Earlier this year, Kenny Davis attended a grandchild's kindergarten graduation ceremony. The setting — a gymnasium — triggered memories of the 1972 Olympic basketball finals in which he and his United States teammates lost to the Soviet Union 51-50 in arguably sports' quintessential we-wuz-robbed game.
How much residual emotion still exists? "I don't ever really leave a gymnasium without thinking about that particular game," Davis said.
After the U.S. took the lead with three seconds left, the Soviets got not one, not two, but three chances to make a game-winning shot. The third was the charm, from the Soviet point of view. For the Americans, who carried the country's undefeated legacy in Olympic play into an athletic showdown fraught with Cold War undertones, it cut deep into the soul.
"Honestly, we thought it'd go away in two or three years," Davis said. "But it seemed to take on a life of its own."
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This life comes to the heart of Kentucky later this month. Davis, a Georgetown College graduate, and Billy Reed, the school's Executive Scholar in Residence, organized a reunion of the 1972 team for Aug. 23-25 in Georgetown and Lexington. For the first time in 40 years, all 12 players will be in the same place to ... what? Reminisce? Rue? Mourn?
"If it's my choice, and I'm trying to steer everybody in this direction, it'll be light-hearted," Davis said. "We made our stand 40 years ago. There's nothing we can do to change that."
The public is invited to attend seminars in Georgetown College's T & K Conference Center (100 Crawford Drive) on Aug. 24. From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., panels that include 1972 team members will discuss such topics as the sport's Olympic history (which includes a team led by University of Kentucky players winning the 1948 gold medal in London), how the Soviet victory affected international basketball and the ethical implications of the U.S. players' refusal to accept silver medals.
Doug Collins, whose two free throws with three seconds left gave the U.S. team its only lead in the game, will be the keynote speaker at a banquet at Lexington's Marriott Griffin Gate hotel on Aug. 25. Tickets can be bought through Miranda Harvey at 859-231-7711 Ext. 241 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Proceeds benefit Georgetown College.
Although American teams had a 63-0 record in Olympic play, Davis and his teammates expected the Soviets to pose a difficult test. Two years earlier, the Soviets had beaten the U.S. in the finals of the World University Games.
With UCLA Coach John Wooden and All-American Bill Walton refusing to participate, the U.S. players knew they were vulnerable.
Sure enough, the Soviets built a lead. Then the Americans happily abandoned Coach Hank Iba's slowdown style and staged a frantic second-half rally. Collins' two free throws appeared to cap the comeback.
International rules at the time prohibited a timeout after a made free throw. So the Soviets had to inbounds the ball. To call a timeout, the coach was required to push a button on the sideline, activating a red light.
Instead, anxiety and/or the chaotic scene led the Soviet coach and substitutes to rush onto the floor demanding a time out after the ball was inbounded. Referee Artenik Arabadjan of Bulgaria stopped the clock with one second left. He denied the timeout, but allowed the Soviets to again inbound the ball. The Americans deflected the pass. The buzzer sounded.
"After we thought we won it, we were out on the floor celebrating," Davis said. "Fans came out on the floor and everything.
"All of a sudden, I still hear this in my sleep sometimes, the (public address) announcer is saying, 'Three more seconds, three more seconds.'"
R. William Jones, a native of Great Britain and the secretary general of the International Amateur Basketball Federation (FIBA), had risen from his seat. He came to the scorer's table and ordered that three seconds be put on the clock and the Soviets awarded the timeout.
Forgotten or ignored was Jones' lack of authority to make such a decision.
"Like the commissioner coming out of the stands at the SEC Tournament and making the referees or the scorer's table do something," Davis said.
As Sports Illustrated noted in a 1992 story, before play resumed, Brazilian referee Renato Righetto ordered U.S. defender Tom McMillen to back off the inbounder. No international rule required such space. The Soviets then threw a long inbounds pass, which Aleksandr Belov caught, then turned for a winning layup.
The U.S. players returned to the locker room, where they decided not to accept the silver medal.
"Over the years, we've been called by some people bad sportsmen," said Davis, the team captain. "But if you look at the game objectively and according to the rules, we did win. So why would we accept something under those conditions? If we had lost according to the rules, we would have proudly stood there and accepted the silver medal because losing gracefully, I believe, is much more important than winning gracefully."
The players agreed to a one-for-all approach. If one player refused to accept a silver medal, none could receive the symbolic token.
Davis felt so strongly that in 1992 he put in his will — Article IX, to be exact — that none of his descendants ever accept a silver medal from the 1972 Olympics.
"I have two wonderful children who would make enough mistakes on their own rather than deal with one that was created for them," he said.
Teammate Tom Henderson included a similar provision in his will.
The U.S. Olympic Committee's repeated calls for the Americans to accept the silver medals annoyed the players.
"They wanted to sweep it under the rug ...," Davis said. "After about 20 years and 12 refusals, they finally gave up. No one's contacted me in 20 years."
Davis did not sound bitter. He even joked about Belov having been buried with a gold medal. "I tell people that's probably mine," he said with a chuckle.
Time eases psychic pain. But there was no joking immediately after the gold medal game. Davis returned to his room in the Olympic village and wept.
The 1972 Olympics also included a real tragedy. Arab terrorists kidnapped a group of Israeli athletes. Ultimately, six Israeli coaches and five athletes died. Davis keeps an issue of Time magazine chronicling the tragedy in his office. The magazine provides perspective.
"Those Israeli kids, they were our age," he said. "They lived in the same (Olympic) village. They ate the same food. The dreamed the same dreams.
"They took them out in their caskets. The rest of us came back home. We started families and had good careers. And we all are still alive.
"Sports are important, and I enjoyed them immensely. But I think every one of us on that team realized there is something more important than sports. And that is life itself.
"If I never get that gold medal, I'll come out of this life OK."
Donald "Taps" Gallagher, an attorney in Chicago, co-authored a recently published book that explores what happened in the famous 1972 Olympic basketball final ... and what should happen to bring a sense of justice.
The book, entitled Stolen Glory, is a four-year labor of love for Gallagher. It hit bookstores July 27 and is available via GM Books or Amazon. He and co-author Michael Brewster describe the chaotic scene in the final seconds of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. final.
At one point, U.S. assistant coach Don Haskins, who had led Texas Western to a famous victory over Kentucky in the 1966 national championship game, expressed his frustration. "Let's pick up the 'F-ing' basketballs and go to the locker room," Haskins said, according to Gallagher.
As players, coaches, referees and officials tried to decide how to finish the game, someone picked the pocket of U.S. Coach Hank Iba, who had $360 in his missing wallet.
Gallagher has petitioned the International Olympic Committee to review the game and award duplicate gold medals to the American players.
"Everybody will accept (the duplicate gold medals) except Kenny Davis," Gallagher said. Davis, who was the captain of the U.S. team, apparently has an unbending sense of right and wrong. Davis holds firm to the bottom-line notion that athletic competitions have winners and losers, Gallagher said.
Of course, the Olympics have a history of, uh, flexibility. In the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, duplicate gold medals were awarded in pairs figure skating after a French judge admitted bias. Gallagher also noted that duplicate gold medals have been awarded to a cross country skiier and synchonized swimmer.
In making his case for gold medals for the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team, Gallagher said, "I told the IOC, 'Let's end this fiasco after 40 years.'"
Promoting his book on the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team led co-author Donald "Taps" Gallagher to make a bold statement. He said that the ill-fated Americans of 1972 could beat the so-called Dream Team of 1992 and the current team that seems on track for the 2012 gold.
The 1972 team played superior defense, he said.
Maybe, but Gallagher acknowledged how such a statement can draw attention to his book.
"Maybe (Michael) Jordan will respond and say, 'That author in Chicago is on crack,'" Gallagher said.
Donald "Taps' Gallagher attended the same high school as Louisville Coach Rick Pitino. When Pitino was a senior at St. Dominic, Gallagher was a sophomore.
Gallagher recalled Pitino's nickname as "Rifle" because he shot so often as a high school player.
Pitino apparently had a healthy self esteem.
Gallagher quoted a St. Dominic gym teacher, Harry Kaiser, as observing, "How great is Rick Pitino? Just ask him."
To UK radio color analyst Mike Pratt. He turned 64 Saturday. ... To North Carolina Coach Roy Williams. He turned 62 Wednesday. ... To former UK players James Blackmon (he turns 48 Tuesday) and Daniel Orton (he turns 22 Monday).