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.”
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).
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