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?