Bitter Silver Part 2: US Men’s Basketball Team in Munich

There are 12 silver medals from the 1972 Munich Olympics packed away in a storage room inside the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. These medals have remained unclaimed for over 40 years.

The IOC insists these medals belong to the 12 members of the US men’s basketball team, who lost to the Soviet Union 51-50. This was the Soviet Union’s “Do-you-believe-in-miracles” moment. After all, up to that finals game on September 10, 1972, the US Men’s basketball team had a record of 63-0 in Olympic competition.

But a confluence or circumstances and a last-second comedy of errors turned the men’s basketball finals in Munich into one of sports’ history’s most intriguing and controversial moments. In fact, a young Bob Costas refers to this game twenty years later at his 1992 Barcelona Olympics broadcast as “so controversial, so galling, still so difficult to accept.”

celebrating victory US Men's basketballt team 1972
US Men’s basketball team celebrating prematurely.

To be fair, the Soviet Union at the time had a strong, experienced team, and the US team were a collection of college greats, which meant they were very young and did not play extensively together until the year of the Olympics. Unfortunately for legendary coach, Hank Iba, UCLA center, Bill Walton, chose not to play on the team, which made the US team more vulnerable to the Soviet’s bulk up front.

Additionally, according to guard Tom Henderson, the coach had made a strategic error by playing a slow-down game even though the US had a team of “young deers” who “should have run them back to Russia.” So at the half they were down 26-21, and losing into the second half. But with 8 minutes left, the Americans began to run and score. With scant time left and a point behind, shooting guard Doug Collins was undercut while driving to the basket, slamming into the basket base. Woozy, Collins stepped up the free thrown line and knocked down the free throws to give the Americans a 50-49 lead with seconds left.

How many seconds left? That’s the gist of the controversy. And while I could attempt to explain it here, it really is very complicated. There are actually a large number of micro-actions that had to take place before a time-out was officially recognized according to rules at the time, and the compressed time frame and high stakes of the moment made it close to impossible to ensure clarity. And in fact, there were three separate in-bound plays. In other words, the play was re-done…twice. (Read details here).

soveit men's basketball team celebrate 1972
Soviets celebrating their “Do-you-believe-in-miracles” moment

After the initial inbound play right after the second free throw, the Soviets appeared to have one second left. In the first re-do, the Soviets were awarded three seconds, which gave them time to set up a play. They inbounded, the Soviets rushed as time slipped away, threw a meaningless pass, and suddenly, the Americans were celebrating on the court with dozens of other officials and spectators. Unfortunately, in all the chaos, the time-keeper had kept the clock at one second remaining, failing to revert the clock back to 3 seconds. Again, without going into the incredibly rich detail that is available, the floor was cleared, the players returned to the court, and three seconds were put back on the scoreboard.

As Henderson said in the above video, “For about a couple of minutes we thought we won. We were celebrating. As a matter of fact, they show me hugging Tom McMillan, who I couldn’t stand.”

In the second re-do, the Soviets inbounded, then a Hail-Mary pass to a Soviet forward, resulted in a basket and victory. It was now the Soviet’s turn to barge the court in cathartic ecstasy, except this time, the decision was final.

The Americans protested. The protest went to a jury committee, which voted 3-2 to deny the US protest. While the jury head of Hungary eventually revealed that he ruled in favor of the Soviet Union, he refused to say how the four other jurors voted. As it turned out, the two other jurors who voted in favor of the Soviets were from Poland and Cuba, while those who voted in favor of the US protest were from Puerto Rico and Italy. In other words, the jury voted along Cold War lines.

The team voted unanimously not to accept their silver medal. And the second-place stand was eerily empty during the awards ceremony.  Said guard Kenny Davis, “to accept that silver medal would be to condone what they did.” Said power forward Mike Bantom, “I don’t want that silver medal. I didn’t win a silver medal. We won the gold.”

In 2012, re-united for the 40th anniversary of their Olympic run, the team discussed the possibility of accepting their silver medals. If the team wanted their silver medals, the IOC insisted on a unanimous vote. The group was indeed unanimous – again rejecting their silver medals.

US protesting silver 1972 mens basketball