“Three Seconds in Munich: The Controversial 1972 Olympic Basketball Final:” by David A.F. Sweet
Basketball, Summer Olympics, history
September 1, 2019
4 ½ of 5 stars (excellent)
One of the most controversial events in sports history was the ending of the gold medal game in the 1972 Summer Olympics between the United States and the Soviet Union. At that point, the U.S. had never lost a basketball game since it became an Olympic sport in 1936. In that game, Doug Collins sank two free throws to give the United States its first lead of the game at 50-49 with three seconds remaining. What followed next is the basis for this book on the crazy, controversial ending of the game, written by David A.F. Sweet.
Even though the book is primarily about the last three seconds about that game, the book starts with an even more chilling reason why the 1972 Munich Games are still seared in people’s memories nearly fifty years later. On September 5, 1972, Palestinian terrorists stormed the Olympic Village (with short chain link fencing and minimal security per Sweet) and held 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage. When an attempt to rescue the hostages at the Munich airport went bad, all 11 of them were killed. Sweet’s writing about this tragic day, and the reactions of the United States basketball players who were there to witness this makes up some of the best reading in the book, even better than some of the basketball passages.
However, those are very good in their own right. Sweet leads the reader up to that moment by recapping the first 39 minutes and 57 seconds of the game very well, up to the point Collins approaches the free throw line to take his shots. After that, he dives into all of the craziness on the floor. After Collins makes the two shots, the Soviets fail to score, giving the U.S. an apparent victory. Then, Sweet goes into excellent detail about the Soviet coaches attempting to call a time out, and the head of FIBA, the international basketball governing body, allowing the Soviets to have three seconds put back on. On this second chance, they again miss, but confusion reigns as the horn sounds and the scoreboard clock doesn’t have an accurate time since in those days, the only way to reset the clock to a time less than a minute is to set one minute, then run it down to that specified time. While this was being done for, that is when the second attempt was made.
But thanks to Dr. Jones, that head of FIBA, there is yet another chance given to the Soviet Union, which they converted after some questionable actions by the referee, such as not allowing Tom Burleson of the US to defend at the baseline to challenge the inbound pass and the apparent pushing foul before the winning shot was taken. After all of this chaos, the final score read USSR 51, USA 50. But that was far from the final word on this game. Sweet takes the reader on more twists and turns – the failed appeal by the US, the mindset of Dr. Jones and his desire to see more nations than just the United States succeed in basketball and the medal ceremony in which the US failed to appear and refused to accept the silver medal. It has been nearly 50 years since that game, and the players, to a man, still have not accepted their medals. This aftermath is also captured nicely by Sweet, especially when he wrote about the team reuniting in 2012 and confirming yet again that they will not accept that silver medal.
Whether one remembers that game vividly, as this reviewer does as a 10 year old youth basketball player, or has just heard the various stories, he or she needs to read this book to not only learn all of the head-scratching and infuriating decisions made by others affecting the outcome of this game, but also to learn a little about each member of that team, including all of the players and coach Hank Iba (who at times is unfairly blamed for the loss). A must-read for all Olympic basketball fans.
I wish to thank University of Nebraska Press for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
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