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U.S. silver medals still sit unclaimed 25 years after loss

He was a little groggy. His wrist hurt, too. Yet Doug Collins' pain, with three seconds left in the basketball final at the Munich Olympics, was nothing compared with what he and his teammates were about to experience.

There was a Cold War, an Iron Curtain and a Berlin Wall. There was a war in Vietnam and unrest on campuses across the United States.And even as Collins tried to clear his head at the free-throw line, mourners gathered outside the Olympic village apartment house that Arab terrorists had stormed days earlier. In all, 11 Israeli athletes, five attackers and a German police officer were killed.

"There was so much political significance to those Olympics," says Collins, now coach of the Detroit Pistons. "It was a lot more than just a basketball game."

The Soviet and U.S. teams both were 8-0 heading into what would become one of the most controversial games in international sports history, on Sept. 10, 1972.

A game seemingly won by the United States, after Collins hit two foul shots for a 50-49 lead, ended in a Soviet victory when officials twice made the teams replay the final three seconds. A full-court pass and a layup gave the Soviets the gold medal.

"We felt like we were robbed," Bobby Jones says, using a phrase the U.S. players have repeated for 25 years. "It was kind of a shock, really. We were kind of young. We had never experienced anything like that."

While it ended U.S. dominance of Olympic basketball, the loss was the first step toward allowing the best athletes - amateur or professional - into the world's biggest sports event.

The 1972 U.S. team may have been young, but it also had talent. Most were 20 and Kenny Davis, an AAU player from the Marathon Oil team, was the oldest at 23. The youngest Soviet was 21 and most were veteran Red Army players.

A U.S. men's team had never lost an Olympic basketball game; the winning streak was at 62. Still, it was clear from the outset that the Soviets would not be pushovers. They started the game with a 7-0 run and led 26-21 at halftime.

"It was a dream come true, just to make the team," says Tom Burleson, a center from North Carolina State.

"It was really something to play for your country, especially at that time," says Burleson, now a businessman in his hometown in Newland, N.C. "Communism was in full swing. It was us against them."

And that battle got ugly with 12:18 left in the game.

Dwight Jones, the U.S. team's top scorer and rebounder, got into a scuffle with Soviet reserve Dvorni Edeshko over a loose ball. Both were ejected. The Soviets held a 38-34 lead.

On the ensuing jump ball, Jim Brewer, a powerful forward from Minnesota, was knocked to the floor and left the game with a concussion.

But the U.S. rallied down the stretch. Jim Forbes, a forward out of Texas-El Paso, hit a jumper with 40 seconds left to cut the Soviets' lead to 49-48.

The Soviets worked the clock down to 10 seconds, but 6-11 Tom McMillen blocked Aleksander Belov's shot and Collins intercepted a pass as Belov attempted to flip the ball back out to midcourt.

Collins, a guard out of Illinois State, drove to the basket but was undercut as he attempted a layup with three seconds left. He went down hard, slid across the hardwood and slammed his head on the basket's support. He then had to get up and shoot two foul shots.

Still, pressure seemed to be what Collins lived for. If there was one man who had to make two clutch free throws for an entire nation, almost everyone agreed they would want Collins at the line.

Collins hit the first one. The game was tied. Just as Collins was letting go of the second shot, the horn sounded. But the ball dropped through the net. The U.S. team led 50-49 with three seconds left.

Then things got crazy.

The Soviets inbounded the ball but failed to score. The U.S. players began a wild celebration, yelling and hugging.

However, one official claimed he had whistled play to stop with one second left after hearing the earlier horn and seeing a disturbance near the scorer's table.

The Soviets argued they had called a timeout before the free throws by Collins. The referees ordered three seconds put back on the clock. The game wasn't over, after all.

The referees, for whatever reason, put the ball in play as the clock was being reset. The Soviets threw a desperation full-court pass, it missed its mark and the horn sounded again. The U.S. players resumed their celebration.

Just then, William Jones, secretary general of FIBA, basketball's international governing body, came out of the stands and ordered the clock reset again. Officials put three ticks back on the clock and ordered the players back out onto the court. Yet again.

McMillen covered Ivan Edeshko as he got ready to inbound the ball. The referees ordered McMillen to back away. He did, and Edeshko threw a long pass toward Belov, who was covered by Joyce and Forbes.

Belov sent Joyce and Forbes sprawling as he caught the ball at the foul line. He then drove to the basket for an easy layup.

Final: USSR 51, USA 50.

Officials for the U.S. team filed a protest but it was rejected.

"We were denied the victory, and that just made it hard to accept," Burleson says. "Especially at that time. That was the last time for an open Olympics. After that, it was all security and politics."

The U.S. players refused to accept their silver medals, which are still locked in an International Olympic Committee vault in Switzerland. The players don't seem to miss them.

"I don't need the medal. I don't want the medal," Burleson says. "Time heals all wounds. As a Christian, I can't hold any animosity, but it still hurts."