Commentary

Chapter 2: The (Near) American Hero

Originally Published: August 9, 2012
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Team USAJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesDoug Collins, the star of the '72 squad, used his Olympic experience to inspire the 2008 team to gold.

Doug Collins, to this day, refuses to watch a start-to-finish video of the one game in his lifetime that he'll never be able to fully process.

And USA coach Mike Krzyzewski was sensitive to that when Collins was invited to speak to the Redeem Team before its run to the gold in Beijing. When Collins was summoned to give a speech at the start of the Americans' training camp in 2008, Coach K showed some Munich footage but stopped the tape after Collins' free throws.

"I just don't have any desire to do that," Collins told ESPN.com in his Philadelphia office late in the season, rewinding through the unhappiest chapter of a topsy-turvy basketball existence in his usual heart-on-sleeve manner.

"I can still see it all. I can see it all exactly as it happened. I remember everything."

So he tries as hard as he can to focus on the lighter moments of his 1972 experience when pesky reporters won't let it go and ask him to dredge it all up again.

He doesn't care to spend much time reconstructing the crosscourt pass he intercepted or the hard foul by Zurab Sakandelidze that sent him hurtling into the basket stanchion. He does admit that all the stories are true about how woozy he was when he stepped up to the line -- "I've always said that's probably the best thing that happened to me," Collins concedes, "because it probably made me not as aware of the circumstances" -- but speaks in greater detail about his plan to hound Sergei Belov for those final three seconds to run the clock out once the ball was inbounded after the free throws.

"I was just saying to myself that if I could make (Belov) turn twice on the dribble that the game would be over," Collins said. "When I first heard the whistle (that led to time being put back on the clock), I was worried that they called me for some kind of foul."

After a pause, Collins brings the discussion back to his happier recollections of the summer of '72. He laughs as he mimics coach Henry Iba, with that unmistakable Southern twang, lecturing the youngest team that the United States had ever fielded about the "Lymptics." He speaks with the highest coach-to-coach admiration when he tells the story of Iba, at one of the team's first meetings, writing the number 50 up on the board and announcing to everyone in the room that the Russians would not score 50 points in the deciding game ... which is exactly how it happened until those three seconds were put back on the clock. Twice.

Most of all he can't conceal the pride that stems from making the team out of tiny Illinois State, starting out as one of the more anonymous of the nearly 70 amateurs invited to the Olympic trials, and then surviving a boot camp at a military base at Pearl Harbor that Collins calls "the hardest 21 days of my life." The practices, two and sometimes three a day, took place in a gym that once housed victims of the attack that dragged the United States into World War II.

"I had visions of hula girls and palm trees and beaches," Collins' teammate Mike Bantom memorably told ESPN in 2002 of going to Hawaii for camp, "and I [actually] joined the Navy."

Eventually, though, Collins steers the conversation back to the pep talk he was asked to give Kobe, LeBron and the rest of Team USA in Las Vegas in July '08. Son Chris, from Krzyzewski's staff, was in the room. So was Bantom. Collins would be calling all of the Americans' games for NBC, just as he is this summer, but Krzyzewski asked him to give them some insight on not only what awaited them in China, competition-wise, but also the consequences that failure to win gold -- after Team USA's embarrassing stumble to the bronze in 2004 in Athens -- would inflict.

"I told them of the bond that they would forever build," Collins said. "And I told them that I want theirs to be a bond of joy. I looked over at Mike and told them that ours is a bond of pain.

"I told them that we have the best players, we have the best coaches, we have the best everything. And that the only way we won't win is if we have too many injuries or get frustrated by the referees.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James, Doug Collins
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesLeBron and Co. made Collins feel like part of the team in Beijing.

"When you speak to a group," Collins continued, "you know when you make a connection and when you don't. For some reason, on this particular occasion, I just felt like there was a real connection."

That was evident throughout the 2008 Olympics, when James and others made sure to acknowledge Collins at his broadcast position before every tipoff. It was especially evident when Collins was sought out by those same players when the victory over Spain was assured and eventually escorted out onto the floor to feel what it's like to actually wear a gold medal.

"When Dwyane Wade hit that [clinching] 3, and I knew they were going to win and Chris was going to get a gold medal, it was an incredible feeling," Collins said.

Said Krzyzewski earlier this summer in Las Vegas: "Doug's speech (in training camp) was very moving. It had a real impact on our guys. ... There was a lot of empathy for him."

But eventually, Collins being Collins, he can't help himself. A sadder tale pops into his head that he can't resist sharing.

"In Munich there was this little place you could go to listen to music," Collins said. "And I used to love to listen to Motown. The last song I heard before [the USSR game] was 'What Becomes of a Broken Heart' by Jimmy Ruffin. I told the [Team USA] guys that story [in 2008] because that's the last song I remember [from those Olympics]. I reminded them that the last song you want to hear is your national anthem."

Chapter 3: The Russians »

Olympic Hoop Heartbreak, 40 Years Later

The Three Endings | The Would-Be Hero | The Russians | The Crusader | The Reunion

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics