SI Vault
Gary Smith
June 15, 1992
Robbed of gold medals in Munich, the '72 U.S. Olympic basketball team will not betray its principles.
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June 15, 1992

A Few Pieces Of Silver

Robbed of gold medals in Munich, the '72 U.S. Olympic basketball team will not betray its principles.

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Twelve men. Twelve men thrown together one summer 20 years ago. Twelve men who stumbled out of a Pearl Harbor barracks three times a day during training camp and then onto a basketball court with screen meshing for walls and with bloodstains on the sidelines from the '41 attack by the Japanese. Twelve men who ate and bitched and slapped at mosquitoes together, who awoke in Munich to terrorists' gunfire together, who suffered perhaps the worst injustice in Olympic history together.


Twelve medals. Twelve medals, each made of 197 grams of silver, 2.99 inches in diameter, 5.9 millimeters thick, worth $28 apiece on the silver market. Twelve medals still lying in a bank vault in Switzerland, waiting for 12 men to claim them.

One decision. Should the 12 men accept the 12 medals now? Are two decades enough? Has the point been made? Or does a principle, like a prayer, need to be murmured again and again?

Six seconds. Six seconds left in the final basketball game of the '72 Summer Games in Munich, the U.S. trailing the Soviet Union 49-48, the Americans' unbeaten streak of 63 Olympic basketball games all but ended. Then Doug Collins intercepts a pass, drives toward the basket, gets hammered nearly unconscious against the stanchion with three seconds left, regains his wits and sinks perhaps the two most pressure-filled free throws ever.


Three seconds. The Soviets have the ball. Forbidden by international rules to call timeout after a free throw, they must inbound the ball, and then their coach must push a button on the sidelines, activating a red light, to arrange a timeout. Instead, with their offense in chaos after they inbound, the Soviet coach and bench spill onto the floor, demanding that the clock be stopped, in violation of the rules.

One second. The Bulgarian referee, Artenik Arabadjan, stops the clock, claiming there are fans on the court. Only the Soviet bench is on the court. The referee does not permit a timeout. The Soviets inbound again; the passer steps on the line, but no call is made. His long pass is deflected. The buzzer sounds. The Americans go wild, 50-49 winners of the gold.

No seconds. R. William Jones of Great Britain, the secretary general of the International Amateur Basketball Federation (FIBA), who has absolutely no authority during an Olympic game, descends from the stands and overrules the officials, granting the Soviets their timeout and putting three seconds back on the clock.

The Soviets line up to inbound again. The Brazilian referee, Renato Righetto, orders 6'11" Tom McMillen to back off the inbounds passer—enforcing a rule that doesn't exist in international play—or he'll call a technical foul. McMillen backs off about halfway to the foul line, permitting Ivan Edeshko to hurl a perfect length-of-the-court pass to 6'7" teammate Aleksandr Belov, who leaps over two Americans, grabs the ball and drops it in the basket. The Soviets go wild, 51-50 winners of the gold.

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