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Thirty years later, basketball silver medals remain unclaimed

Posted: Sunday, June 30, 2002

In the darkened recesses of an IOC vault in Lausanne, Switzerland, the silver medals are locked away, unclaimed and ignored for three decades now -- destined, it seems, to remain that way forever.

The owners of those medals have no interest in them, not after the finish of the final basketball game at the 1972 Olympics at Munich.

HBO's documentary '':03 From Gold'' tells the story of how victory turned into defeat for the United States, how Cold War intrigue intruded on the basketball court and victimized a team of young Americans, and why they turned their backs on their medals.

One of the players was Mike Bantom, who went from the Olympics to a productive nine-year career in the NBA and now is a vice president in the league's executive offices.

He viewed the tape and came away still stunned at the turn of events that had been parked for so long in the recesses of his memory.

The United States had never lost an Olympic basketball game, a perfect 62-0 with seven straight gold medals. But these had been an Olympics like no other -- an emotional, gut-wrenching affair following the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by Arab terrorists.

It was not an easy tournament after that and not an easy ending, either.

''How meaningless the games were after that,'' Bantom said, reflecting on the massacre. ''We would have preferred to go home. It wasn't easy. It was a very emotional and trying time.''

Instead, the games continued and a team of 12 Americans, 10 of whom would be first-round draft picks in the NBA, set out to preserve their country's Olympic basketball streak.

They had gone through basketball boot camp in Hawaii, a regimen filled with heat and insects that still leaves Bantom grimacing. The coach was old school Henry Iba, who preferred a deliberate, defensive style at a time when the sport was evolving into a racehorse game.

''Coach did what he always did -- conservative, controlled basketball,'' Bantom said. ''I wonder if he could coach us any other way. We were young. When you play at a faster pace, you're more prone to mistakes. A slowdown game gave us a better chance to function as a team. We had no problems with it.''

And they won with it, right up to the gold medal game against the Soviets.

After the terrorist massacre, the Americans and most of the other athletes attended a memorial service for the murdered Israelis. Not every country was there.

''I was not aware that Russia didn't recognize Israel and did not attend the services,'' Bantom said. ''They practiced. It did not affect their concentration.''

The gold medal game was close from the start, a seesaw affair. The plodding Soviets seemed comfortable against the Americans. With six seconds to play, the United States trailed by one point, 49-48.

Then Doug Collins, later a longtime NBA player and now coach of the Washington Wizards, stole a pass. Collins went straight for the basket and was hammered. Two foul shots for the gold medal.

Collins treated the moment as if he were in his backyard, a world away from Munich, bouncing the ball once, twice, three times, and then coolly sinking the free throws. There were three seconds left on the clock. They would become the longest three seconds in Olympic basketball history.

International rules prohibit a time-out after a free throw. The ball must be passed inbounds first. As the Russians threw it in, their players were scattered. Suddenly, their coaches were on the floor, insisting they had called time out between the free throws.

With one second showing on the clock, Bulgarian referee Artenik Arabadjan stopped play. When the Russians threw the ball in a second time, the clock ran out and the Americans celebrated.

Not so fast.

At that point, R. William Jones, secretary-general of the International Amateur Basketball Federation, intervened and ordered three seconds be put back on the clock.

On the inbounds play, Brazilian referee Renato Righetto ordered 6-foot-11 Tom McMillen to back off the passer. McMillen obeyed, giving Ivan Edeshko plenty of room to throw the ball the length of the court. Sasha Belov caught it between two defenders and scored the winning basket.

The Americans were outraged. An official protest was filed and defeated with East bloc nations voting against the United States.

Bantom and the others did the only thing they could: They refused the silver medals.

''To me, it's still incredible that it happened,'' Bantom said. ''We felt if we took the medals, we were saying it was OK what you did to us."

''We stood up for what we believed.''



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