Tommy Burleson and the tragedy-filled 1972 Olympics
To this day, talking about his experiences at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, West Germany, is an emotional catharsis for former NC State basketball All-America center Tommy Burleson.
It has nothing to do with the silver medals he and his Team USA teammates refused to accept.
It has everything to do with what Burleson saw, heard and felt while standing against the back wall of the Olympic Village of the terrorist-interrupted Games, with a German soldier holding a gun at the base of his neck.
Burleson and two Italian basketball players were trying to go through the back entrance of the Olympic Village, just a few hours after two Israeli athletes were killed and nine others were taken hostage by Black September terrorists in the dormitory-style apartments.
The entire village was on lock-down and the line at the front gate was about 300 people long. Burleson and the other basketball players thought they had found an alternate way in.
Gun-wielding West German military police had other ideas. They forced the two Italians to lay prone on the ground and had Burleson face the wall that divided the village from the outside world.
Even now, when Burleson closes his eyes, he can remember the individual blemishes in the wall, red lights flashing and a green helicopter waiting.
What he remembers even more, though, are the sounds that followed: The shuffling feet of the Israeli athletes who were being shepherded at gunpoint through the back gate. The muffled sobbing of those who had just witnessed two of their teammates murdered. The terse orders given by the terrorists, all of which echoed off the wall he was facing, while they marched to a helicopter that would take them all to a nearby military base.
“I was scared for my life,” said Burleson, who had just completed his sophomore season at NC State and earned a spot as a collegian on the Olympics team when UCLA’s Bill Walton refused to participate in head coach Henry Iba’s tryouts. “All I could do was pray.”
Forty-five minutes later, all of the Israeli athletes, five of the terrorists and a West German policeman were all killed by gunfire in a botched rescue attempt, the deadliest day in Olympics history.
Burleson has told this story only a few times, once in a book about NC State basketball, and again at the 40th anniversary of the Pack’s 1974 National Championship with his teammates in Lexington, Kentucky. Every time he does, he breaks into gut-wrenching sobs.
“They were going to die,” he recalled. “They knew they were going to die. I still hear them crying as they walked toward the helicopter.”
What followed over the next four days — as events were canceled and the innocence of the Olympics was laid to rest with the Israeli athletes — hardly compares to what happened to the U.S. men’s basketball team, for which Burleson was a reserve center.
It is, however, a lasting memory of the Games, in which two cold-warring superpowers sought to resolve their political differences through athletic competition. It hardly worked.
The U.S. team, which had never failed to win the Olympics gold medal in men’s basketball and owned a 63-game winning streak, advanced to the title game. So did the Soviets.
With only three seconds left in a close game, the Americans took a 50-49 lead on a pair of Doug Collins free throws.
That’s when the situation devolved into a spy-novel territory. The Soviets claimed they called an electronic timeout, which was allowed at that time, before Collins’ first free throw. The Soviets missed a first game-winning attempt, but were given a mulligan by game officials and FIBA executive secretary R. William Jones. On the second attempt, the Soviets illegally substituted players, missed the game-winning shot and were given yet another chance to resolve the illegal substitution.
On the third play, U.S. player Tom McMillen was forced to back away from the inbound passer, who threw the ball the length of the court to Alexander Belov. The Russian made the shot to give the Soviets a forever-contested 51-50 victory.
The furious Americans refused to accept their silver medals, which are still locked in a sealed vault in Switzerland. Several players on the team have put into their wills that they families can never accept those medals on their behalf.
Burleson had further reason to be upset. Unknown to him before the final game, he was suspended from play by Iba for showing his fiancée the view from the balcony of his Olympic dorm room, a violation of Iba’s team rules.
Burleson thought he had convinced assistant coach John Bach to forget about the incident, because other players had invited female family members into the co-ed dorm.
In the final seconds of the gold-medal game, Burleson begged to go in and defend the Soviet inbounder, but Iba waved him off.
“You’ve been benched,” the coach said.
Watch the furious aftermath of the game, and Burleson can be seen, arms folded, walking off the court.
“I got over the game pretty quickly,” Burleson noted. "I was more upset that I wasn't allowed to play in the gold medal game.”
And as upset as the American team has always been about that game nearly 50 years ago, Burleson is still able to keep his emotions about that part of his Olympic experience in check. In the end, it was just a game, even if it did end the U.S. dynasty in the sport.
“The true tragedy was that 11 Israeli coaches and athletes went back to their homes in caskets and boxes,” said Burleson.
Tim Peeler is a regular contributor to The Wolfpacker and can be reached at email@example.com.