40 years later, Collins and teammates united about '72 final

Posted: August 12, 2012

LONDON - The medal with the right color is proudly displayed in Doug Collins' home. The wrong-colored one remains unclaimed somewhere in Switzerland.

Forty years later, Collins and his 11 teammates from the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team are as resolute as ever. Even when they get together in two weeks for their first ever reunion, he said, there is no chance they will change their minds. The silver medals they refused in 1972 will not be accepted.

"No," Collins said the other day, "that will never happen. We didn't win that. I don't want something I didn't earn."

Like a jury, the 12 men would have to agree unanimously to accept the silver medals. Collins, who made what should have been the biggest free throws in the history of international basketball, will never vote yay. And he's not even the biggest hard-liner.

"One of the guys, Kenny Davis, has in his will that even if he dies, his kids can never accept it," Collins said.

They feel as strongly as they did in September, 1972, when a series of outrageous decisions by game officials and FIBA president R. William Jones gave the Soviet Union squad three separate chances to replay the game's final three seconds. There were enough errors made, including a few by the Americans, to spend hours detailing and analyzing.

The bottom line is the Americans had a 50-49 lead after Collins, driven hard into the basket support, calmly made both free throws. And Jones exceeded his authority by ordering the game officials to give the USSR a do-over of the final three seconds. And then the U.S. team celebrated wildly after successfully defending that attempt.

But Jones and the game officials ordered yet another do-over based on an error by the clock operator. This time, in disarray and uncertain whether to remain on the court or walk off, the U.S. allowed an easy layup that ignited a similar celebration from the Soviet players.

Collins still sees it all, still feels cheated.

He and his teammates have said many times that their travails were minor in comparison to the great tragedy of Munich. The kidnap and murder of 11 Israeli athletes by terrorists is and should be the focus of any discussion of the anniversary of those Games.

But Collins couldn't help being reminded of that gold-medal travesty as he analyzed this Olympic tournament for NBC. On Friday, Russia led Spain by 10 at halftime, briefly raising the possibility of a U.S.-Russia showdown for the 2012 gold medal. Spain's comeback Friday made that impossible, but "I would have loved to be able to sit there and, 40 years later, call that game," Collins said. "It would have been something special."

There is an Olympic thread running through his life and his career.

"My 21st birthday, July 28, I spent at Pearl Harbor on the Naval base, being a part of the Olympic team and practicing," Collins said. "I just spent my 61st birthday here in London, broadcasting games 40 years later. It's been an incredible run."

If he hadn't made that Olympic team, there's no telling whether Collins would have had anything like the life and career he's had.

"In 1968," he said, "I wasn't even a starter on my high school team. Four years later, I was shooting two free throws for an Olympic gold medal. There's no way I could ever have imagined all the things that have happened to me in basketball."

One of the more special things came in 2008. Collins' son, Chris, served as an assistant to head coach Mike Krzyzewski, for whom he had played at Duke. Doug Collins was broadcasting those Games, as well, and was asked to address the team about the honor of representing the U.S. in the Olympics.

"Coaches don't get gold medals," Collins said. "But [USA Basketball chief] Jerry Colangelo had gold medals made for all the coaches."

A year later, when Doug was receiving the Curt Gowdy Award at the Basketball Hall of Fame, Chris stood up and presented that gold medal to his father.

"Dad," Chris Collins said, "it's 30 years too late, but we finally have a gold medal in our house."

"It was one of those moments with your son that will never forget," Doug Collins said. "So I'm blessed. I'm one of the few guys who have a gold medal in his home. People talk about living their dream. I've outlived mine."

The 12 angry men of '72 still hope to receive gold medals of their own. Led by center (and later U.S. Congressman) Tom McMillen, they've petitioned FIBA and the IOC to do what was done in figure skating after the judging scandal at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City - award duplicate gold medals.

Now is the time. All 12 men are still alive. It would be unforgivable to wait until that isn't the case. It would be an easy correction of a mistake made in the heat of Cold War politics and the strain of playing days after the massacre of fellow athletes.

There is no desire, Collins made clear, to take gold away from the Soviet players who feel they earned it. He told a funny story about an encounter with one of them. Sergei Belov was coaching the Russian team at the world championships in Toronto in 1994. As a broadcaster, Collins asked if he could watch the team practice and talk to Belov.

"We spoke through an interpreter the whole time," Collins said. "After we got finished, he looked at me and in perfectly good English, he said, 'Tell your son good luck at Duke this year.' I said, 'You sucker, you got me again.' "

Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan


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