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Steve Aschburner

'72 Olympic team still haunted by tragedy in Munich Games


Posted Aug 30, 2012 11:55 AM

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- What happened in 1972 to the United States' Olympics men's basketball team was a shame, a scandal, a ripoff and a nightmare, at least from the U.S. point of view.

It was not, however, a tragedy. Not then, not now. The tragedy at those Munich Games was the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. The members of that '72 U.S. team have carried that truth with them across 40 years, no matter how cheated they felt or how bitter their basketball memories.

The tail end of the last game is notorious by now: In what otherwise would have been a 50-49 victory for the championship, a team from the Soviet Union was allowed to try once, twice, three times on a final possession.

A layup on the last try -- many of the U.S. players believe the Soviets would have been granted as many tries as they needed -- flipped the outcome. It stuck the Americans with their first basketball loss in Olympic history and, after a failed appeal, led to a medal ceremony the next day at which the U.S. was a no-show. The silver medals they refused to accept still sit in a vault in Switzerland, and the International Olympic Committee stopped asking about 15 years ago if the U.S. players would change their minds and accept the medals.

That team held a reunion over the weekend, an event pulled together by team captain Kenny Davis and longtime Kentucky sportswriter Billy Reed. Staged at Georgetown College, Davis' alma mater, and at a Lexington resort hotel, the reunion brought together all 12 players for the first time since they scattered after Munich. There had been smaller gatherings and, with 10 of them selected in the first round of the 1973 and 1974 NBA Drafts, many had veered in and out of each others' lives at various times, during and even after their playing days.

But this was special because of the scope of the event, four days together after four decades mostly apart. They all were far more comfortable this weekend, compared to the bunks and barracks at Pearl Harbor where their training camp was held in '72. They had perspective now, too, college kids grown into men, successful in many ways, flawed in others and more aware than ever of the calendar.

As guard Thomas Henderson said several times as he addressed media and fans at the reunion: "I'm happy that we're all still alive to be here!"

No one quite came out and said it, but that was the biggest reason for 40 rather than waiting for 50.

"The one thing about all of us, we all feel our own mortality," said Doug Collins, coach of the Philadelphia 76ers and the scrawny guard whose two heart-pounding free throws should have been enough to win the gold medal with three seconds left. "And how fun it is to be with each other. And how tears flow, because we don't know how much time we have with each other."

Most of the tears were happy ones of laughter, of nostalgia, over the bonds they've had and the paths they've taken. But there was a powerful moment late Saturday afternoon when the tears were grim and anguished and painful. In an instant, they forced a reality on the event, a sense of what really happened and what mattered most.

Tom Burleson (here in 1976) had a seven-year career in the NBA.

Near the end of a news conference, almost as an afterthought, Reed asked Tom Burleson, the 7-foot-2 center, to relate his brush with the terrorists. The youngest member of the '72 squad came the closest to the politics and horrors that crowded out athletics from that Olympics.

Burleson had spent the day -- Sept. 5, 1972 -- acting the tourist in Munich with his fiancée. They visited cathedrals and the Black Forest and even stopped at a McDonald's. Then he rode the train back to the Olympic Village -- and was surprised when it stopped short of the station.

The passengers were ordered off outside the security barricades around the athletes' temporary residences. From a car at the end of the train, Burleson sensed a long wait checking through the gate, with dozens or hundreds of people required to produce three forms of identification. Across a parking lot, he spotted a garage-door opening he and others had slipped through in the Games' earlier, calmer days. So he beckoned to two Italian players to follow him out the back. They cut across the parking lot.

As Burlseon told it Saturday, one German police officer with a rifle confronted them but spoke no English and they brushed by. Then a second. "Going to my room, directly to my room," Burleson said. "Don't worry."

Then a third officer stopped them. This one spoke English.

Said Burleson: "He said, 'Son, you're in the wrong place at the wrong time. We're in the process of bringing hostages out right now. I've got to have you stand against that wall, face it, put your hands on it, and let us bring the hostages out.'

"I thought, 'Oh man,'" Burleson said. "As I looked to my left, the two Italian players were on the ground with guns to their backs. I had a rifle in my back."

Hands to the wall, he heard the transfer begin through that garage door, the terrorists herding the hostages out of the Village. They were to be taken to Furstenfeldbruck airport by helicopter. From about 60 feet away, he glanced directly at one of the Palestinians.

"When I looked at him, the German soldier took the gun out of the small of my back and placed it in back of my head, and said 'Face the wall!' " Burleson said, his voice thickening. "I still see the blemishes today in that wall. I started praying to God to allow me to get out of this situation and back to the room where I needed to be."

Then Burleson heard the shuffling of the hostages feet as they were brought out. "And I could hear them crying. I could ... hear ... them ... crying!"

At this point, four decades later, a 20-year-old kid turned 60-year-old man began to sob. He leaned back and tried to breathe. He bent forward, burying his face in his hands, his back and shoulders heaving. Jim Brewer, to Burleson's left, placed a hand on the big man's back, then his knee.

"They didn't want to die," Burleson said in gulps. "They didn't want ... to DIE!"

The hotel meeting room otherwise was silent. Reed thanked Burleson and tried to move on. But Burleson gathered himself long enough to continue: "As they walked by, they loaded them into the helicopters, they released me. 'Go into the Olympic Village and see the helicopters fly off. ...'"

The emotions seized up on Burleson again. The tears doubled and he wailed: "I hear them ... in my sleep!"

Reed tried to ease the moment. "As Kenny Davis has said many times, they did not get the gold medal. But they got to come home alive," the retired sportswriter said.

At that, Burleson rushed from the room.

Johnny Bach, an assistant coach to Hank Iba on that team (Iba and fellow assistant Don Haskins are deceased), spoke next. With the wisdom of his 88 years, the basketball lifer and former Navy man knew what he had to do.

"I just want to say one thing on a closing night," Bach said. "Mr. Iba, who we all loved so much, when he was going home, he would sit down in a restaurant. I'd sit with him and Haskins would be there. He'd say to the waitress, 'I want you to yell like hell at me -- I'm going home to see my wife in a week or so.' "

The room broke into relieved laughter.

Said Bach afterward: "I couldn't let [the new conference] end on something so sad."

Burleson, after a few minutes, was composed enough to pose for a series of team photos at the banquet. The big man who won an NCAA championship with North Carolina State in 1974 and played seven seasons in the NBA with the Sonics, the Kings and the Hawks gave the invocation before the meal -- he runs a ministry program, in addition to his day job as head planner for Avery County, N.C.

To start, he asked the crowd of 600 or so for a minute of silence for the Israeli athletes killed in Munich -- the sort of tribute that the IOC refused to allow at the 2012 London Games.

Burleson enjoyed the evening, the camaraderie, the love shared among these men, and so did they. "Being a part of this team is very humbling," he said. "To be recognized with all these great men is humbling for me."

Probably, the 1972 players would rather have their gold medals and no more notoriety than the U.S. teams that won in '68 or '76. But they are remembered in ways those squads are not. They have something special, something based in character and shared adversity, born of the heartbreak they endured and the real tragedy they witnessed.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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