A few weeks removed from the pomp and spectacle that was the 2012 London Olympics, members of the 1972 Team USA men's basketball team met in Lexington, Ky., last weekend to reflect on the 40th anniversary of the team's disappointing silver-medal run. That "silver medal" performance has long been criticized as a hollow number two in the annals of sport, as a combination of terrible referee work, blatantly incorrect scorekeeping, and out and out corruption just about handed the gold medal to a (very good, it should be remembered) Russian team that was full of older pros. Team USA, four decades on, still hasn't accepted their silver medals, and for good reason. Russia was a gold-medal deserving squad on paper, but Team USA earned the gold that year.
And center Tom Burleson, in reflecting on the lowest point of his sporting career, used the get-together to remind us all of what is easily the lowest point in Olympic history. The tragic and stunning kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists just four days before Team USA's gold-medal contest versus Russia. A typically must-read report from NBA.com's Steve Aschburner details the big center's emotional response to recalling the horror from close proximity, some 40 years removed from Munich.
Burleson had been out acting the part of a tourist with his fiancée on Sept. 5, 1972, unaware that the Israeli athletes had been taken hostage. After spying a longer than usual line to get back into the athletes' quarters after his afternoon out, he snuck in a previously used and purportedly innocuous garage entrance with two Italian athletes, only to be met by German police officers (due to complicated Soviet-era international policy, German military authorities could not aid in attempting to bring an end to the kidnapping plot) with rifles drawn. As Burleson was pinned against a wall with a rifle in his back, he could hear the Israeli athletes being led from the Athletes' Village and to an airport where they later met their demise in a hail of terrorist gunfire and incompetence from the German authorities.
The 7-2 NBA veteran broke down as he discussed the events of the afternoon. From NBA.com:
Then Burleson heard the shuffling of the hostages feet as they were brought out. "And I could hear them crying. I could ... hear ... them ... crying!"
At this point, four decades later, a 20-year-old kid turned 60-year-old man began to sob. He leaned back and tried to breathe. He bent forward, burying his face in his hands, his back and shoulders heaving. Jim Brewer, to Burleson's left, placed a hand on the big man's back, then his knee.
"They didn't want to die," Burleson said in gulps. "They didn't want ... to DIE!"
The hotel meeting room otherwise was silent. Reed thanked Burleson and tried to move on. But Burleson gathered himself long enough to continue: "As they walked by, they loaded them into the helicopters, they released me. ' Go into the Olympic Village and see the helicopters fly off. ...'"
The emotions seized up on Burleson again. The tears doubled and he wailed: "I hear them ... in my sleep!"
The 20-year-old was not asked to play in the gold-medal game four days later.
One could wonder how he could ever suit up again for a basketball game following the association between an event like the Olympic tourney and his brush with that sort of traumatic event, but Burleson went on to lead his North Carolina State Wolfpack to the 1974 NCAA championship (playing on a formidable team featuring the explosive David Thompson along with the precise-passing Monte Towe; a duo that helped make the alley-oop a go-to move even in an NCAA era that did not allow dunking) and eight NBA seasons before retiring in 1981.
For the rest of the backstory, please read Aschburner's feature. The team decided to mark the 40th anniversary with the meeting at team captain Kenny Davis' alma mater in Georgetown, Ky.; and the group appears to be as steadfast in its resolve as it always has been to decline to accept the silver medals. Though, to hear Aschburner tell it, this was far from a pity party for players that had been wronged in their moment of amateur glory.
Burleson, who according to Aschburner runs a ministry program in his home in North Carolina, later returned to the banquet in order to give the invocation before the meal that followed the news conference.