John Clay: Emotions flow for reunited 1972 Olympians

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 25, 2012 

They had not been together in 40 years, not all 12 of them, but here they were Thursday night in a room at Georgetown College, together again in a very different time but their resolve very much the same.

An ESPN production crew was at the college waiting to talk to them for a documentary, and as the dozen players from the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team gathered for the "Courage in Munich" reunion they knew full well that the question was going to come.

The same question that had been hanging there for 40 years.

"We talked it over and there was some discussion," said Kenny Davis, the former Georgetown College All-American and the captain on the team, the man who had organized this weekend's reunion, "but we were unanimous that we would not accept the silver medal."

The reason?

"We know that we won that game," said Kevin Joyce, a fellow member of that team. "We won the gold."

They didn't get those gold medals, not that 1972 U.S. team which lost (so the record books say) to the Soviet Union 51-50 in the most controversial basketball game of all time.

Doug Collins had made two free throws with three seconds left to give the U.S. a 50-49 lead in Munich, Germany. Then through clock errors, human errors, and the FIBA president coming out of the stands to instruct the scorekeeper to put time back on the clock, the Soviets were allowed to inbound the ball three times.

The third time was their charm. Alexander Belov took a length-of-the-floor pass, elbowed an American out of the way, scored a layup and the Soviets celebrated.

The Americans retreated to their dressing room, kicked out head coach Henry Iba and his assistants, decided to file a protest and committed to never accept the silver medals. The protest failed. True to their word, the medals were declined.

"Was I at the gold medal ceremony?" repeated Joyce of the ceremony that was held the next day. "I didn't even know when it was."

They got together for a reunion 20 years ago, but then only nine could attend. With the 40th reunion coming up, Davis worked with his employer at Converse to put together a special reunion weekend and quickly received confirmations from all 12 players, plus assistant coach John Bach.

Eight arrived at Georgetown College on Wednesday, the rest came Thursday. Tom Burleson, the 7-foot-2 center at North Carolina State, skipped a V Foundation dinner back in Raleigh and a dinner in Boulder, Colo., where he was to supposed to introduce the featured speaker.

"I knew," Burleson said, "this is where I wanted to be."

The group participated in four fascinating public forums on Friday, played golf at the Marriott Griffin Gate on Saturday and enjoyed a banquet on Saturday night.

"We had been together for just a few hours," Davis said, "and several of the guys told me that if it ended right then it would have been worth coming."

"I've not seen many of these guys in 40 years," said Bach on Friday, his voice cracking with emotion.

There were emotional moments, emotion when players spoke about how much it meant to be together, emotion when they spoke of what happened at the end of the gold medal basketball game, emotion when they spoke of the real tragedy of those 1972 Olympics, the killing of the Israeli hostages by terrorists.

In a news conference before Saturday night's dinner, Burleson was asked to retell his experience of being near the hostages when they were taken out of the compound. Telling the story, remembering the details, Burleson began to sob and had to leave the room.

"With what happened to us, not getting the gold medals, we got to come home," Davis said. "They did not."

Sometime during the weekend, however, it became not about the one medal question but about all the answers. How have you been? How are your kids? How is the family? Do you remember the time? They all said they had no idea how much they would end up laughing all weekend long.

"For me," said Mike Bantom, "that time kind of made a note of when I grew up. That one summer I made such a huge leap. We've all grown as men."

"We have grown," Collins said, "but I think we're all still true to who we are."

And that even if they didn't get the gold that was rightfully theirs, they got something else.

"Being a part of this team," Burleson said, "that has been truly humbling."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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