When the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team holds a reunion this weekend at Georgetown College in Kentucky, former N.C. State star center Tom Burleson will have more to remember than the gold-medal basketball game in which the Americans lost to the Soviet Union.
The 51-50 defeat came after a series of decisions by officials so frustrating that the U.S. refused to accept the silver medals, which go unclaimed to this day.
Burleson was close enough to hear gunfire at the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany, when terrorists infiltrated the compound and took nine Israelis hostage. Eleven Israeli athletes and coaches were killed by the end of the attack.
“The night of the kidnappings, we actually heard the gunfire.” Burleson told authors Mike Brewer and Taps Gallagher for “Stolen Glory,” a newly released book about the 1972 U.S. basketball team. “We were two buildings away and I said, ‘Somebody is shooting off firecrackers, celebrating.’ Kevin Joyce said, ‘I’m from New York, that’s gunfire.’
“We went back to sleep and woke up that morning and the Olympic Village was under siege. The coaches told us to stay close to our rooms and go eat. I went to the mess hall and they had pictures of the hostages. I realized I had sat with these people one or two days before.”
The day after the kidnapping, Burleson tells the book’s authors, he and his fiancée went on a tour of Munich that had been planned earlier. When he returned to the Olympic Village, he found a crowd at the security checkpoint where he was supposed to enter. He decided to slip away from the crowd and enter through the garage of the team’s dorm. It was here that he was confronted by an armed German soldier.
“Young man,” he said in English, “you are in the wrong place. They are getting ready to bring the hostages out and you are right in the middle of it. So stand there and face the wall and put your hands on the wall.”
Burleson told the authors he still has nightmares about what happened next.
“I was right inside the garage door,” he said in the book. “I can still see the blemishes in the concrete in that wall. He (the guard) put his gun in my back. The leader of the terrorists stepped around the corner and I can see him in the corner of my eye. The German soldier takes the gun from my back to my head and says, ‘Face the wall and don’t move.’
“I am now frozen against the wall and praying for my life when I should have been praying for the hostages’ lives. As they brought the hostages behind me, I couldn’t see them, but I could hear the emotion of the Israeli athletes, crying and their feet shuffling.”
After the hostages were put on a helicopter that was to take them to the airport, the guard released Burleson. Less than an hour later, German soldiers botched a rescue attempt. One of the terrorists tossed a hand grenade in the helicopter and all aboard were killed. “They’re all gone,” a wan and haggard Jim McKay of ABC told a worldwide TV audience.
The Games were temporarily halted but resumed after a memorial service.
Burleson did not play in the gold-medal game against the Soviets. The night before the game, he invited his fiancée to his room. “I didn’t think anything about it because other players were having relatives visit them,” he said.
But when Olympic coach Henry Iba found out about it, he decided Burleson’s punishment would be to sit out the gold-medal game – a decision that could well have cost the Americans the gold.
During the chaos at the game’s end, when the Soviets were allowed to inbound the ball three times before finally scoring the tainted “winning goal,” the U.S. did not have its tallest player on the floor.
“You can look at the tapes and see me begging coach Iba to let me in the game,” Burleson told the authors. “A year later, I was playing on another international team and ran into the Soviet coach (Vladimir Kondrashin). He asked me why I didn’t play in the gold-medal game. When I told him, he couldn’t believe it. He told me he would have found another way to punish me – make me run or something. But he would have never held me out of that game.”
Burleson will give the invocation at the 1972 Olympic team’s reunion banquet, which will be held Saturday in Lexington, Ky. This will be the first time all 12 players have been together since 1972.
Unlike most of his teammates, Burleson has said he would accept the silver medal because a Christian must forgive and forget. There is one thing about the Olympic experience he will never forget.
“I was the last athlete the Israelis had contact with, about 45 minutes before they died,” he said in the book. “I didn’t share that story with very many people at the Olympics because I was afraid they would send me home. That whole scenario gives me nightmares.”
Billy Reed is executive scholar in residence at Georgetown College and organized the team’s reunion.