It’s not often that one is in the presence of a first-person witness to a truly historical moment. Your grandfather might have been there for D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge, however, not only are the numbers of members of the “Greatest Generation” dwindling, but also those guys weren’t always keen on taking about what they saw.
Otherwise, your parents (like most of us) saw historical moments from in front of the television where it was safe and there were beverages nearby. Maybe in the modern day folks follow flashpoints of time on a mobile device with a Twitter app where they can dig through the information as it is reported. That just might be the highest point of historical participation these days.
But Doug Collins, the coach of the 76ers, has seen some things. In fact, when Collins was just 21 in 1972, before he had been drafted as the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA by the Sixers and in the ABA by both the Nuggets and Nets, he was in the Olympic Village in Munich when an Arab terrorist group known as Black September, captured Israeli athletes and ultimately massacred them.
Two days after the massacre, Collins and his U.S. teammates played Italy in semifinal round of the Olympic tournament, which set up the gold medal game against the Soviets a few days later.
Imagine being 21-years old with a year of college left and having to play in the gold medal Olympic basketball game for your country not even a week after a terrorist group stormed the compound where you were living and killed the members of the Israeli contingent… now imagine being that guy and playing in the most infamous basketball game of all-time—a game in which it appeared you had scored the game-winning points on two foul shots with three seconds left.
Doug Collins knows about that. He lived it. He was there.
We talked about 1972 very briefly with Collins on Monday afternoon following the Sixers practice at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, but the subject was brought up only after something the coach said about his current ballclub and how it might be the best coaching experience of his career. Considering Collins coached Michael Jordan in his third season in the league and then again for his final two seasons in Washington. But as far as championships go, Collins was the predecessor to the run the Bulls had with Phil Jackson and took over Detroit when the Bad Boys had been broken up.
Collins, as he pointed out, had never won a championship.
“I’m a guy who always loved being around young players because I always enjoyed the teaching aspect and there is nothing I get more fulfillment from than watching young players grow up and get better and go on to have really great careers,” Collins said. “I get as much satisfaction out of that than some guys do lifting up a championship trophy. I think there are different levels of success and I’ve never been a champion. I’ve always felt like I’ve been a winner, but I’ve never stood up as the last guy and held up the trophy. But somewhere along the line I’ve helped some guys to be able to do that and that’s what I try to do.”
He was right. In 1977, Collins and Julius Erving carried the scoring load as the Sixers took a 2-0 lead over Portland in the NBA Finals. Collins scored 30 in Game 1, but then had to get stitches in Game 2 after Darryl Dawkins’ punch meant for Bob Gross caught Collins’ face. From there the Sixers proceeded to lose four in a row.
The Sixers didn’t make it back to the Finals until 1980, but by then Collins’ career was owned by injuries and he didn’t appear in the playoffs and he decided to retire after just 12 games in the 1980-81 season.
But Collins didn’t mention 1972. Sure, technically the Soviets were awarded the gold medal, but they really didn’t win it—at t least not honorably, anyway, because after two in-bounds plays and two do-overs, Collins was poised to be the hero and win that championship. He nearly had to knocked out in order for it to happen, but those two foul shots with three seconds left appeared to seal the gold medal for the U.S.A.
Watching the many documentaries about the ’72 Olympics and particularly the gold medal basketball game, one can watch Collins steal a pass at midcourt, race to the basket for a layup and then get smashed in the basket support.
Collins told Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith in 1992 that U.S. head coach Hank Iba came running to his aid as he was lying on the court, dazed by the blow he had just absorbed. So too did assistant coach John Bach, who told Iba that they were going to have to find someone to shoot the free throws for Collins.
“But coach Hank Iba says, ‘If Doug can walk, he'll shoot,’ ” Collins told Smith. “That electrified me. The coach believed in me.”
Collins made both shots, putting the U.S. ahead, 50-49, with three seconds left.
The Soviets inbounded, but the clock was stopped with one second remaining, amid a dispute over whether or not the Russians had called a timeout.
Three seconds were placed back on the clock. The Soviets inbounded again, but this time a horn sounded after a single second ticked off, apparently ending the game. The U.S. players celebrated, but the horn had gone off because there had been a timing error… for some reason 50 seconds had been placed on the clock.
So the Soviets inbounded once more. And this time they scored on a court-length pass to win at the buzzer. They were given three chances to beat the U.S., and thanks to some help from the officials and the Olympic brass, they did it. Collins told us that during the confusion he remembered watching the referees fight over the ball while arguing with each other in languages they didn’t understand.
Still, did Collins consider it a championship? Should I ask knowing that the U.S. team boycotted the medal ceremony and still convene for votes to decide if they should accept the medal? Collins could still harbor bitterness noting that his singular heroic moment was erased for a reason that had never been properly explained or deciphered. Besides, who wants to relive a negative moment? Simply losing a regular-season NBA ballgame is hard enough on some folks, but to have the Olympic gold medal robbed not even a week after a terrorist attack in which innocent people were killed for no good reason, well, that’s not the easiest topic to discuss.
Doug smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said he did not.
“I didn’t get to stand there at the end and have the medal placed around my neck,” he said.
Yeah, but that was a formality. Besides, the team had been unified for nearly 40 years in telling the Olympic committee that they can keep the silver medal because they earned gold. By taking a stand that nearly everyone agrees with should embolden the U.S. team that they were the champions after all.
“Have you ever seen the silver medal?” I asked about the most famous silver medal never claimed. I knew that the team had refused to accept it, but did they at least get a look at what they were turning down? What did it look like?
“I don’t even know where it is,” Collins said. “It’s not my medal.”
Actually, the 12 silver medals are in the same place they have been since 1972 in a bank vault in Switzerland. Collins claimed to not know though he remembered everything else about the aftermath of that game and an experience he said was “burned in (his) brain.”
He also told us that he will never vote to accept the medal. Not ever. In fact, Collins said, his Olympic teammate Kenny Davis has it written into his will that his children cannot claim the medal after his death. Silver? No thanks.
“I got a tape of the last minute; I watched it over and over,” he was quoted as saying. “The world wasn’t a fairy tale, after all. You know what it did? It prepared me for the NBA, where your heart gets broken every other day. It prepared me for life.”
There is talk of potentially awarding duel gold medals for the 1972 finalists in a manner like in the 2002 ice skating controversy, but that’s just talk for now. Either way, Collins has his medal… for now.
Working for NBC during the 2008 Olympics, Collins was on the sidelines calling the gold medal game between the U.S.A. and Spain, while his son Chris was part of head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s staff. During the run up to the Olympics, Collins spoke to the “Redeem Team,” specifically about what happened in 1972 before the current Olympians had been born. Actually, Chris Collins heard the story for the first time during those pre-Olympic talks, too.
But when it was all over in Beijing and the U.S.A. had reclaimed the gold medal, Collins finally felt what it was like to have it draped around his neck.
Collins’ son gave his dad the gold medal.
“He put it around my neck and said, ‘This is 36 years too late.’”