Recalling 1972 Olympic basketball controversy

By Charlie Snyder // // Summer 2002

Mike Bantom played basketball for the United States at the 1972 Olympic Games. It was a good group of outstanding college players, 10 of the 12 would go on to be drafted in the first round into the NBA. The United States were undefeated in Olympic competition, but were up against a tough, veteran Soviet team, who were, for all-intent-and-purposes, professional basketball players in their mid-20s. Players who had played as a team for years; the Americans trained together for a few short weeks.

But all of that didn’t need to matter … the United States team was more talented than any on Earth … it would take an unusual set of circumstances to wrestle the gold from the Americans.

“Unusual” doesn’t quite cover the circumstances surrounding the ending of the championship basketball game … bizarre is a little better. Many players will not talk about the game anymore. One player has included an addendum to his will: No one in his family, including future descendents, is allowed to accept the silver medal.

What follows is a conversation with Mike Bantom, who went on to have a nice NBA career, then played pro ball in Europe and for the last several years works at the NBA as Senior Vice President of Player Development.

Following the gold medal game, in a Jury of Appeal, the Eastern Bloc countries voted for Russia and the Western nations voted for the U.S. … 

“Yeah, but it wasn’t political … it was all according to the facts. Did you see the latest documentary (HBO’s “:03 from Gold”)? They said that no way did that have anything to do with it … and I was like, ‘yeah, right.'”

… and 30 years later, there’s the figure skating scandal with the judges accused of bloc voting, so no matter how things seem to change, they don’t really change that much


I was nine-years-old when the big game was played. I remember watching it with my two brothers and how there was a lot of chaos and yelling in my living room, very similar to what I imagine you experienced.

“Well, I can understand that … that’s one of the things I’ve been telling people ever since that documentary came out. It’s funny. You sit back and you watch it and they’re telling you all the reasons why some of the things that took place in those last seconds were taking place, like the malfunctioning of the clock, the buzzer not working and all that … and it makes it somewhat more understandable, when you’re observing it from that perspective, but when we were there, nobody was giving us any of these reasons. We were just told to go back out there and play. They didn’t say because the Russian coach was trying to call time out and the buzzer didn’t work and therefore … it was just ‘Get back out there and play, get back out there and play. Give them another chance, give them another chance.’ That just added to the chaos. If there was some rational explanation going on, then maybe somebody could have understood and we might have been more prepared on that final play instead of just feeling like we were being railroaded into a ridiculous situation.

I know it’s been 30 years, but when that HBO special came out, I didn’t want to watch because I didn’t want to get all upset again, but I work at the Olympic Committee, so I had to … (Bantom laughs). My recollection didn’t include guys getting knocked out of the game early. Dwight Jones getting ejected. Jim Brewer getting knocked on his head. When that was happening, what was going through your head? Did you think it was deliberate?

“I definitely thought it was deliberate. And I couldn’t understand why Dwight and this Russian kid – who by the way had not played in any of their previous games – were getting ejected for basically just a little bit of a skirmish. They didn’t throw any punches; nobody got hit. They basically just turned and stared and woofed at each other. They got a little tangled up, but there was no real violence there. We lost our starting center and they lost an insignificant player for their team. I felt that that was unfair, that it was orchestrated.

The play with Jim was kind of a weird thing. My recollection was that as he jumped, they gave him a little nudge underneath and he flipped over and landed on his head. But the angle of the documentary from the time that they picked it up, it didn’t show that, so I’m not sure. I did feel that we were being … there were some things going on in that game that weren’t quite kosher.

Let’s just cut to the end of the game. What was it like on the floor? You’d thought you’d won twice. Just recap what your feelings were in those last minutes.

“It was really tough to decipher what was going on. After Doug (Collins) made the two free throws and they tried to inbound the ball and weren’t successful in scoring … everybody in the arena reacted as if the game was over, so people were running on the floor, people were waving flags. There was a lot of celebrating and hugging, just overall joy at having won a gold medal and a great sense of relief because we had worked so hard.

“Now on the documentary, it was clearly pointed out why they were now taking steps to have us replay those three seconds. Nobody explained it to us. They just told us to go back out there and replay the time. Our initial reaction was, ‘No way are we going to do that, why would we do something like that.’ And then basically through the threat of forfeiting the game, we went back out to do it, only because they told us if we didn’t we would lose. So without any real understanding of why and feeling like we were being unfairly treated, we went back out and replayed the last three seconds. After the second one, I mean, once again, everyone is jumping around, celebrating, happy, blah, blah, blah and we’re told to do it again. I think at that point there was a longer pause as people were trying to gain some type of understanding because I mean, right now it’s getting ridiculous. We’ve won the game twice … why do we have to replay these three seconds. I think what happened was that the Russians understood early on that they were going to be given another chance, so they were over there preparing, devising a play, setting up what they were going to do. We were still kind of disjointed, arguing. I’m at the table trying to get an understanding, even though nobody is speaking English. Other people are over there saying, ‘No way.’ I mean we were all over the place, totally oblivious to the fact that in fact we’re going to have to go back out there and play. Then, once again, through a threat of a forfeit, we go back out there and play without having prepared any defense, without having really thought about what we were going to do, how we were going to play them and then they made the long pass and scored. We went from complete elation to utter confusion, then the dejection of having them tell us we had lost the game.

About that last throw, I always wanted to ask somebody who was there, from my vantage point, it looked like, he knocked over our two players, traveled and then threw in the lay-up.

“I had fouled out of the game with a couple minutes left and I was sitting on the bench right at the free throw line, where he was positioned to receive that pass and as the pass was in the air … this is a very subtle thing, but everybody that plays basketball, especially somebody who plays underneath the basket, knows, as a guy is starting to jump, if you just give him a little nudge in the back, it throws him off balance and propels him forward. It’s exactly what happened. In American basketball, especially in the NBA, it’s the kind of a move that every referee recognizes. You can never get away with it when you push a guy in the back as he’s about to jump because it’s so obvious that it happened. That was like the last incredible thing that was happening right before my eyes. Just as our guy is about to jump to contest this pass that was coming in, Bedorov pushes him in the back, he falls to the floor, now the guy is standing there by himself about to catch the ball and I can’t believe that there’s no whistle, I can’t believe the referee isn’t seeing this and last of all, I can’t believe that he’s actually going to catch this ball and lay the ball in openingly. But all of those things happened and unfortunately, we were left to deal with the results.

What did you do that night?

“We were up all night. We were told at that point that our only recourse was to file a protest. It was a game that started at midnight and after all of the confusion and everything else, we ended somewhere at three in the morning or four in the morning. We were told that we had to present a protest before the committee at something like eight in the morning. I know none of us got any sleep. We sat up all night and waited for our moment of justice, we hoped. We went in and presented the protest and basically all of the rules that we cited were upheld as having been violated, but we were told regardless of that, we were still saddled with this loss and told to accept it.”

How did the conversation start about not taking the silver medal?

“When they came to tell us that despite the fact that our protest was justified; that the rules had been violated, the Committee ruled that we had lost the game. The medal ceremony had been put on hold because of the protest. We were told that a new medal ceremony was going to be taking place in a matter of hours at a particular location and we should go there and pick up our medals. That’s when everybody said, ‘There’s no way we’re going to pick up those medals … we didn’t lose.’ ”

Prior to the tournament, what was the discussion among the players about the hostage situation?

“I think we were all pretty saddened and pretty scared by what had happened. Our first reaction was, ‘We should get outta there and go home.’ … that we really shouldn’t be sticking there to play basketball, when people were being killed. That was our first reaction. After having our officials talk to us with everybody taking the stance that the best stance against terrorism is to show that we go on in the face of it. Ultimately we agreed that the Games were going to go on, so we should probably stay there and finish what we started. We definitely had some heavy hearts and some confused minds about what had taken place just 100 yards from us.

Apparently the leaders of the Soviet team just continued on as if it were just another day in the life of a basketball player, just continued practicing and preparing …

“We didn’t have that much contact with them and we weren’t too aware of what they were doing, but apparently, I guess because they didn’t recognize Israel as a state, that the death of those athletes didn’t mean a whole lot to them. I wasn’t that up on politics at that point in my life. I didn’t know that much about Israel as a state and the issues that they faced, but I know that they were athletes just like us in that Village.

What was the reaction to you and the outcome of the ’72 Games, when you went over to Europe to play following your NBA career?

“There were a lot of coaches in Italy who were present at the game or who had watched the game and who knew me from that particular instance. And that’s where I got some of my hindsight and insight about how things happened … I mean, the whole thing about putting in your 12th man, starting a fight and getting the guy ejected is something they say Russian teams would do regularly in international competition over there. As innocent as they tried to make it seem in the documentary, it’s a ploy that they were known for doing. And then everybody just thought that we’d got screwed.

What was your happiest moment of the ’72 Games?

“My happiest moment? My happiest moment was when the first three seconds ran out. After Doug made those free throws and they tried to inbound the ball … (I thought) just how long that road was to get there. We spent a lot of long days (in camp) in Pearl Harbor. I probably worked as hard as I’d ever worked in my life. I had never set a goal that high before. Never really knew what it would feel like to win, just knew we wanted to win. But when that horn went off and we knew that we had won and we saw all of those Americans in the stands celebrating, it was one of the greatest experiences that I ever had … I really felt proud and happy … and then to have it taken away …

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