What happened in 1972 to the United States’ Olympics men’s basketball team was a shame, a scandal, a ripoff and a nightmare, at least from the U.S. point of view. It was not, however, a tragedy. Not then, not now. The tragedy at those Munich Games was the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. The members of that ’72 U.S. team have carried that truth with them across 40 years, no matter how cheated they felt or how bitter their basketball memories. The tail end of the last game is notorious by now: In what otherwise would have been a 50-49 victory for the championship, a team from the Soviet Union was allowed to try once, twice, three times on a final possession.
Tom Burleson Rumors
Near the end of a news conference, almost as an afterthought, Reed asked Tom Burleson, the 7-foot-2 center, to relate his brush with the terrorists. The youngest member of the ’72 squad came the closest to the politics and horrors that crowded out athletics from that Olympics. Burleson had spent the day — Sept. 5, 1972 — acting the tourist in Munich with his fiancée. They visited cathedrals and the Black Forest and even stopped at a McDonald’s. Then he rode the train back to the Olympic Village — and was surprised when it stopped short of the station. The passengers were ordered off outside the security barricades around the athletes’ temporary residences. From a car at the end of the train, Burleson sensed a long wait checking through the gate, with dozens or hundreds of people required to produce three forms of identification. Across a parking lot, he spotted a garage-door opening he and others had slipped through in the Games’ earlier, calmer days. So he beckoned to two Italian players to follow him out the back. They cut across the parking lot.
Said Burleson: “He said, ‘Son, you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. We’re in the process of bringing hostages out right now. I’ve got to have you stand against that wall, face it, put your hands on it, and let us bring the hostages out.’ “I thought, ‘Oh man,'” Burleson said. “As I looked to my left, the two Italian players were on the ground with guns to their backs. I had a rifle in my back.”
Then Burleson heard the shuffling of the hostages feet as they were brought out. “And I could hear them crying. I could … hear … them … crying!” At this point, four decades later, a 20-year-old kid turned 60-year-old man began to sob. He leaned back and tried to breathe. He bent forward, burying his face in his hands, his back and shoulders heaving. Jim Brewer, to Burleson’s left, placed a hand on the big man’s back, then his knee. “They didn’t want to die,” Burleson said in gulps. “They didn’t want … to DIE!”