 years, the team’s identity has been shaped by that loss in Munich -- that, and the players’ immediate and continuing refusal to accept the silver medals that go to Olympic runners-up. They remain the only athletes who have ever refused a medal. All weekend, I asked how they’d come to that decision. None remembers, exactly.
Burleson remembers an assistant coach, Don Haskins, saying that they just shouldn’t take the medal. Guard Kevin Joyce says they were all confused, angry men, everyone knowing they’d been cheated, they’d been robbed, and by damn if they’d stand for it. "The game ended," guard Tom Henderson said over the weekend, "and we won." Laughing now: "Then it ended again, and we won again." Forward Jim Forbes said, "They were going to keep going until they got the outcome they wanted: the Russians winning."
Some say, with more than an ounce of vinegar, that they’re not bitter about what happened in those last three seconds. Not bitter, they say, because they’re at peace with it. What happened, they say, is they won the game, even won it twice. Burleson said: "I’m a country boy who likes that old Johnny Paycheck song. So, ‘You can take your silver medal and shove it.’"
In Munich, members of the U.S. Olympic Committee came to the players and asked them to reconsider. They said no. For years after, the USOC tried. Each time: No. By now, the players’ decision -- an act of principle born in the heat of competition -- has hardened into iron resolve. "After hearing no about 15 times, the USOC has not contacted us in the last 20 years," Kenny Davis said. The captain even added a line to his will saying that his heirs must "never accept" a silver medal from the ‘72 Olympics. During the reunion weekend, an ESPN documentary producer asked each player if he would accept a silver medal now. On camera, a dozen no’s.
* * *
Here’s what happened in those three seconds:
After Collins’ free throws, the Soviets in-bounded the ball. But even as they began play, their coaches and players ran onto the floor. They insisted that the buzzer that sounded with Collins at the line was for a timeout that they had signaled for before he shot -- only to have the signal light noticed late at the scorer’s table. Play was stopped with one second showing on the clock. The Soviets had made no attempt to score. The Americans seemed to have won.
But international basketball’s top executive, an Englishman, R. William Jones, came out of the stands and ordered that the clock be reset at three seconds -- the time, he said, when the Soviets should have been awarded the timeout they had called. In a three-part series on the game for Bloomberg News (first reporting the Nixon/Brezhnev quotes cited above), Daniel Golden wrote that Jones was an advocate for globalization of the game who believed that a Soviet Union victory could be a catalyst for the movement. Golden also said of Jones: "… he feuded with some American basketball coaches and executives, who considered him a tyrant and Communist sympathizer, according to unpublished correspondence of Brundage."
Again, the Soviets in-bounded the ball. This time, they managed only a long, wild shot. Again, the Americans seemed to have won. They began a raucous celebration -- except, again, Jones ordered a replay. This time, the clock had not been reset properly to three seconds but to 50 seconds, and he said the play must be re-done. In his book on the game, "Stolen Glory: The U.S., the Soviet Union, and the Olympic Basketball Game That Never Ended," author Taps Gallagher quoted forward Tom McMillen: "It would be like David Stern coming out in the middle of a Laker game and saying, ‘I don’t want the Lakers to win,’ and so they reset the clock. That was the real travesty."
On their third possession in those three seconds, the Soviets threw a long pass to 6-foot-10 Alexander Belov. Two smaller American defenders – two-against-one, not Iba’s two-against-five -- failed to stop Belov. One leapt at the pass too early, one stumbled and fell. An easy layup for Belov and a Soviet victory, 51-50.
"It was like standing on top of the Sears building one moment," Collins said, "and then somebody pushes you and you’re free-falling."
* * *
Not that any of the Americans want to hear this, but Gallagher’s book quotes Bob Knight, an Iba disciple and gold medal-winning coach himself, saying that the Americans didn’t play well that night. Iba has long been criticized for imposing a make-seven-passes offense on a bunch of runners. But Knight said, "You can’t blame Iba. … His guys threw the ball away. They played poorly on defense. They took bad shots …"
Nor is it likely that they want to hear this: What if they had won the game on Collins’ free throws? They’d have won because the Soviets had been denied the timeout they called. No one refutes the legitimacy of the Soviet claim. Then would the Americans, acting on the principle of the thing, have said no to the gold medals because the game officials had bungled the last three seconds and denied the Soviets their fair chance at victory?
A case can be made that Jones, a human version of instant replay, corrected obvious mistakes by the game officials. Whether he should have come out of the bleachers to do it -- Stern couldn’t have, Roger Goodell couldn’t -- the fact is, Jones was international basketball’s ultimate authority. Golden reported for Bloomberg that veteran German referee Willy Bestgen, who called seven games at Munich, said of Jones: "He was god of the rules. He said on Saturday, red is red, and on Sunday red is blue. He told me always, ‘The last I said is correct.’"
In Munich, only one player, McMillen, spoke in favor of accepting the silver medals. Today, 40 years later, McMillen remains alone in suggesting a compromise. If the Soviet players agreed, he said, there is precedent for the IOC to award dual gold medals. The Americans then would donate their medals to a Russian charity in hopes of raising money to be used, say, by orphanages. He imagines a bridge-building cooperation between nations still at odds in many ways. He sees Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin shaking hands.
"The question becomes, do we go to our graves saying, ‘Never’? McMillen said in a public forum at Georgetown College. “If you could do something positive, if you could save maybe the lives of 5,000 children, what would that be worth? Would it be worth giving away something we don’t have?"
Davis doesn’t want the silver, nor does he want a dual gold medal: "In basketball, there’s one winner," he said. "By the rules of that game, we won."
* * *
On a Saturday night in Kentucky, the 12 Americans were the honored guests at a banquet. Their names: Mike Bantom, Jim Brewer, Tom Burleson, Doug Collins, Kenny Davis, Jim Forbes, Tom Henderson, Bobby Jones, Dwight Jones, Kevin Joyce, Tom McMillen, Ed Ratleff.
Far from Munich, a lifetime later, the 12 at last stood together on a podium.
Then Jessica Danielle Casebolt, Miss Kentucky 2012, set people to tears. She sang, a cappella, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”