Losing gold medal in 1972 was life-altering for Philly's Mike Bantom

Philadelphia native Mike Bantom had his number retired by St. Joseph's in 2003. Bantom was a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team.
Philadelphia native Mike Bantom had his number retired by St. Joseph's in 2003. Bantom was a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. (JERRY LODRIGUSS / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 29, 2012

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Mike Bantom was part of the United States basketball team that lost to the Soviet Union in a controversial final at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

He said his experience provided a profound message that has stayed with him.

In the gold medal game, the United States led by a point with three seconds to go. The Russians had three cracks during the final three seconds and eventually scored on the third to win, 51-50. The Americans felt they were cheated and never accepted their silver medals.

"It was kind of life-altering for me, actually," Bantom said during a 40-year reunion for the team over the weekend. "For the first time I realized that life isn't always fair and even though you work hard and dedicate yourself to something, which we all did, it could still be taken away from you."

A Philadelphian and a former St. Joseph's College standout, Bantom said he has long gotten over the loss, but at the time it was devastating.

"That was the first time I ever cried over a basketball game," he said. "My heart was broken and I had to get over it because frankly when we got back, we were a week late school-wise."

The 1972 Olympics were marred by tragedy as 11 Israeli coaches and athletes were held captive by Palestinian gunmen. All of the hostages were killed.

Bantom, 60, said that before the Games, he was not aware of world events.

"I had a very limited view of the world, and in the course of one summer I took such a huge leap in terms of my maturity and my perspective on the world itself," Bantom said.

Bantom was entering his senior year at St. Joseph's at the time. Unlike today, when NBA stars make up most of the Olympic squad, back then the team was composed of college players and those who still had eligibility.

Bantom grew up in Philadelphia and played at Roman Catholic High. After starring for St. Joseph's, he was the eighth overall pick in the 1973 NBA draft by the Phoenix Suns. He played in the NBA for nine seasons and played in Italy for seven more.

Living in North Philadelphia near 28th Street and Lehigh Avenue when he made the Olympic team, Bantom said that there was very little local buzz as he went to Munich to participate.

"Before I went to the Olympics there wasn't a whole lot of interest in my neighborhood so to speak about the Olympics or Olympic basketball, but once I came home, the awareness had been raised quite a bit and I was viewed a little differently," he said.

Competing in the Olympics has that type of impact.

"I was already a pretty successful college basketball player at St. Joe, but now I was bigger than that and had represented the whole country as an Olympian and with that came a certain amount of respect and recognition and I thought it was pretty cool," he said.

In that final game, Bantom fouled out. He had two points and a game-high nine rebounds.

"I remember the foul, it was a head fake I went for," Bantom said.

His absence hurt even more. The U.S. team was short on big men in the game. Center Dwight Jones had been kicked out of the contest along with one of Russia's lesser players, and Jim Brewer suffered a concussion. Center Tom Burleson was suspended for the game by coach Hank Iba after he allowed his fiancée to visit his room in the Olympic village.

"With the other guys incapacitated, I had to stay on the floor," Bantom recalled.

Bantom, who was sold by the Indiana Pacers to the 76ers during his final NBA season in 1981-82, is now the league's senior vice president of player development.

Regardless of the outcome of the gold medal game, Bantom felt proud representing his country and has enjoyed the lifelong friendships with his Olympic teammates.

"We were 12 individuals when the whole process started and nobody knew anybody," he said. "And now we have a bond that has kind of lasted for life."

Read The Inquirer's coverage on the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Olympic men's basketball gold medal game at philly.com/72reunion

Contact Marc Narducci at 856-779-3225, mnarducci@phillynews.com or @sjnard on Twitter.


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