‘We Deserve Gold Medals’

It was after 2 a.m. on Sept. 10, 1972, when Tom McMillen and Tom Burleson made their way to the Hofbräuhaus, the famed beer hall in central Munich, so they could commiserate in the dark over German sausage and pilsners.

“We were there for quite a long time,” Burleson said.

They were teammates on the United States’ men’s basketball team, and by the time they headed back to the Olympic Village, it was past dawn and the daylight seemed blinding. But nothing was clear, and much of the haze from that window of their lives has remained.

“I remember when I came home, I kind of had to slap myself because I had gone to the Olympics thinking it was the most hallowed ground,” McMillen said. “And I came away from it feeling much different: ‘Wow, this is a very human institution.’”

Fifty years after its controversial loss to the Soviet Union in the gold medal game at the 1972 Olympics, the U.S. men’s basketball team still steadfastly refuses to accept its silver medals. Instead, the players wait — for the elusive truth about what happened in the game’s closing seconds, and for the International Olympic Committee to redress what the team has long considered an injustice.

“We deserve gold medals,” said Ed Ratleff, 72, a forward-guard on the team.

The memories are vivid for players like McMillen, Burleson and Ratleff, who have gotten used to reliving the experience every few years, on anniversaries when the public’s curiosity is piqued. McMillen, 70, always appreciates the renewed interest. It is a piece of history that ought to be remembered, he said, especially given the current state of geopolitical affairs.

The American player Mike Bantom (No. 7) was surrounded by Soviet players in the paint.Credit…Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images

“The Ukrainian conflict brought this into new perspective for me,” said McMillen, who spent 11 seasons in the N.B.A. before he became a three-term congressman representing Maryland. “We were in the middle of the Cold War when we played the Soviets in ’72, and here we are, back in the same kind of world conflict.”

Just 20 at the time, McMillen went to the Olympics believing it was “the most idealistic thing in the world,” he said. His perception was shattered on Sept. 5, 1972, when eight Palestinian terrorists scaled a fence at the Olympic Village, killing two members of the Israeli delegation before taking nine others hostage. Early the next morning, amid a botched rescue attempt at an airport outside Munich, all were killed.

“I remember we had to practice on the day of the attack on the Israelis, and it was incredibly difficult,” McMillen said. “Some of us were talking about how maybe the game should be canceled.”

The Games went on, a decision that organizers described as a repudiation of the terrorist attack. And in the semifinals, the United States overpowered Italy to run its record in Olympic play to 63-0.

Facing an older and more experienced Soviet team in the final, the Americans trailed until Doug Collins made two free throws to put the Americans ahead, 50-49, with 3 seconds left. Those 3 seconds would be re-examined for years to come.

After Collins’s second free throw, the Soviets inbounded the ball, but one of the officials stopped play because of commotion at the scorer’s table: Had the Soviet coach tried to call a timeout? Was he even allowed to call one?

In sum, the Soviets got a do-over, with 3 seconds put back on the clock. They even managed to make an illegal substitution. But when their subsequent full-court pass was deflected and the buzzer sounded, the Americans began to celebrate, believing they had won.

Henry Iba, left, coach of the U.S. men’s basketball, looks over the shoulder of referee Artenik Arabaijan as the final seconds of the game are discussed.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

And then things really got crazy. William Jones, the head of international basketball, emerged from the stands to rule that the Soviet team should get a third chance to inbound the ball. Why? Because the scoreboard operator had neglected to reset the clock. The Americans, who were coached by Henry Iba, were furious and threatened to leave the court. Amid the chaos, a pickpocket filched Iba’s wallet. (Yes, someone really stole his wallet.)

Burleson, 70, said the U.S. team was left with no choice.

“They told us that if we didn’t go back out on the court, we’d forfeit the game,” he said.

As the Soviets readied themselves for yet another attempt at a last-ditch miracle, the referee along the baseline seemed to motion for McMillen to back off Ivan Edeshko, who was set to inbound the ball. That gave Edeshko more room to make a court-length pass to Aleksander Belov, a center who brushed off two smaller defenders for the game-winning layup.

After an appeal failed, the U.S. team unanimously agreed to boycott the medal ceremony. For 50 years, the team’s silver medals have remained in a vault in Lausanne, Switzerland.

In 2012, when the team reunited for the first time since Munich and participated in a televised round table, all 12 players said they remained steadfast in their decision to reject their silver medals. One player, Kenny Davis, said he had even added a clause to his will barring any of his family members from posthumously accepting it on his behalf.

McMillen and others on the team have spent decades wondering whether the game was fixed.

“But we could never find anything definitive,” McMillen said. “I think it was incompetence combined with complicity, meaning there was a comedy of errors, but I think there was also some complicity with Jones and some of the East Bloc nations to arrange an outcome.”

As Ratleff put it, “Once it got close at the end, I don’t think there was any chance they were going to let the Americans win.”

Soviet basketball players celebrated after their victory against the Americans in 1972.Credit…Associated Press

While the game disillusioned many of the American players and helped foster a general sense of cynicism about the Olympics themselves, it also demolished the perception that the Americans were unbeatable at basketball. That the United States lost — no matter the circumstances — gave hope to other countries that they, too, could vie for gold. In its own way, the game may have helped grow the sport.

“I think it motivated European clubs to step up and become a part of the international game,” said Burleson, a center who played seven seasons in the N.B.A.

The American players no longer entertain the possibility of the I.O.C. overturning the result of the game, said Ratleff, a small forward who spent five seasons with the Houston Rockets.

“I don’t think you’re ever going to take the gold medals away from Russia,” he said.

McMillen, though, suggested that the team would be willing to accept a duplicate set of gold medals. He felt encouraged in July when the I.O.C. restored Jim Thorpe as the sole winner of the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Games, decades after he had been stripped of his medals for violating rules against professionalism. The I.O.C.’s announcement came 40 years after it declared him the co-winner of both events, a compromise that had done little to appease his supporters, who kept campaigning on his behalf.

“If Jim Thorpe can get his medals posthumously, I’m still hoping that some shoes will drop and we can get our medals — hopefully not posthumously, but sometime down the road,” McMillen said.

During the medal ceremony for the basketball competition, the second-place step of the podium remained empty as the U.S. men’s basketball team protested the decision to award the gold to the Soviet Union.Credit…Rich Clarkson & Assoc. via Getty Images

An I.O.C. spokesman responded to a request for comment, but did not address questions on the Americans’ desire for gold medals.

In Russia, the gold medal final continues to be celebrated. A 2017 film, “Going Vertical,” was one of the most popular Russian-made movies in the country’s history.

In the United States, meanwhile, McMillen fears that the game — and what he considers a wrong that has never been righted — is slowly being forgotten, its significance eroded by time.

“It’s unfortunate because that’s exactly what the I.O.C. wants,” he said. “Our medals sit in Lausanne, and there are going to be fewer of us around for the 60th anniversary. History fades into the ether.”

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