"The big night out was on my 21st birthday. (Assistant coach) Johnny Bach talked Coach Iba into giving us the afternoon off and dropped us off at the Polynesian Cultural Center, with matching Hawaiian shirts on and white shoes Sears gave us. It was like, 'Here guys, I'm picking you up at midnight, enjoy yourselves.' There was concern maybe some of us wouldn't come back.
"It's hard to believe it's 20 years ago. Everything's so vivid in my mind. . . . I remember marching into the Olympic stadium. We were all in our red, white and blue. I remember people chanting, 'USA! USA!' The goosebumps, the hair standing up on your arms--it's a feeling you can't really describe.
"All we heard was, 'You've got to beat the Russians. You've got to beat the Russians.' From the day we made the team, we knew the confrontation was going to be with us and the Soviet Union.
"The day was forever. The game started at 11:45 p.m. (for U.S. television). Here you are, 21 years old, waiting to play for a gold medal and you think the game is never going to get started. They had these places where you could sit in a booth and listen to music. I was real big into Motown. I remember the last song I heard that day: 'What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted?'
"I was crushed at the time. It really didn't set in for a while. And then you started reading about being the first Olympic team that had ever lost in basketball, and then the circumstances--you get angry.
"Every Olympic year, I see it on TV. From a selfish standpoint, you think about your place in Olympic history that has been washed away. I've become very patriotic, and every Olympics you become so aware of what a great country this is and all the opportunities.
"To see those athletes, with the national anthem playing and the tears of joy and all the years of hard work, and you stand there and watch the flag raised--I missed that. I felt that was taken away from me, and that bothers me as much as anything."
In retrospect, it was an accident waiting to happen.
U.S. Olympic basketball was a throwback, descended from the days when the Amateur Athletic Union and the NCAA dominated the game. The first team was built around Universal Studios' AAU champions.
The founding fathers of Olympic basketball were venerated conservatives in a fast-changing culture. Iba, the pattern-ball purist from Oklahoma State, coached three teams from 1964-72 while the cream of the collegiate crop turned a progressively colder shoulder.
UCLA's Bruins, the lords of the game, almost gave it a pass altogether. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skipped it in 1968, Bill Walton and Jamaal Wilkes in 1972.
The 1972 team also could have had North Carolina State's David Thompson, but he was only a freshman.
Instead, the committee worked with whatever players were readily at hand.
In 1968, an unknown from Trinidad, Colo., Junior College, Spencer Haywood, bailed out an underwhelming U.S. team.
In 1972, as the world edged up, all but unnoticed, the United States went with a front line of Tom McMillen, Jim Brewer and Dwight Jones.
The team had to rally from six points behind in the final minutes to get to the controversial three seconds.
"Everybody talks about how we were robbed," says former Marquette coach Al McGuire. "What the hell! How about the other 39 minutes?"
Says Collins: "Let's face it, we would never ever be having this discussion if Bill Walton had played. End of discussion. Forget it. Doesn't matter."
Of the 12 Olympians, 10 played in the NBA.
Kenny Davis, the NAIA representative on the team--that's how it was done then, one from Column A, one from Column B--became a sports-shoe representative and lives in Paint Lick, Ky.
"Every time I get to feeling sorry for myself," he recently told Sports Illustrated's Gary Smith, "I think of the Israeli kids who were killed at those Games. . . . Think of being in a helicopter with your hands tied behind your back and a hand grenade rolling toward you . . . and compare \o7 that\f7 to not getting a gold medal. If that final game is the worst injustice that ever happens to the guys on that team, we'll all come out of this life pretty good."
Forbes, who fell trying to stop Belov, told Mike Bantom six months later that he couldn't get over it. As a senior at Texas El Paso, he suffered a knee injury and never played professionally.
"I just saw him at our 20-year reunion," Collins says. "He's teaching school in El Paso. He's doing great. Fact, he's going to work at my basketball camp."
All's well that ends, more or less.