1972 Olympic Ruling Signaled End of Cold War Collegians
To Marvin Barnes, an African- American college basketball standout whose run-ins with the law earned him the nickname “Bad News,” Tom McMillen was the great white hype.
Widely considered the country’s top player coming out of high school, the University of Maryland’s McMillen was also renowned for academic exploits; he would go on to become a Rhodes scholar and congressman. Providence College’s Barnes averaged almost 16 rebounds per game in 1971-1972, six more than fellow sophomore McMillen.
In June 1972, just four years after two African-American athletes were expelled from the Olympics for giving the “Black Power” salute at a medals ceremony, Barnes and McMillen were competing to represent the U.S. at the Munich Games. Both forwards were among 59 hopefuls vying for 12 spots on the squad expected to bring back the eighth straight U.S. gold medal in basketball.
As they squared off for a jump ball during a scrimmage, Barnes sought to intimidate McMillen. “I smacked him,” Barnes says. “I was a vicious, mean, hard player.”
It was only a “minor scuffle,” McMillen says. “We always had a little history.”
Barnes was assessed a technical foul and reprimanded. The incident reinforced his image as a black militant, he says. Even as he led the tryouts in rebounding, he didn’t make the Olympic team.
“I was very surprised,” Barnes says. “I had a feeling right then” that the U.S. would lose. “You’re going to play the Soviets, one of the most physical teams in the world, you want to take your most physical player.”
His premonition proved correct. After a questionable ruling put more time on the clock and gave the Soviets two extra chances, a mistake by McMillen contributed to the decisive basket. In the most disputed finish in international basketball history, the Soviet Union stopped the U.S. streak of 63 straight wins and earned bragging rights in the athletic Cold War with a 51-50 victory.
Afterward, the U.S. players spurned their silver medals. Four decades later, on the eve of the London Games, they are still seeking gold, citing the mishandling of the last three seconds. Their complaints overlook that they were out-coached and out-played for most of the game. As Barnes’s Olympic omission suggests, the U.S. jeopardized its chances for gold long before those final seconds, and even before the team arrived in Munich.
Wider cultural tensions -- racial unrest, the Vietnam War, the generation gap and changing social mores -- filtered through the Olympic prism, undercutting the U.S.’s prospects.
College player of the year and Vietnam War protester Bill Walton sat out the Olympics after his demands for special treatment were rebuffed. The team’s only 7-footer, Tommy Burleson, who might have prevented the winning basket, was benched for the championship game for bringing his fiancée to his dormitory room, he says. Team captain Kenny Davis says coaches tried to make him quit because he wasn’t a college player.
Riven by internal feuding, the Olympic selection committee couldn’t agree on a coach. It bypassed John Wooden, the most successful college coach in history, for Henry P. Iba, an old- school disciplinarian with an outdated playbook, who was almost half a century older than his team of baby boomers.
The country’s undefeated record in Olympic basketball bred complacency. Selectors “didn’t choose the best 12 players,” such as Barnes, says Swen Nater, a center from the University of California at Los Angeles. Nater made the team and then left during training camp, to be replaced by McMillen. “They thought they were going to win anyway, no matter who they picked.”
The Munich debacle shattered American smugness and stirred frustration over sending amateurs to battle what was in all but name a professional Soviet squad.
After a second straight Olympic loss to the USSR in 1988, the U.S. dropped collegians in favor of National Basketball Association all-stars starting in 1992. Seventeen of the 18 finalists for the 2012 U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team were NBA stars, including LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
The London Games may be the last time that so many NBA superstars represent the U.S. in the Olympics. To protect franchise players from injury, Commissioner David Stern is proposing an Olympic age limit of 23 -- the same age as the oldest member of the 1972 U.S. team.
The aftershocks of the tumultuous 1960’s reverberated as the U.S. prepared for the Munich Games. President Richard Nixon’s decision in May 1972, to mine North Vietnamese ports prompted nationwide protests. The same month, an assassination attempt paralyzed presidential candidate George Wallace, the standard-bearer for racial segregation. In June, five men hired by Nixon’s re-election campaign broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington.
U.S. Olympic basketball was in turmoil, hampered by power struggles at both the professional and amateur levels. The fledgling American Basketball Association was seeking to upstage the established NBA by signing college underclassmen, which reduced the pool of available amateurs.
Following his junior year at the University of Massachusetts, future Hall of Famer Julius Erving turned pro with the ABA’s Virginia Squires in 1971, forfeiting his Olympic eligibility.
Two organizations were battling for the biggest plum in amateur basketball -- the right to choose the Olympic players and coach.
The Amateur Athletic Union, which ran industrial leagues where corporations sponsored teams and employed players, had long handled the task. As those leagues waned, most top amateurs played for college teams, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association was challenging the AAU’s authority. The AAU still controlled most of the 49 seats on the selection committee.
Their conflict interfered with picking a head coach. NCAA representatives proposed the obvious choice, John Wooden. His UCLA teams had won eight of the previous nine national championships, and would capture two of the next three.
Wooden and the selection committee had long been at odds. Few stars from his national championship teams had played in prior Olympics. The committee had overlooked some, while others declined to participate. Most notably, Lew Alcindor, who as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, stayed home in 1968 to protest discrimination against African-Americans.
Wooden also felt slighted when the selection committee for an earlier Olympic Games invited him to be an assistant coach, says former UCLA center Nater. In 1972, Wooden, then 61 years old, expected to be courted for the head job. His attitude alienated AAU representatives on the committee, which rejected him 38-11, says Donald “Taps” Gallagher, co-author with Mike Brewster of “Stolen Glory,” a book published this month about the final game in Munich.
The AAU also vetoed the NCAA’s other candidate, University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith, whom it considered too young at 41. Meanwhile, its own choice, legendary University of Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp, was ailing.
The committee compromised on an old standby. Retired Oklahoma State University coach Henry P. Iba, who had guided the U.S. to gold medals in 1964 and 1968, reluctantly took the job.
“It was grossly unfair that he had to do it,” says John Bach, 88, one of Iba’s two assistants. “I could imagine the strain that was on him.”
Iba turned 68 a month before the Munich Games, and some critics felt that the game had passed him by. A hardnosed perfectionist who held practices on Thanksgiving and Christmas and expected players to call him “Mr. Iba,” he won his second and final NCAA championship in 1946. In his last five years at Oklahoma State, his teams lost 80 of 127 games.
In contrast to Wooden’s fast-break attack, Iba favored a regimented, ball-control offense. Any player who took a low- percentage outside shot, even if it went in, “was certain to be removed from the game and lectured on the bench,” according to a 1980 biography of Iba by John Paul Bischoff.
Iba’s blueprint for victory depended on a tenacious man-to- man defense and a center who could score, pass and block shots. Unfortunately, Bill Walton, who fit that description as well as any collegian in history, would only have played in the Olympics for one coach: the rejected Wooden.
The Sporting News college basketball player of the year in all three of his varsity seasons, the red-headed 6-feet-11-inch UCLA center revered his coach. Otherwise, the vegetarian Grateful Dead devotee from the San Diego suburbs had little use for authority.
As a teenager, “I thought everything adults told me was a mistake,” Walton wrote in his 1994 autobiography, “Nothing But Net,” to which Wooden contributed the foreword. He was arrested for disturbing the peace in one antiwar protest in 1972 and helped barricade the UCLA administration building in another.
Walton also had unhappy memories of his only experience playing for his country. At 17, he was the sole non-military player chosen for an AAU armed forces team representing the U.S. at the 1970 world championships in Yugoslavia. He was benched, and the team finished fifth.
An encounter with Soviet players there deepened Walton’s misery.
“We used to have some drinks with the Americans,” says Alzhan Zharmukhamedov, a center on the Soviet national team. “I remember 1970, when we made Bill Walton drunk. He drank too much vodka. I found him vomiting in the toilet and took him to his room.”
When “The Suits,” as Walton called the Olympic selection committee, approached him, he sought “upgraded accommodations” and other privileges. He would skip tryouts, training camp and exhibition games and join the team two weeks before the Olympic tournament. They said no, leaving the U.S. with “twelve overmatched” players and “one taskmaster head coach,” he wrote. Walton didn’t respond to e-mail and voicemail requests for an interview.
Walton’s absence gave the Soviets a chance.
“With Walton, we would have walked home with the gold,” Bach says. “If Walton had played, there would be no problem for the American team,” says Soviet guard Ivan Edeshko.
The best amateur center not named Walton was his UCLA back- up, the 6-feet-11-inch Nater. Wooden arranged for him to be invited to the tryouts and called him into his office.
“Coach warned me, ‘You’re going to go and try out,’” Nater says. “‘But don’t be surprised if you get different treatment there than everyone else. They don’t like us.’”
Nater honed his jump shot and worked out in the Sierra Nevada mountains to acclimate his body to the altitude of Colorado Springs. There, Olympic candidates were assigned to eight teams, which practiced in the morning and scrimmaged against each other at night. Nater’s preparation paid off as he led the trials in scoring. The committee ranked him as the top collegian and chose him for the team.
The rest of the squad consisted largely of no-names eager to build their reputations. Point guard Tom Henderson, Iba’s personal selection, came from a junior college. A skinny forward from the Charlotte, North Carolina, suburbs, Bobby Jones had started only two games for the University of North Carolina that season and didn’t expect to be invited to the Olympic trials.
“I had no idea they had tryouts,” he says.
He enrolled in summer school, where he had a seizure. He was recovering in the university hospital when Dean Smith stopped by his bed.
The coach told him that some players, like UCLA’s Walton, had decided not to try out for the Olympic team, so there was room for him. Jones dropped out of summer school and attended the tryouts. His defensive skills, jumping ability and unselfish play impressed the coaches, and he ended up starting in Munich.
The team began training in July at a high-security submarine base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The players couldn’t leave the base.
“They put us in a condemned barracks,” Jones says. “There were rats running around at night. You didn’t want to go to the bathroom, you didn’t know what you would step on.”
Two to three times a day, two hours a session, they practiced the deliberate offense and tight defense that Iba believed would conquer the Soviets. Iba told his team, “I guarantee you that the Russians aren’t going to score more than 50 points,” Bach says.
Practices were held in a gym where victims of the Japanese attack that drew the U.S. into World War II had once been laid. Bach, a Navy veteran of the war, says it was a “hallowed place” for him and Iba.
To the players, all born after the war, it was a sweatbox. Nater became so dehydrated after practice that he couldn’t keep food down, and the coaches refused to change mealtimes for him, he says. “I lost 20 pounds in a week,” he says.
Iba’s system was also hard for Nater, a Wooden disciple, to swallow. After a week in Hawaii, he quit. “That really hurt us,” Bobby Jones says. “He would have been perfect for a slowdown game.”
Nater wasn’t the only unhappy camper. Kenny Davis, who played for Marathon Oil, says Olympic coaches picked on him because he was the sole AAU representative on the team.
“I felt the coaches wouldn’t have felt bad if they could run me off,” says Davis, who stayed put.
The University of Maryland’s McMillen, who had tangled with Marvin Barnes at the trials, replaced Nater. Jim Forbes from the University of Texas at El Paso, who like McMillen would play a key role in the final seconds at Munich, was the other late addition, stepping in for a player sidelined by injury.
After meeting First Lady Pat Nixon at a White House reception, the team flew to Munich, where it practiced at a CIA gym 45 miles away instead of the Olympic arena, Bach says.
“Iba said, ‘We don’t want the Russians watching us,’” Bach says.
Intended by the host nation as a tranquil, joyous celebration to show how much Germany had changed since the militaristic Berlin Olympics in 1936, the Munich Games had unarmed guards and lax security. Before dawn on Sept. 5, terrorists from a group called Black September infiltrated the Olympic Village, murdered one Israeli athlete and one coach, and took nine others hostage.
That morning, from across the courtyard, U.S. players watched ski-masked terrorists with guns patrolling the balcony of the Israeli dormitory. Hours later, returning to the Olympic Village from dinner at a McDonald’s in Munich, U.S. backup center Tommy Burleson took a detour to the team’s dormitory through an underground parking garage -- only to run into German soldiers leading out the terrorists and hostages. They were being taken to an air base.
Facing the garage’s concrete wall, with a soldier’s gun in his back, Burleson peeked at the terrorists and heard the hostages crying as they stumbled past. Black September killed all nine hostages during a rescue attempt at the airfield.
“I was the last human contact with those athletes before they died,” Burleson says.
Most of the U.S. players, unlike the Soviets, attended a memorial service for the slain Israelis. While the Soviet team welcomed International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage’s decree that the games would go on, the U.S. players just wanted to go home.
“My assumption, along with a lot of the other guys, was of course the Olympics will be canceled,” Bobby Jones says. “I was amazed we kept playing. For me, it kind of matured me to think more cynically that the Olympics is more about big business than honoring humanity or coming together.”
The immediate business was beating the Soviets. To accommodate American television, the gold-medal game began at 11:45 p.m. local time on Sept. 9. The U.S. game plan was to take an early lead, because scouting reports indicated that the Soviets didn’t play well from behind, says U.S. forward Jim Brewer.
Instead, the Soviets soon gained the advantage, silencing the largely pro-American crowd in jam-packed Rudi-Sedlmayer- Halle. Despite tenacious defense by Bobby Jones, who drew an offensive foul by stepping in front of an opponent driving to the basket, the U.S. couldn’t stop the accurate shooting of the Soviets’ Sergei Belov.
“He was the first guard we encountered who was able to score on our guards,” says U.S. forward Mike Bantom.
The Americans struggled to get open on offense, prompting Hall of Fame center Bill Russell, doing color commentary for ABC-TV, to criticize Iba’s rigid system. The U.S. players “don’t show enough imagination on offense, and they’re very capable of that,” he said.
The U.S. trailed 26-21 at halftime. Still lagging in the second half, the team lost two key players. With about 12 minutes left, Dwight Jones, the team’s center and leading scorer in the Olympics, tussled with Soviet forward Mikhail Korkiya; both were ejected.
On the ensuing jump ball, Jones’s substitute, Brewer, crashed to the floor and suffered a concussion. Amazingly, he stayed in the game for seven minutes -- and even scored a basket -- before being replaced.
Behind by eight points with five minutes left, the U.S. players mutinied. Led by guards Henderson and Kevin Joyce, a high-school star in Queens, New York, who played at the University of South Carolina, they scrapped Iba’s system and scrambled helter-skelter all over the court. They pressed on defense and used their quickness to attack the basket on offense. Joyce scored six points as the U.S. fans began screaming and waving flags and the rattled Soviets committed one turnover after another.
“Kevin said, ‘This is it, let’s go get it, screw the system,’” recalls Bantom, 60, the NBA’s senior vice president of player development. “It demonstrated how I felt Americans play basketball. We’ll keep coming after you until the horn blows.”
The rally appeared to fall short until, with eight seconds left and the U.S. behind by one point, U.S. guard Doug Collins intercepted a Soviet pass and raced down court, pursued by Soviet guard Zurab Sakandelidze. As Collins left his feet to attempt a layup, Sakandelidze knocked him into a stanchion.
“I must have been unconscious for an instant,” Collins said later. “I do remember somebody giving me ammonia.”
A trainer revived Collins. Sporting a shiner under his right eye, Collins sank both shots, giving the U.S. a 50-49 lead with three seconds left. Iba’s guarantee of victory if the U.S. held the Soviets under 50 points now seemed prophetic.
While Soviet coaches complained that they should have been granted a timeout, Collins prevented Sergei Belov from advancing the ball as the clock ticked down. One second separated the U.S. from an eighth straight gold medal. Then R. William Jones, secretary-general of the International Federation of Amateur Basketball, emerged from the crowd -- and, as the U.S. players see it, deprived them of their rightful victory.
Jones, who had openly rooted for the Soviets against the U.S. in the 1952 Olympics, ordered the clock turned back to three seconds -- the time left when Collins made his shots.
When the game resumed, a Soviet pass deflected harmlessly off the backboard. The crowd chanted “U-S-A” as the horn sounded. U.S. players and ABC-TV announcer Frank Gifford assumed that time had expired. McMillen jumped up and down and teammates hugged as the spectators stormed the court.
The horn, though, actually signified that play had recommenced before the clock was reset. The game wasn’t over. Assistant U.S. coach Don Haskins urged Iba to defy Jones by proclaiming victory and taking his team to the locker room.
Jones told Bach, the other U.S. assistant, that he would strip the U.S. of the gold medal if it left the arena. Iba, his team still leading by one point, wasn’t willing to risk a forfeit.
Again, play restarted with three seconds left. This time, the ending was different. McMillen covered Edeshko as the Soviet guard took the ball out of bounds and launched a full-court pass to Alexander Belov. Out-leaping Joyce and Forbes, Belov caught the pass. Since Joyce sailed past Belov, and Forbes was knocked to the floor, the Soviet player was uncontested as he laid the ball into the basket for the gold.
James Bain, an American referee for the Munich Olympics, was a spectator at the championship game, sitting with his wife “right under the basket” where Belov scored the clincher.
“My wife and I were so totally enraged,” says Bain, 80. “It seemed like a travesty of the rules at that time. Today, I don’t have any change in opinion.”
Referee Renato Righetto authorized Iba to write “protest” on the official score sheet.
“It was the first time in 50 years I’ve been in athletics that they’ve played an overtime ballgame when the game wasn’t tied,” Iba said later. Even though six of eight officials in charge of the game attested that the last three seconds were mishandled, a panel headed by Jones’s close friend denied the U.S. appeal.
The players voted to refuse their silver medals and boycott the awards ceremony.
“I played devil’s advocate a little bit” before making it unanimous, recalls the 60-year-old McMillen, chief executive officer of Homeland Security Capital Corp. (HOMS), in Arlington, Virginia.
His college coach, Charles “Lefty” Driesell, who attended the Munich game, scolded his star for rejecting the medal. “He thought it was a bush thing,” McMillen says.
At least one member of the team now has similar misgivings. As a born-again Christian who believes in forgiveness, Burleson says, it’s ironic to be “a part of the worst sportsmanship in history.” Still, he will honor the pact, he says.
Often ignored in the furor over Jones’s intervention are the U.S. mistakes on Alexander Belov’s winning basket. Over- reacting to a referee’s warning not to reach over the end line, McMillen backed away almost to the free throw line, allowing Edeshko, the Soviet guard, to pass the ball unimpeded. McMillen was afraid of being assessed a technical foul for interfering with Edeshko, he says.
Iba didn’t insert two players who might have prevented the final basket. Defensive specialist Bobby Jones, the team’s best leaper, might have blanketed Belov.
“I did make the All-Defensive team 10 years in a row in the pros,” says Jones, 60, who coaches at Carmel Christian School in Matthews, North Carolina. “I might have made a difference on that last play.”
It wouldn’t have been easy to throw or catch a pass over the 7-feet-2-inch Burleson. He didn’t play in the final game after assistant coach Bach caught Burleson’s fiancée visiting him one evening at 8 p.m. They were standing on his balcony, looking at the view, Burleson says. Bach told Burleson that he was violating a team rule against having a girl in his room at night.
During the game’s final seconds, Burleson begged the coaches to relent and put him in. Iba and Bach told him that he’d been benched for his actions, he says.
“I know I would have at least slapped the pass down,” says Burleson, 60, director of planning and inspections for Avery County, North Carolina.
While “I don’t think anyone was happy” about the rule- breaking, Bach says, it had nothing to do with why Burleson never left the bench against the Soviets. Iba had more confidence in McMillen, Bach says.
The failure to deploy Burleson mystified Vladimir Kondrashin, the Soviet Olympic coach. In a conversation at the World University Games in 1973, Kondrashin asked him why he hadn’t played in the last three seconds in Munich, Burleson says. When Burleson explained he was suspended for breaking a team rule, Kondrashin replied, “For them not to play you, that was stupid. You can just run 100 wind sprints in practice.”
At those University Games, the U.S. gained a measure of revenge for Munich. A strong squad that included Burleson, Marvin Barnes, and future Hall of Famer David Thompson trounced the host Soviets for the gold. Barnes led the team in rebounding and was second to Thompson in scoring. Post-Munich, his volatile personality no longer deterred U.S. basketball authorities.
“After that game they lost, they called me immediately and said we want to go back there and get the gold medal,” says Barnes, 59, who works with youth in Providence. “If I was down there covering that guy, he would never have caught that damn ball.”
The U.S. learned other lessons from the Munich debacle. It curbed factionalism in 1974 by creating one organization, with both AAU and NCAA representatives, to oversee teams for international competitions.
Given more input into player selection than his predecessor Iba, 1976 U.S. Olympic coach Dean Smith chose four members of his own North Carolina squad, who had the advantage of being familiar with his system. His team won the gold medal without facing the Soviets, who lost to Yugoslavia in the semi-finals.
The U.S. and USSR wouldn’t meet again until a decisive Soviet victory in 1988 prompted McMillen to circulate a resolution in Congress to send professionals to the Olympics. In 1992, the U.S. “Dream Team” of NBA greats, including Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, coasted to the gold medal. It didn’t have to play against either the USSR or Yugoslavia, since both countries had dissolved.
While the NBA all-stars have rescued U.S. basketball fortunes, the end of amateurism and of Cold War tensions diminished the Olympic drama. No longer, as in the Munich and “Miracle on Ice” clashes with the Soviets, does the U.S. send untested collegians to battle its rivals for world domination, with political prestige at stake.
Iba died at 88 in 1993, still “broken-hearted” about Munich, Bach says. “The old man did not forget.”
Nor do the players. On their behalf, “Stolen Glory” co- author Gallagher, an Illinois attorney, is pressing the International Olympic Committee and the International Basketball Federation for a re-hearing. The IOC and FIBA have refused to reopen the matter.
The team will get together for its first reunion in August at Georgetown College in Kentucky, captain Kenny Davis’s alma mater. A 63-year-old Converse footwear account executive, the slim, silver-haired Davis denounces the Munich outcome as an injustice in motivational speeches to business audiences too young to remember it.
Kevin Joyce, the feisty guard who led the comeback against the Soviets, treasures his own makeshift Olympic medal. His late mother Helen Joyce, a high school custodian who raised him by herself after his father died, went to Munich for the game.
When they returned home, she bought a charm bracelet. She had it made into a replica of a gold medal, and gave it to him as a keepsake.
“I wear it constantly,” says Joyce, 61. “It doesn’t come off. It means as much to me as any gold medal.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Daniel Golden in Boston at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Kaufman at email@example.com