Commentary

Chapter 5: The Reunion

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

USA, Soviet UnionAFP/AFP/Getty ImagesDoug Collins says the '72 team shares a "bond of pain." But they will be happy to see each other again.

In the Dream Team summer of 1992, Michael, Magic and Larry's 1972 predecessors tried to stage a 20-year reunion of their ill-fated trip to Munich. Only eight or nine of the guys could make it.

It'll be a much slicker operation in 2012. This year's get-together is a three-day event at Georgetown College in Kentucky, alma mater of '72 captain Kenny Davis, with its own website (courageinmunich.com) and everything. All 11 of Davis' teammates have pledged to be there from Aug. 23-25, turning out for a Thursday golf outing, Friday's array of panel discussions and a Saturday night banquet dinner.

"It's going to be the first time we've all really gotten together," Collins said.

And they will arrive, predictably, having achieved varying degrees of closure in the intervening four decades.

Davis and fellow starter Tom Henderson, to this day, have it written in their wills that their heirs can never take possession of their silver medals. Which means that no one else on the team can, since International Olympic Committee regulations dictate that all 12 players must sign an agreement before any of the '72 alumni can claim them.

Chicago-area lawyer Donald Gallagher, co-author of the new book "Stolen Glory" that retells the 40-year-old tale of hoops heartbreak, says four of the 12 players, during interviews for the book, cried as he asked them to share their recollections. Jim Forbes in particular, according to Gallagher, revealed that he "thinks about what happened in that game every single day of his life and feels he let his country down."

USA coach Hank Iba, who died in 1993 at age 88, agonized over the loss for the rest of his life, according to assistant coach Johnny Bach, now 88 himself and a former assistant in the NBA to Collins in Chicago, Detroit and Washington.

"It meant a lot to Coach Iba to be asked to coach the Olympic team for a third time, but the strain was immense," Bach said. "He went back to Stillwater a broken-hearted man.

"We didn't talk about it much [in the years that followed]. It hurt too much."

Some of the guys, though, have found ways to move on. Among them is Collins, whose professional career was cut short after just eight seasons because of a devastating knee injury and who used to regularly say that he could only equate the feeling of losing that game to the Soviets to being at the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago celebrating and then being shoved "100-something floors to the ground."

Yet he's managed, with time, to amend that stance. With the help of son Chris and the stars of the Redeem Team that won gold in Beijing, Collins, now 61, can reference a much happier ending.

After LeBron James and the rest of the 2008 gold medalists made it a point to include the broadcasting Collins in all of their postgame celebrations, Chris Collins gave his medal to his father to hang as part of an '08 shrine at home, where Collins says it'll stay "until I die." And then the following year, in 2009, Collins was inducted into the media wing of the Basketball Hall of Fame as a broadcaster.

Said Collins: "I remember sitting there [after the acceptance speech], with my whole family around, just thinking, 'You can take me now.'

"I'm a sap."

Then Collins carried on, saying: "I think what happened [in Munich] set me up to realize that life is difficult. That there's going to be tremendous heartache. The question is: How do you grow from it?

"That's the beauty of sports. There's no safety net. If you've gotta make two free throws or make a putt or whatever, it's up to you to make it. Your daddy can't buy those free throws for you or buy that putt for you. And you can't be shielded from the pain. That's one of those things I've always tried to tell my kids. You're going to get hurt at some point in your life, whether it's at 15 or 25 or whenever. And you're going to have to learn how to deal with the sting of that and learn how to respond and grow."

Added Mike Bantom: "I think everybody who's ever won a gold medal is really proud of that fact. I see it all the time. I've worked with all of our national teams [since 1992] and I've watched these kids go from the expectation of winning one and hope of winning to actually winning it. When they win it's such a great feeling, every time, and I had that same feeling when that first [replayed] three seconds played out and we thought that we had won that game. You think you know what it's going to feel like, but that sense of relief and joy when you realize it actually culminates in a victory for you and your family and your country … we should have that honor now.

I think what happened [in Munich] set me up to realize that life is difficult. That there's going to be tremendous heartache. The question is: How do you grow from it?

-- Doug Collins

"But I've said this many times. It was devastating at the moment when it happened, and you think about your disappointment, but life goes on. If that's the worst thing that ever happens to me, I'll be blessed."

None of Bantom's teammates agrees more than Tom Burleson, who says he's still haunted to this day by what happened in Munich ... but by no means is he talking about basketball. In what he describes as a "wrong place, wrong time" moment, Burleson unwittingly became one of the last people to see the slain Israeli Olympians of 1972 alive when his attempt to shorten a walk back to the athletes' village through an underground parking garage put the 7-foot-2 backup center, wearing his USA sweats, in the same spot where German soldiers were leading out the Black September terrorists and their Israeli hostages to be transported to a nearby NATO airbase to leave Germany for Egypt as the terrorists demanded.

"I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes just screaming, just thinking of those 11 beautiful athletes and how they were taken away from their families," Burleson said this week in a phone interview. "It's supposed to be a dream come true to be able to represent your country. I won a national championship [at NC State] and I still consider being part of that Olympic team to be the greatest honor of my career. Those Israelis are the ones who suffered. What we were in was a little mishap."

Burleson, a born-again Christian who readily quoted from Ecclesiastes 12:12 during the phone interview, has come to believe that the Americans' silver medal and the attention it can still muster on anniversaries like these helps keep a spotlight on the memories of his Israeli peers, whose tragic fate went unrecognized at London 2012 when International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge rebuffed calls for a moment of silence in their honor during the opening ceremony.

"A basketball game is a basketball game," Burleson said. "It's a game, so sometimes you get results you don't like. There [were] a bunch of calamities and errors, but I think the primary thing that we need to acknowledge is that what happened to us was a bad deal, but what happened to the Israelis was an unspeakable tragedy. Hopefully the more that's said about us can bring attention to the real tragedy."

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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