“Stolen Glory” is a book by authors Mike Brewster and Donald “Taps” Gallagher about the infamous 1972 Olympic gold medal basketball game between the US and the USSR. Since basketball became an Olympic sport in 1936, the US had won all seven gold medals and was favored to win its 8th in Munich. After winning each of its first 8 games of the 1972 competition, the US entered the final against the Soviet Union as heavy favorites due to it all-time Olympic record of 63–0. The USSR was also 8-0 that summer and had a stacked roster featuring Modestas Paulauskas (one of the best Lithuanian players of all-time ), Sergei Belov (the first international player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992), and Alexander Belov (who was named one of FIBA’s 50 Greatest Players in 1991). Jon Teitel got to sit down with Taps to get the inside story on one of the most controversial finishes in the history of the sport.
The Soviets had a lot of veteran players and dominated most of the early-round action, while the US only had three players who had participated in the 1971 Pan Am Games and had a few close games early on. How big of a factor was the Americans’ lack of international experience? I think it was a big factor. The Soviets had played over 400 games together and had an average age of 28, whereas the US had an average age of 21 and had only played a few exhibition games together.
Bill Walton and John Wooden were coming off of a 30-0 championship season at UCLA, but neither of them were a part of team USA. Why were neither of these college legends a part of the team? At the time the selection process was run by the AAU. Walton was invited to camp but had played in Europe a couple of years earlier and did not like it because the coach cussed a lot. Walton was a peaceful guy who was against the war, so why would he have represented his country? He also had bad knees and was told to rest over the summer. He knew that the coaching staff (Hank Iba, Johnny Bach, Don Haskins) was going to hold practice on a naval base with guys sleeping on cots. People do not realize that you had to submit your name to be considered as a coach for team USA, and Wooden did not submit his name because he thought it was beneath him. Adolph Rupp’s name was taken under consideration but he was sick at the time, while Dean Smith and Bobby Knight were thought of as too young. Iba won gold medals in 1964 and 1968, but knew the rest of the world was starting to catch up. He did not want to coach again at age 68, but was talked into it by default.
Coach Hank Iba picked players who were not “going to be a problem” and could adapt to his system. Do you think he would have been better served choosing players such as Marvin Barnes or Kermit Washington? I was surprised that Kermit did not make it because he had a great camp but had a bit of an attitude problem. Barnes led them in rebounding and was killing people in camp…but he also had a history of hitting a guy with a tire iron. They had strict rules to follow at training camp at the Air Force Academy – when to eat, when to leave the campus, etc. Barnes actually broke down the door one night in order to go off campus, and that door led into the room where the coaches were making their selections!
Training camp for team USA was held on an open-air court at Pearl Harbor. Did it bring the team closer together or did the conditions just beat them down? It brought them together for sure. Doug Collins said, “We were sleeping in a place where they brought the dead in from Pearl Harbor, whereas Jordan stayed in a $1000 hotel suite in 1992”. They had to use toilets that did not have seats. Today the 12 of them are as friendly as they were back in 1972 and they are really tight. They had a reunion in Lexington last summer: you would think they saw each other all the time. It was the players against the strict coaches who would always challenge them.
Swen Nater quit during training camp and was replaced by Tom McMillen and a foot injury to John Brown opened the door for Jim Forbes to join the team. What impact did these roster moves have on the team? I think it kept them from winning the gold medal. Brown was a two-time All-American at Missouri who was penciled in as a starter for team USA. They actually left him at the airport when they flew to play their next game, he sat in the airport without any money and cried for a long time. However, he made the team, so he was welcomed as part of the reunion. Nater’s side of the story is that he could not eat at the designated eating times because he had to spend a lot of time after practice re-hydrating, and he could not use the commissary at night because he had no money. The players claim that Nater left because his girlfriend was back in LA and he did not like the pounding he took on the court in Pearl Harbor. Wooden called up the selection committee and asked that Nater be allowed to attend, and he was also the leading scorer at the time. If Nater and Brown had played, I honestly think that not only would the Soviets have lost, but they would not have even been within 30 points of the US.
Team USA had a mix of white and black players – were they all treated the same back in the racial climate of the early 1970s? They were given their marching orders after the black power salutes of African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics: they were told the team would be comprised of six whites and six blacks. I think they were all treated the same, Iba called everyone “boy” because he was from the south. They were all in the same boat…but the blacks were told ahead of time to not rock that boat.
The Americans had some problems adapting to the international rules: which rules were the hardest for them to pick up? There are a lot of different rules that the US did not master right away, such as the facts that the refs do not touch the ball as much and goaltending does not get called. 7’2” Tom Burleson could have knocked every shot away, but Iba thought he was a goofball after he got caught with his fiancée in his room. Iba was so leery of people spying on his practice that instead of practicing on the court in Munich where the games would be played, he had the team take the bus 50 miles away to practice at a CIA facility where they ate soup and crackers.
The gold medal game on ABC was scheduled for 11:45PM on a Saturday night. Why did they pick such a late start time when the game was not even broadcast live? I do not know for sure but it was going to be delayed anyhow. They ended up broadcasting a majority of the game since the USSR led for most of the way. The players hated it because the tension just kept building all day and all night.
The gold medal game was played only a few days after the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by terrorists. What impact did the incident have on the US players, and what happened when Burleson came face-to-face with the terrorists? A lot of players think Burleson made up the story but at the reunion he had the same reaction as he broke down crying. He went through the dorm of the basement and could see the hostages shuffling by while sobbing and weeping. Some guys like Bobby Jones and Mike Bantom did not want to play the game because they thought the Olympics should have been stopped. It did not affect the Soviets as much: they were very cold hearted.
It was the final game of Coach Iba’s career. Did his reliance on a pressure defense and a patient offense take full advantage of his team’s abilities? Bach says that even if they ran with the Soviets it would have been close because the US played a very sloppy first half. Iba played the same offense and defense in the previous two Olympics, which had worked out well for him. Iba said that they would win if they held the USSR under 50 points, which they almost did. He had players who liked to run but did not have the greatest shooters. They did not realize how good Sergei Belov was. With six minutes left Kevin Joyce demanded that Iba let them run on offense. They played great defense which was a credit to Iba.
Jim Brewer (concussion) and Dwight Jones (ejection) missed the end of the game, do you think their absences affected the outcome? Jones was the leading scorer at the time and Brewer was the leading rebounder, so I think it had a huge effect. The USSR knew that Jones was a hothead, which is why they put a guy in to instigate a fight. If it happened today both players would have received technical fouls but not been ejected. The two refs had actually worked the Soviets’ games in Europe all summer long. If Jones was in at the end there would be no way that Alexander Below would have been allowed to catch the final pass. The USSR had a good team with a bunch of pros who went 9-1 in 10 exhibition games in the US the previous year. You can see it in the foreign teams today, they play together for a long time and know how to operate as a team.
Doug Collins made a steal and converted a pair of free throws to give the US its first lead of the game with three seconds left. Why do you call this “one of the great plays in Olympic basketball history”? If the game had ended with a US win then Collins would have gone down in history as the greatest American Olympic basketball player ever. He got slammed into the basketball stanchion but was somehow able to swish the two free throws.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the final outcome (ref Renato Righetto, FIBA secretary general R. William Jones, the official timekeeper, Coach Iba, etc.) – who do you think is most to blame? It is undoubtedly Jones. There were only FIBA officials who heard the appeal, so I am filing a petition to get the IOC to hear their case. Jones was a dictator who ran FIBA for many years and he wanted to see international basketball expand rather than have the US win gold every year. His jurisdiction was over once the 16 qualifying teams arrived in Munich, but the refs knew that if they went against him they would never work another game. The ref should have called Belov for three seconds in the lane but he was not paying attention to him at the time. Additionally, the guy who inbounded the ball never checked in at the scoring table but they did not whistle him for a technical foul.
The US protest was rejected by a 3-2 vote (with the three communist nations of Hungary, Poland and Cuba voting against the US). Did the protest ever stand a chance, and what is the process if such an incident happens in 2016? Egypt leaving the Olympics affected the Americans’ protest because instead of an Egyptian guy staying on the committee as a swing vote, he was replaced by a guy from Hungary. If you file a protest or appeal it has to be done prior to the start of the next Olympics. The guy from Hungary was tight with Jones. If you look at all the evidence there is no way they should have voted against the US because it was not their fault. They should never have put three seconds back on the clock: as Bach said, “Only God can put time back on the clock”.
There are 12 silver medals sitting unclaimed in a storage room in Switzerland. Do you think that they will stay there forever? No. I think they will eventually take them out and hand them over…to the Soviets, while giving the gold medals to the Americans. The US players will never accept silver medals. They won the gold even if they do not physically have them. Henderson and Davis stated in their wills that their family members can never accept the silver medal even after they die. That is how I came up with the title of the book.
If you would like to order the book, go to gmbooks.com or buy it as an e-book from Amazon.com.