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

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Roy_summer vacation_1967 maybe
Roy, sometime between the Tokyo and Mexico City Olympic Games.

On this, the last day of 2015, I’d like to thank everyone for their support of my blog – The Olympians. I have posted at least once every day since I started the blog on May 1. Out of about 300 posts, I’ve selected 25 that I personally like, in good part because I’ve had the great fortune to talk with the people mentioned in these stories.

  1. A Helicopter View of US-USSR Relations, Olympic Style
  2. American Gymnast Makoto Sakamoto and Memories of Home: Post-War Shinjuku
  3. Arnold Gordon (Part 1): Befriending Judy Garland at Manos in Shinjuku
  4. The Banning of Headgear in Boxing: The Convoluted World of Protecting Our Athletes
  5. Clumsy Handoff, Beautiful Result: A World Record Finish for the American 4X400 Relay Team in Tokyo
  6. Coach Hank Iba: The Iron Duke of Defense Who Led the Men’s Basketball Team to Gold in 1964
  7. Creativity by Committee: The 2020 Olympic Emblem and the Rio Olympic Mascots?
  8. Crowded, Noisy, Dirty, Impersonal: Tokyo in the 1960s
  9. The Dale McClements’ Diary: From Athlete to Activist
  10. Doug Rogers, Star of the Short Film “Judoka”: A Fascinating Look at Japan, and the Foreigner Studying Judo in the 1960s
  11. Escape from East Berlin in October 1964: A Love Story
  12. Escape from Manchuria: How the Father of an Olympian Left a Legacy Beyond Olympic Proportions
  13. Fame: Cover Girl and Canadian Figure Skater Sandra Bezic
  14. Frank Gorman: Harvard Star, Tokyo Olympian, and Now Inductee to the International Swimming Hall of Fame
  15. The Geesink Eclipse – The Day International Judo Grew Up
  16. India Beats Pakistan in Field Hockey: After the Partition, the Sporting Equivalent of War
  17. The Narrow Road to the Deep North
  18. On Being Grateful: Bob Schul
  19. Protesting Via Political Cartoons: Indonesia Boycotts the Tokyo Olympics
  20. The Sexist Sixties: A Sports Writers Version of “Mad Men” Would Make the Ad Men Blush
  21. “Swing” – The Danish Coxless Fours Found It, and Gold, in Tokyo
  22. Toby Gibson: Boxer, Lawyer, Convict
  23. Vesper Victorious Under Rockets Red Glare – A Dramatic Finish to One of America’s Greatest Rowing Accomplishments
  24. What it Means to Be an Olympian: Bill Cleary Remembers
  25. Who is that Bald-Headed Beauty: The Mystery of the Soviet Javelin Champion

hank iba

Hank Iba is a basketball legend. He coached teams to NCAA championships in 1945 and 1946, and to medals in the Olympics in 1964, 1968 and 1972.

When he selected his team to go to Tokyo in 1964, he was immediately criticized. “The 12 men selected yesterday for the October duty in Tokyo have the best chance in history to lose one,” wrote columnist Georg Meyers of The Seattle Daily Times on April 6, 1964.

Iba knew he had a challenge as he indicated in an interview in Tokyo a few days prior to the men’s basketball finals. “Our big problem is that we have no one man who’ll get us 20 points every game,” he pointed out. “So it has to be a team effort. But when a team has played together as short a time as this one has, it’s bound to get sloppy at times.” (Traveler Sports, October 21, 1964)

Fortunately, Coach Iba was one of the toughest, most well-prepared coaches of his time.

Power forward/center, Luke Jackson, said that the team was constantly practicing. “Coach Iba wouldn’t let up. When we first came in the locker room, he gave each of us a notepad and said, ‘I want you to learn these plays. Those who don’t learn, won’t play.’ And then he walked out of the room. We practiced those plays. And those who didn’t learn them, didn’t play.”

“Those 5-hour practices a day – those were tough,” forward Jeff Mullins told me. “He had Iba-isms. If you had a turnover he would say in his raspy voice ‘Can’t have that, boys. Can’t have that.'”

The US team crushed the team from South Korea 116-50. Jackson said that after the game, “Iba took us to practice and worked us until our feet fell off. He said that we didn’t rebound well. He was just putting it on our mind that every game was important. You have to do things the same way every time. I’m sure we were hotdogging. And we realized that this guy was serious.”

Shooting guard Jerry Shipp and leading scorer on that team said that the men’s team in Tokyo was not selfish thanks to Coach Iba. “We passed well. We always helped each other, guarding a man and a half. If you didn’t play defense, you didn’t get on the floor.”

Mel Counts was a center on the team, and wrote this to the USOC about Coach Iba.

Many sports writers in the US predicted our team would not win the gold medal. We did not have any outstanding players. However we did have an outstanding coach that developed and presented an outstanding team. Hank Iba was the coach at Oklahoma State. He contributed outstanding leadership, incredible enthusiasm, an abundance of energy, a superior work ethic and the ability to impart belief in each player. Belief in our own abilities and the value we each brought to the team.

We practiced at Pearl Harbor for three weeks – two-and-a-half hours each morning and evening. When it came time to play in the Olympic Games, we were prepared physically and mentally – individually and cohesively. We won because we were coached to play as a team. We understood the value of teamwork. We won because of this one very important lesson taught by Coach Iba. We won because of the vision he inspired in us collectively. The credit, the victory belongs to Coach Iba.