By Joseph Santoliquito
New York, NY (CBS) — You get the sense that even today Mike Bantom can feel the tingle through his body all the way up to the tip of his left index finger thrust into the air that night, September 10, 1972 at the Rudi-Sedlmayer-Halle in Munich, Germany.
Engulfed in a crowd that spilled onto the court, Bantom, as did the rest of the youthful United States basketball team, thought they had just beaten the Soviet Union in the gold medal game of the ’72 Olympics.
Who knew the moment and the iconic image of Bantom holding up the No. 1 amid joyous Americans reveling in the moment would be zapped away just like that.
To this day, 40 years ago at the 2012 Olympics, it’s a bitter, galling feeling that will never completely rinse away. Bantom, a star at St. Joseph’s and hoop legend at Roman Catholic before that, still gets asked frequently about the most controversial finish in Olympic history.
The Soviets didn’t get one, or two but three chances to overcome a 50-49 United States lead on a pair of free throws by Doug Collins with three seconds left in the game. After Collins made the second free throw, the Soviets claimed they called a timeout that wasn’t seen by officials.
Play continued and the Soviets never got a shot off. End of story, right?
Well, not exactly.
That’s when William Jones, the secretary general of FIBA at the time, came out of the stands and put three seconds back on the clock and granted the Soviets another chance. When the second chance was botched by a clock malfunction (the final horn sounded after a second elapsed, causing the U.S. to think they won—again), Jones intervened and ordered three seconds back on the clock again.
Officials cleared the court, and for a third time, the Soviets were given another chance. This time, Ivan Edeshko threw a length-of-the-court pass to Aleksandr Belov, who caught the ball between Americans Kevin Joyce and Jim Forbes, and laid it up for the winning basket and a 51-50 victory.
It marked the first time in Olympic history the U.S. mens’ team lost in basketball.
But did it really?
As a protest, the U.S. ’72 team became the first-ever to refuse their Olympic medals and did not show up to the medal ceremony the next day. Forty years later, they’re still not interested in accepting the silver medal.
“I’m not accepting that silver medal; I know we won the gold medal,” Bantom maintains today. “We felt we had been robbed and what happened was so unacceptable all of us decided not to accept the silver medal. To this day, I still don’t have that silver medal. There have been numerous attempts to ask us to accept the medal and we’ve always said no. There’s no way I’d accept it today.
“I do feel we were cheated—there’s no question that we were. Originally, there was some confusion as to what went on—but the second time when the clock wasn’t ready, and you have all of those administrative errors occurring, it makes you think. The fact that Bill Jones told them to do this, and afterward it was clear cut the rules that they acknowledged were violated. It allowed them to win the game. I don’t think they intended to fix the game. They had an opportunity to fix it, and they did. There was a cold war thing that was very prevalent during that time. We had never lost a game in the Olympics and they had a chance where they could stick it to us and they took advantage of it.”
A U.S. protest was voted down 3-2, along communist-bloc country lines and the 12 members of the team have yet to receive those medals. That, in itself, seems like a medal Bantom and Collins, and the rest of the ’72 team, feel proud of.
Other than that night in ’72, Bantom has had a life enriched by basketball.
Today, he lives in New York and has been working for the NBA as senior vice president of player development for over 10 years. He’s in the Big Five Hall of Fame, was coached by the legendary Jack McKinney as a Hawk, when Jimmy Lynam was an assistant coach, and was on Speedy Morris’ first Catholic League championship team at Roman Catholic in 1969.
Bantom graduated from St. Joe’s in 1973, was the eighth pick overall by the Phoenix Suns in the 1973 draft and went on to have a 10-year NBA career finishing with the hometown 76ers in 1982.
antom says there’s no residue of bitterness over what happened in Munich. This month in Kentucky, Bantom and the rest of the 1972 Olympic team are scheduled to come together for the first time since that memorable night.
But he did say the experience gave him perspective as to how the real world sometimes works.
“I’ve said this a number of times and I truly believe it, if that’s the worst that happens to me where I get cheated out of a basketball game, I’ve lived a blessed life,” Bantom said. “Remember, the Israeli athletes that lost their lives a week before all of that happened to us. Now that’s tragic and sad, and far, far worse that made our circumstances very trivial in my mind. Those were family members lost forever—and for what?
“I’m okay with what happened in ’72—in principle, it pissed me off but we’ve all been able to move on and celebrate and enjoy life. I think the thing I learned as 18, 19-year old kids is that life isn’t always fair. It was the first time something unjust was done to me personally, and no one was going to fix it. You look around for some help, who could you tell? Ideally, things don’t happen like that. You put in all of the hard work, and you do all of the right things, and someone reverses it on you? It’s the first time I ever had my heart broken.”