Why The 1972 U.S. Men's Basketball Team Refused Their Olympic Medals

At the 1972 Munich Games, a group of U.S. basketball players set out to make their hoop dreams come true. However, this was no Olympic Dream Team. There was no Michael Jordan to make gravity look like a minor inconvenience, no "Mailman" like Karl Malone to deliver in the post, no Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. There was no magic at all by comparison. They almost had future Boston Celtics legend Bill Walton, via ESPN, but he passed on the opportunity.

Sports Illustrated paints a rather dismal picture of the '72 squad, saying the players were "thrown together one summer." They "stumbled out of a Pearl Harbor barracks three times a day during training camp and then onto a basketball court with screen meshing for walls and with bloodstains on the sidelines from the '41 attack by the Japanese." Slapdash though they were, the U.S. men's team probably never dreamed of losing.

Prior to 1972, no American basketball team had netted less than gold at the Games. However, a series of controversial calls by the refs would help hand the Soviet Union the gold, and the indignant U.S. team would insist on leaving empty-handed.

From hoop dreams to net nightmares

The U.S. men's basketball team cruised to victory in its first seven contests before Arab terrorists massacred 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team, putting the Munich Games and the world on pause. When the Olympics resumed in September, the Americans seemed to pick up where they left off, scoring a dominant win to reach the gold medal contest. But the physically bigger, more cohesive Soviets were a whole different ball game. Whereas they had played in just 12 exhibition contests, per ESPN, their Soviet opponents were a semi-professional powerhouse that had previously competed in 400 games together. Plus, U.S. coach Henry Iba seemed increasingly out of his league thanks to a conservative style that failed to change with the times.

In the final seconds of the game, the Americans trailed by 1 point until a Soviet turnover and two clutch free throws by Doug Collins put the U,S. up by 1. However, officials gave the Soviets two shots to steal the game. According to Sports Illustrated, a Bulgarian ref made a bogus stoppage at with 1 second left, claiming that fans had stormed the court. Next, the refs gave the Soviet team three more seconds after time expired, citing a previously unacknowledged timeout that might not have been permitted by the rules. The Soviets ended up winning 51-50. Utterly disgusted, the U.S. men's team rejected their silver medals, which remain stashed in a Swiss bank vault.