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THE LOSS

U.S. Still Smarts Over Basketball Defeat by Soviets 25 Years Later

September 14, 1997|HARRY ATKINS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

He was a little groggy. His wrist hurt, too. Yet Doug Collins' pain, with three seconds left in the basketball final at the Munich Olympics, was nothing compared with what he and his teammates were about to experience.

There was a Cold War, an Iron Curtain and a Berlin Wall. There was a war in Vietnam and unrest on campuses across the United States.

And even as Collins tried to clear his head at the free-throw line, mourners gathered outside the Olympic village apartment house that Arab terrorists had stormed days earlier. In all, 11 Israeli athletes, five attackers and a German police officer were killed.

"There was so much political significance to those Olympics," says Collins, now coach of the Detroit Pistons. "It was a lot more than just a basketball game."

The Soviet and U.S. teams both were 8-0 heading into what would become one of the most controversial games in international sports history, on Sept. 10, 1972.

A game seemingly won by the United States, after Collins hit two foul shots for a 50-49 lead, ended in a Soviet victory when officials twice made the teams replay the final three seconds. A full-court pass and a layup gave the Soviets the gold medal.

"We felt like we were robbed," Bobby Jones says, using a phrase the U.S. players have repeated for 25 years. "It was kind of a shock, really. We were kind of young. We had never experienced anything like that."

While it ended U.S. dominance of Olympic basketball, the loss was the first step toward allowing the best athletes--amateur or professional--into the world's biggest sports event. The Dream Teams of the last two Olympics were direct results of the runner-up finish in Munich.

The 1972 U.S. team may have been young, but it also had talent. Most were 20 and Kenny Davis, an AAU player from the Marathon Oil team, was the oldest at 23. The youngest Soviet was 21 and most were veteran Red Army players.

A U.S. men's team had never lost an Olympic basketball game; the winning streak was at 62. Still, it was clear from the outset that the Soviets would not be pushovers. They started the game with a 7-0 run and led 26-21 at halftime.

"It was a dream come true, just to make the team," says Tom Burleson, a center from North Carolina State. "It is still the highlight of my athletic career, even though we did win an NCAA championship and I played pro ball.

"It was really something to play for your country, especially at that time," says Burleson, now a businessman in his hometown in Newland, N.C. "Communism was in full swing. It was us against them."

And that battle got ugly with 12:18 left in the game.

Dwight Jones, the U.S. team's top scorer and rebounder, got into a scuffle with Soviet reserve Dvorni Edeshko over a loose ball. Both were ejected. The Soviets held a 38-34 lead.

On the ensuing jump ball, Jim Brewer, a powerful forward from Minnesota, was knocked to the floor. Brewer, now an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers, left the game with a concussion.

At about that time, Kevin Joyce, a guard from South Carolina University, was growing increasingly agitated on the bench.

"We were down 10 points with about 10 minutes to go," says Joyce, now a Wall Street stockbroker. "I kept yelling at the coaches to get me in the damn game."

Head coach Hank Iba, from Oklahoma State, finally listened. The cocky kid from North Merrick, N.Y., was sent back out on the court.

"I made a couple of steals and fed the ball to Doug," Joyce says. "We rallied the boys."

Jim Forbes, a forward out of Texas-El Paso, hit a jumper with 40 seconds left to cut the Soviets' lead to 49-48.

The Soviets worked the clock down to 10 seconds, but 6-11 Tom McMillen blocked Aleksander Belov's shot and Collins intercepted a pass as Belov attempted to flip the ball back out to midcourt.

Collins, a guard out of Illinois State, drove to the basket but was undercut as he attempted a layup with three seconds left. He went down hard, slid across the hardwood and slammed his head on the basket's support. He then had to get up and shoot two foul shots.

"I had sort of fallen on my wrist," Collins says. "I was also a little dazed. I was knocked out for a second. It's probably a good thing, though, because I lost all sense of the pressure."

Still, pressure seemed to be what Collins lived for. If there was one man who had to make two clutch free throws for an entire nation, almost everyone agreed they would want Collins at the line.

"Doug was kind of our leader. He is a very confident guy," says Bobby Jones, now athletic director and basketball coach at Charlotte Christian School in North Carolina.

Collins hit the first one. The game was tied. Just as Collins was letting go of the second shot, the horn sounded. But the ball dropped through the net. The U.S. team led 50-49 with three seconds left.

Then things got crazy.

The Soviets in-bounded the ball but failed to score. The U.S. players began a wild celebration, yelling and hugging.

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