CRAWFORD: '72 hoops Olympians' legacy is sterling - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD: They don't want silver, but '72 hoops Olympic legacy is sterling

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LEXINGTON, KY. (WDRB) -- As part of the reunion of the 1972 U.S. Olympic men's basketball team at Georgetown College this weekend -- the first gathering of the entire roster since the team left the troubled and tragic Munich Games -- there was a seminar Friday titled, "The ethical debate about not accepting the silver medals."

Somehow, I doubt that in Russia they're holding similar discussions about, "The ethical debate about accepting the gold."

Every four years at Olympics time, the '72 team comes back into public memory, having refused all these years to accept silver medals for a game they won (twice) before the Soviet Union prevailed on a last-second shot given a third chance to make one.

The sequence of events is one of the most infamous in Olympic history. Doug Collins coming up with a steal and being slammed into the basket support on the fast break. Rising up, bruised, to make two free throws -- shots still called by team members "the winning free throws."

The horn that sounded before Collins' second shot. The chaos that ensued. The USSR claiming to have called a timeout. The Soviet coach storming onto the court -- illegally. The Soviets making a substitution -- illegally.

It is as farcical today as it was the day it happened. Having twice won the game at the final buzzer under the rules of basketball at the time, the Americans voted not to accept the result that was eventually presented to them after the Soviets made their third try the charm.

"According to the rules that game was played under, we won," said Kenny Davis, the team captain and one of the organizers of last week's event at his alma mater just outside Lexington, with the backing of his employer, Converse. "So based on that, we felt like we certainly would not want that Silver Medal. If we had lost that game according to the rules, we would have proudly taken that Silver Medal, because losing gracefully, I believe, is much more important than winning gracefully. But to have gone out and played by the rules and won the gold, then had some bureaucrat say to us, 'We'd like you to take the silver,' I always felt like it was something we shouldn't have done."

And they still feel that way. In a room together for the first time in 40 years, an ESPN documentary crew preparing to shoot for an upcoming program, the team was unanimous in another vote -- they want the silver medals no more now than they did then.

Some, like Davis, have gone the extra step of stipulating in their wills that not even their families are to accept the medals.

They've been asked several times by the International Olympic Committee. And every year when the Olympics roll around, they are asked again if they want the medals.

Maybe it's an American curiosity. There are even those who believe it poor sportsmanship -- though no sportsmanship creed that I know of binds a man or team to abide by an outcome that is corrupt. Certainly, the IOC steps in all the time on issues when there is less evidence of foul play than exists still for this long ago basketball game. Nor am I aware of stories asking the Russian players if they feel they should give their medals back. Six of the players from that Soviet team have passed away.

But all 12 Americans and one coach -- John Bach, who assisted Henry Iba and Don Haskins -- are alive and well. In fact, to a man, they look remarkably well.

"This was not a happy team the last time I saw them," said Bach, now 88 years old and still involved in coaching. "Forty years ago, we were the most disappointed, angry, upset team in basketball. All of them have transcended that, done very well in their lives, been very successful, and I see they've improved in every way. And frankly so have I. As you get older in coaching, you're quite willing to share more of yourself."

"Transcend," is the operative word. It was a bitter loss. And the very claim of having been cheated implies anger or bitterness. But these men didn't seem angry to me. They seemed resolute. They even laughed about portions of the game, about how badly the Soviets beat them up, about bad calls and foul trouble.

Collins is now a leading candidate to coach the next Olympic basketball team.

"I certainly would be honored if my name came up in that discussion and I would be honored to serve," he said.

But on Saturday, after reliving those monumental free-throws, made not only amid distraction and Olympic-gold pressure, but Cold War pressure, as well, Collins smiled as he remembered the welt that rose up under his eye after he was fouled, and gathering himself to shoot the free throws. A bitter loss, yes. But bitter men? No.

"I think the thing is we have a tremendous amount of respect not only for each other but for the game, and for everything the game has given us, from a chance to do what we love to make a life, to create families, to be friends, leaders, teachers and all the things that really will be our legacy," Collins said. "It was my coming out party in 1972, from Illinois State University, to be a part of these guys. It was tough . . . But we've all said that we've grown from this experience. We're better men."

They may not want anything to do with silver, but the legacy of this group is sterling. And not just because of its stand. Bitter though the loss was, none of those players left Munich feeling sorry for themselves -- in large part because of the nine Israeli athletes who were murdered by terrorists during the games.

Billy Reed, the Hall of Fame Kentucky journalist who worked so hard to organize the event, asked Tom Burleson near the end of one press Q&A if he would recount his experience of the terrorist situation, because Burleson by happenstance wandered closer to it than anyone on the team, as close as anyone in Munich, perhaps. He was taking a train back to the Olympic Village when it stopped unexpectedly, and he pushed his way off with a couple of Italian basketball players. You can picture the 7-2 Burleson as he got out into the crowd of hundreds of athletes, looking above them and seeing the garage door across the way that they'd been using to get in and out of the athletes' compound. He and the Italians made their way through the crowd, past one German officer, then another, who flashed rifles and spoke German. Burleson told them they had nothing to worry about, he was going back to his room.

"By the time I got to the garage door, a German soldier came up to me and he spoke English as well as anybody here, and said, 'Son, you're in the wrong place at the wrong time. We're in the process of bringing the hostages out right now,'" Burleson remembered. "He said, 'I've got to have you stand against that wall, face it, with your hands on it, and let us bring out the hostages.' And I'm going, 'Oh man.' And as I looked to the left, the two Italian players were on the ground, with guns to their backs.

"I had a rifle in my back, and I had my hands to the wall, there at the garage opening. Then I could hear them start to bring the hostages out. The guy in the green leisure suit and black mask and stuff like that, he stepped around the corner and I looked at him, we were probably 60 feet away, and as I looked at him, the German soldier took the gun out of the small of my back and placed it in the back of my head and said, 'Face the wall.' At this time, my hands are there (in front of him) and I see the foundation wall, and I still see the blemishes today, of that wall, and I started praying to God to allow me to get out of this situation and get, you know, back to the room where I needed to be. So the terrorists started bringing the nine Israeli hostages by me, and I could hear the shuffling of the feet."

At this, Burleson began to rub his hands against each other in a shuffling motion. And then he did something else. He teared up. And then he began to sob. And through those sobs, he said, "And I could hear them crying." He buried his face in his hands, inconsolable before this room of teammates and reporters. "I could hear them crying. They were walking to their deaths."

And he could not stop. Teammates put their hands on his shoulders. Reed began to speak again, but Burleson wept louder. He wasn't, for those moments, in the room with the rest of us so much as he was back against that wall. And he had taken the rest of us with him. A moment later, composed, he continued.

"These men, these athletes, they loaded them in the van, they took them to the helicopters, they release me, I turn and stand with the soldiers. Go to the Olympic Village see the helicopter fly off. From there you know what happens."

Then he wept again, not the quite tears of sadness, but anguished sobs. "They were gong to die. These nine men. I hear them in my sleep. I hear them in my sleep."

And he got up, and walked out of the room.

No one had expected that. Burleson had told of that experience before. But maybe being with his teammates drew out some different emotions. It was a difficult thing to hear and see.

It should have been. I have seen the film, "Munich." I've read about those events, heard many people talk about them. I never felt their impact until I saw and heard Burleson talk about it. We're generally not comfortable with such shows of emotions in this culture. But Burleson's were real and appropriate. The emotions he showed were ones any good man would feel.

It's interesting, on a weekend designed to honor that team that had gold snatched away, not a single player failed to mention the bigger tragedy of the games, or to put his life into a larger context than those events. That, in the end, is how you win.

"I went there as a young 23-year-old kid who was concerned about the proper brand of clothing and whether I was wearing it or not," Davis said. "Then all of a sudden we see them take those Israeli kids out in those caskets. And I think all of us immediately went from whatever age we were as a youth to a pretty mature person. They were our age, ate the same food, lived in the same village, dreamed the same dreams. And they took them out in caskets. We all came back home and started families and had good careers and life has been good for us. We're still alive. It's been said what happened to us was unfortunate but what happened to them was a tragedy. And I believe that with all my heart."

Davis said he doesn't think about his Olympic basketball experience so much anymore, only when people bring it up, which is every four years, like clockwork.

"We thought it would probably just go away like things do," he said. "But it seems like every four years when the Olympics begin again it refreshes itself in people's minds, and all of a sudden they want to hear the story again."

Turns out, it's a story about winning, just like those players always said it was.

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