PAINT LICK, Ky. (AP) — Kenny Davis attends about 15 Berea College basketball games a year. He goes to Madison Southern High School games, too, and this year, he’s planning to watch some Eastern Kentucky women’s basketball; a longtime friend was recently hired as coach.
Each time the 72-year-old Kentucky native attends a game, he hears the National Anthem, and each time he’s taken back to a troubling memory, to a time when he’d expected to hear it, and he didn’t.
Davis was the captain of the 1972 United States men’s basketball Olympic team, and he and his teammates faced the Soviet Union in the gold medal game that year in Munich, Germany. The Americans came from behind against their rival to take a 1-point lead with three seconds remaining.
But then came a frenzied few minutes of bedlam and accusation.
The final horn sounded twice over the course of 90 seconds: the first time resulting in the Americans celebrating their ostensible victory, and the second instance, after time was re-added to the game clock, resulting in the Soviet Union being declared champions and gold medalists — finally and decisively. The U.S. team, feeling stunned and cheated, immediately agreed it would not accept its silver medal.
“It’s the most controversial finish in the history of sports,” said David A. F. Sweet, author of “Three Seconds in Munich.”
Davis, who now lives in Paint Lick, Kentucky, near Berea, has drawers and drawers full of mementos from his playing days, but he, like the rest of the team, has, to this day, never accepted the silver medal.
He has it written into his will that his children cannot accept it, either.
“What we did is, we won the gold,” Davis said this week from his home, “and if we don’t get the gold, then I definitely don’t want the silver.”
Davis was the state of Kentucky’s leading high school scorer in 1966 at Wayne County High School and went on to be a 3-time NAIA All-American at Georgetown College. He’d already represented the U.S. on the international stage in 1969, 1970 and 1971 when, in 1972, he made the Olympic team as the Americans looked to continue a lengthy winning streak: since basketball was introduced at the 1936 Olympics, the U.S. had not only won each gold medal, it had never lost a single game.
The Olympic team went through intense practices — so grueling that the team’s top player quit — at a camp in Pearl Harbor, traveled to Washington D.C., where it met President Richard Nixon, and then flew to Munich and began to skate through the competition, beating Japan 99-33 in one game.
After a couple of weeks, the Games were halted, however, by the deadliest event in Olympic history.
A Palestinian terror group, Black September, broke into the Olympic Village in the early morning of September 5, 1972, taking several Israeli Olympians hostage and killing two in the process. A standoff ensued, and the terrorists made demands for Palestinian prisoners to be released.
During this time, Davis and his teammates were roughly 40 yards away across a courtyard, and he remembers seeing terrorists, donning ski masks and automatic weapons, occasionally grabbing a hostage by the hair and thrusting his face out of the window.
The attack ended tragically less than 24 hours later, when, during a failed attempt to rescue the hostages, all were killed. In the end, the fatalities included five Black September members, a German police officer, and 11 Israeli Olympians. “Suddenly Olympic medals no longer seemed important,” a front-page Courier Journal headline read the next day.
When Davis speaks today, he notes the similarities between himself and the Israeli athletes: they ate and lived in the same facilities, were nearly the same age, and had the same Olympic goals. He notes that, probably the “most important thing in their life was to win a gold medal,” and that all changed in an instant.
“It’s hard to imagine,” he says of the terror.
It was a traumatic, heinous event, and the Games were suspended.
“If they had asked us, ‘Do you want to go home now and forget this whole thing?’ I think everybody on our team would’ve said, ‘Yes, let’s go,’” Davis said. “But looking back on it, I think they did the right thing. If they had completely stopped it, I think it would’ve given credit to what those terrorists wanted to do in the first place.”
The U.S. returned to play, easily topping Italy in the semis which set up the gold medal match against the Soviet Union — the Cold War on the court.
The Soviet Union had also gone undefeated in Olympic play up to that point, and it led the U.S. throughout the final game, until, with three seconds left, Doug Collins hit two free throws to give the U.S. a 50-49 advantage. The Soviets then quickly inbounded the ball, but gameplay was stopped as a Soviet coach asked a referee for a timeout, which, under international rules, could not legally be taken during a live-ball situation.
The referees spoke to the coach and were also addressed by the longtime head of the International Basketball Federation — a man named R. Williams Jones, who had approached the court from the stands — and they then returned the ball to the baseline, where the Soviets once again inbounded the ball. Time ticked off the clock, the final horn sounded, and an ABC broadcaster said, “It’s all over!” as U.S. players streamed onto the floor in a mess of jubilancy.
They’d won the gold medal, continuing the U.S.’s decadeslong dominance.
“At that point, we knew it was over,” Davis said. “There was no way that it wasn’t over. According to the rules, there was no way it was not over.”
But as the players hugged and waved towels, Jones once again spoke to referees and scorers and demanded they add more time to the clock, saying that it had been improperly set — a decision he later said was the right one, but admitted he had no authority to make.
Sweet, the author, equates what Jones did to a commissioner in modern-day pro sports, like the NBA’s Adam Silver, dictating refereeing and clock-keeping mid-game.
“What if Adam Silver kept coming down from the stands and putting time on the clock so one of the teams could win?” Sweet asks.
The American celebration was subsequently quelled, and there was brief talk among the U.S. team to walk off the court. Fearing a forfeit, however, they ignored that idea and, just as quickly as the game was seemingly won, it was resumed.
“So for the third time since Doug made the free throws,” Davis recalled, “the Russian players were again bringing the ball in bounds.”
This time, Soviet star Alexander Belov caught a full-length pass. And as two American defenders fell beside him, he laid the ball up easily for the game-winning basket as time expired.
The Soviets had won. For the first time ever, the U.S. had, at least officially, lost an Olympic basketball game. A streak of 63-straight Olympic victories was snapped.
“We had gone from the height of the world to, all of a sudden, depression,” Davis said.
Jones, an Englishman who died in 1981, had been the most influential force in international basketball for decades, and in the 1950s famed American basketball coach Phog Allen penned a letter warning that Jones was too friendly with the Soviet Union, and perhaps even venal. Sweet hypothesized that Jones may have hoped the Soviet Union would win, motivated by the prospect of the positive impact that a fresh champion could have on the sport internationally.
Afterwards, Jones said, “The Americans have to learn how to lose, even when they think they are right.”
In the moments following the game, the Americans decided they would refuse to accept their silver medals because Jones had misused his authority. They filed a protest, but within 14 hours, a jury of five officials — which Sweet likened to a “kangaroo court” — had thrown out their protest, and the Soviet Union was upheld as gold medalists.
The Americans never heard their National Anthem.
The U.S. team learned of its fate when Davis was handed a piece of paper with a message that began, “Russia was officially named Olympic basketball champion.” As captain, Davis had to relay the news to his teammates. In his Kentucky home today, among his many keepsakes from his time playing abroad in 26 countries and with the Marathon AAU team, Davis still holds onto that piece of paper, a haunting memory.
Shortly after the official decision, American guard Kevin Joyce said he would “never accept the silver medal” and center Tom Burleson said, “It’s a crime, just a crime.” The team’s coach, Hank Iba, called it a “robbery” and said, “I’ve never seen anything like that in athletics.”
When Collins, now a broadcaster and former NBA coach, sees an Olympic medal ceremony, he thinks of the 1972 game when his free throws nearly sealed victory.
“It’s the moment that I feel was stolen from us,” he told ESPN in 2012.
Jeremy Kraft, the director of acquisitions and authentication at Hunt Auctions, estimates that were one of those silver medals accepted and put up for auction, it would likely draw between $40,000 and $60,000, and perhaps as much as $75,000.
To this day, the 12 members of that team remain the only Olympians to have refused their medals.
Nowadays, Davis enjoys retirement and his rural home surrounded by 175 serene acres. He plays tennis and is an avid biker, cycling 5,000 miles a year. He’s an elder at Berea Christian Church, too, and a trustee at Georgetown College, he says, proudly wearing a Georgetown polo. He’s been inducted into numerous halls of fame (last year, it was the Small College Basketball National Hall of Fame) and estimates he’s given over 1,000 speeches, including one this week.
The hostage tragedy and the gold medal game’s controversial conclusion stand out, but Davis still has fond memories of the summer of 1972, like meeting famed runner Steve Prefontaine and riding the elevator a dozen times with record-breaking swimmer Mark Spitz, without realizing it was him.
He smiles when discussing the opening ceremonies. The athletes were lined up by height, meaning the 5-foot-11 Davis was separated from the rest of the basketball players, but as they began to walk into the ceremony, he slipped backwards in line to join his team.
“That was special to me,” he said. “I didn’t want to be with the swimmers. I mean, they’re okay, Mark Spitz was fine, but I wanted to be back with my teammates.”
He shows off the Olympic torch that he carried in 1996, when the Games were in Atlanta, and the scrapbooks full of photos and article cutouts from his basketball career, his time working for Converse, and of the 1972 Olympic team’s 40th anniversary when, in 2012, each member of the team visited central Kentucky for a reunion. Alongside Kentucky sports journalist Billy Reed, Davis — still playing the role of pseudo-captain — organized the event. It was the first time each of the players were together since departing Munich.
Davis is working on plans for the 50th anniversary next year, too, and there’s an effort to have the real, rejected silver medals from 1972 on display, too.
“I don’t know if that will happen or not,” he said.
Davis still feels that he had an accomplishment stolen from him — that, through an abuse of power, the gold medal was cheated from him and his teammates. It can still be bothersome, and he’s reminded of it whenever he hears the National Anthem.
But while he left Munich with indignation, he also left with sobering perspective.
“Every time I think about it, I think about those Israeli athletes,” Davis said, sitting in the home he’s lived in for more than four decades with his wife, surrounded by a lush garden, memory-filled souvenirs, and portraits of his adult children. “We came home. ... They didn’t make it.”