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The 1972 Olympic Basketball Final: 'Stolen Glory'

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Officially, the Soviet Union beat the United States, 51-50, in the gold medal game at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich on a desperate basket at the final buzzer. In many ways, the game was for the Soviets a mirror image of what the U.S. Olympic hockey team would experience eight years later at the Winter Games in Lake Placid: an improbable, almost unthinkable, victory over the sport's long-time Olympic standard-bearers and a Cold War shot in the arm for a politically struggling government.

But that is where the similarities end. Because there's one Olympian-sized difference between what is, arguably, each country's greatest Olympic achievement: the Soviets didn't actually win the gold medal in basketball in 1972. Or, more specifically, they have never been recognized as having won by their American opponents. To this day, 40 years after that final buzzer sounded, 12 silver medals lay unclaimed in a storage room maintained for the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. History says those silver medals belong to the Americans. Doug Collins
and his teammates say that "history" is mistaken.

Why do Collins, the sparkplug of the '72 team and now the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, and his former teammates--all of whom are still alive--continue to insist the gold medals were wrongly awarded to the Soviet Union?

To understand, it helps to go back to Benton, Illinois just for a moment, where Collins would imagine countless times what it would be like to sink a historic winning basket. In his mind, he was playing in the state championship for the Benton High Rangers or in the NCAA title game for Illinois State (the alma mater of his high school coach and the school Collins would attend, too). Or, just maybe, he would hit those shots someday in the NBA finals. The whip-thin, 130-pound high school sophomore would always use the same routine as he practiced shooting that pair of free throws that would make history: Bounce the ball three times. Spin it in his hands.

Shoot.

But Collins never could have imagined what would transpire in the wee hours of September 10, 1972, in Munich, West Germany, just days after the kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists, an atrocity that led Olympic officials to consider cancelling the rest of the Games. With three seconds remaining on the clock, Collins stood at the free throw line for the United States of America, with his team, after mounting a heroic comeback, down by one point to the Soviet Union in the Olympic gold medal game. Collins, as it happened, couldn't even see straight. Moments earlier, after making a spectacular open-court steal from one of the best Soviet players, he had been knocked out cold as he drove the lane for a potential game-winning layup.

In his haze, a bruise welling under his left eye, Collins grabbed his aching left wrist, on which he had landed, and tried to gather his faculties. Confusion reigned as assistant coaches scrambled to find a player they trusted to replace Collins and shoot the two free throws. That's when Collins heard the team's 68-year-old head coach, Hank Iba, say in his trademark raspy tone: "If Doug can walk, he's going to shoot." It was the last game Iba ever coached in a long and celebrated career--and one of the best moves he ever made.

Collins blocked everything out: the crowd, his injuries, the Cold War, the potential gold medal. He was trying to become that kid on the playground again. He had come full-circle: the schoolboy who imagined being in the big game became the Olympian who imagined being back in the schoolyard. "I thought about the one thing that I had always counted on regardless of the situation," Collins told us in an interview for our book, Stolen Glory. "Three dribbles, spin, and shoot it."

Even though their loyalties had seemed divided throughout the game, the 6,500 spectators crammed into Munich's basketballhalle cheered wildly as Collins made both free throws to put the U.S. ahead, 50-49. Olympic gold seemingly belonged to the Americans. But after the Soviets' first unsuccessful attempt at scoring during the last three ticks of the clock, they were given another chance to inbound, because of reasons still disputed to this day. When the Soviets failed on their second attempt, the ball harmlessly clanging off the backboard, the U.S. players erupted at midcourt, jumping up and down with their arms raised in triumph. This was the era, long before the strict stadium security of today, when fans would storm the court or playing field after a championship game, and sure enough they swarmed the American team. One fan tried to pull off Tom Henderson's jersey; another stole Iba's wallet. ABC's Frank Gifford, calling the game for TV viewers back in the States, announced that the U.S. had capped an unlikely comeback. The game was over. Collins, the man, had fulfilled his boyhood dream, and on the biggest stage of all. He had sunk two foul shots that instantly made history.

Except, fantastically, they would not. As the American team rejoiced, the head of FIBA, basketball's international ruling body, ordered that the Soviets be given a third chance to take the ball out of bounds. This time, Aleksandr Belov, the Soviet player who earlier had let his poor pass be filched by Collins, leapt high in the air to catch a full-court heave from a teammate, shed two U.S. defenders, one on either side of him, and laid the ball into the basket.

Belov, arms aloft, sprinted all the way to the other side of the court to be enveloped by his teammates, all dressed in Soviet-issue red jerseys. The Soviet players rolled around on the floor, hugging each other as well as their coaches and trainers, and swigging from bottles of vodka that had appeared out of nowhere.

The scene in the Americans' locker room moments later was chaotic. Some players were despondent; others gathered to form a plan. Soon, they all agreed: if the protest they would file did not result in the Soviets' victory being overturned, the American players would refuse to accept the silver medals. Forty years later, say Collins and many of his teammates, what hurts the most is the memory of that celebration at midcourt, the euphoric moment when they felt and believed they had won.

So while this book is indeed about that 40-minute basketball game and all its Cold War build-up 40 years ago, it is also about an agonizing choice that was made in the immediate confusing aftermath by a dozen young men, none over the age of 23, and how that decision has reverberated through the years. After all, 40 years is a long time. The Berlin Wall was toppled, the Iron Curtain pulled back. The Soviet Union no longer exists, and the Cold War has been relegated to history books, Americans' biggest international fears now trained on the War on Terror.

But despite the march of time, one thing hasn't changed. As a team--and that is the only way the International Olympic Committee will allow the silver medals to be awarded--the Americans today insist they want nothing to do with the silver medals. The pain of that dreamlike, five-minute celebration still haunts them. In fact, the players, led by Tom McMillen, who after his basketball career went on to serve in Congress, have lent their support to a grass-roots movement to try to convince the IOC to retroactively award the American team duplicate gold medals.

A precedent for such a move was set for the Canadian pairs figure skaters at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City after a scandal committed by an Olympic judge was determined to have deprived them of their rightful gold.

For the Soviets, their basketball victory in 1972 quickly took on a mystical and spiritual air. A woman who was the Soviets' "house mother," helping to cook and clean for the team, began to share her Christian beliefs with the Soviet players. Mostly they nodded and were polite; the Soviet government was infamous for persecuting Christians as well as Jews.

On the night before the gold medal game, however, the Soviets' house mother preached the Gospel to the players, beseeching them to believe. One player thanked her and said, "I will believe in your God if you will pray for us to win the gold medal." The house mother replied that she couldn't do that but would pray that God reveal himself in some way. After the Soviets won the gold medal game, this same player returned to the house and said that now that the Games were over and his team had triumphed, he believed in God and accepted Jesus as his savior. His name? Aleksandr Belov. Belov died just six years later.

In death, Belov is still an Olympic gold medal winner. In life, 40 years later, the Americans still believe they won the game, and they still want their own gold medals. Four decades later, they are still three seconds from gold.

This post is excerpted from Stolen Glory by Taps Gallagher and Mike Brewster (GMBooks.com, 2012).

(Check out the video below for footage of the controversial call in the 1972 basketball final. The interviews are in English and the narration is in German.)