Despite his team’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets is being hailed as the greatest basketball player in the world. The title of greatest player will always be a matter of debate, like the question of the greatest basketball play of all time.
Candidates could include LeBron James’ block on Andre Iguodala in the 2015 NBA finals, Larry Bird’s steal and pass to Dennis Johnson in the 1987 playoffs, or any number of plays by Michael Jordan. When considering the greatest-play prospects, along with the greatest-ever sports rip-offs, however, Americans should not overlook the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
Mike Bantam, Jim Brewer, Tom Burleson, Doug Collins, Kenny Davis, James Forbes, Tom Henderson, Bobby Jones, Dwight Jones, Kevin Joyce, Tom McMillen, and Ed Ratleff formed the youngest team the United States had ever fielded. This pickup squad of collegians faced a more experienced Soviet squad—for all practical purposes, a professional team.
The Soviets led most of the way. But in the closing seconds, with the USA behind 49-48, Illinois State’s Doug Collins picked off a Soviet pass and drove for a layup. Soviet player Zurab Sakandelidze rammed Collins into the basket stand, like something out of NASCAR or mixed martial arts. Collins collapsed to the floor and teammates wondered if he would get up.
After some tense moments, the battered Collins arose, stepped to the line, and drained both free throws, to put the USA up 50-49. The Soviets failed to score during the final three seconds and the buzzer sounded to end the game. Team USA had won the gold and maintained their perfect Olympic record.
As the Americans celebrated, Renato William Jones, Secretary General of FIBA, the international basketball organization and a friend of the Soviet Union, came out of the stands and ordered the officials to put three seconds back on the clock. Jones had no authority to make such a demand but the Olympic officials duly complied. They put time back on the clock not once, not twice, but three times. The third time the Soviets scored a basket and an Olympic panel voted 3-2 to give the Soviets the win.
The Americans decided not to show up for the silver because they had won the gold fair and square, on the court. Jones wanted the Soviet team to win, which he confirmed with his post-game statement: “The Americans have to learn how to lose, even when they think they are right.” So the Americans were not only ripped off but taunted, too.
In 1976, with the Olympic games in Montreal, Canada, the president of the United States had a case to tell the Olympic committee: “Our guys get their gold or we don’t show up.” Trouble was, President Gerald Ford was afraid to challenge the Soviet Union. Indeed, that year Ford went on record that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” perhaps the stupidest presidential statement of all time.
In 1980, after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter held back American athletes from the Moscow Olympics but did nothing for the 1972 basketball team. Neither have other presidents, even though the case for the restoration of their gold medals has only grown stronger.
In January of 2017, the International Olympic Committee found that in 2008 Jamaican sprinter Nesta Carter, teammate of Usain Bolt, had violated anti-doping rules. Therefore, the entire Jamaican 4×100-meter relay team would have to return their gold medals, which now belong to the team from Trinidad.
President Trump had a shot at restoring the Americans’ gold but the pandemic bumped the Olympics to 2021. The addled Joe Biden has shown no support for the 1972 Olympians, but they may have another chance for a put-back.
Renato William Jones somehow made it into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Players should propose that he be ejected. That would ignite a debate that could lead to restoration of the Americans’ gold medals. What happened in Munich should not stay in Munich. Not so for another event from those games.
On September 5, 1972, Palestinian terrorists of the Black September faction, disguised as athletes, forced their way into the quarters of the Israeli Olympic team. They kidnapped and murdered 11 Israeli athletes, including weightlifter Yossef Romano. The terrorists castrated Romano, a mutilation not revealed until 2015.
The next year, Israeli commandos killed Muhammad Abu Youssef al-Najjar, mastermind of the Munich operation. His son Yasser al-Najjar became a fugitive, and in one account came to the United States, though documentation of his arrival is hard to find. When National Public Radio profiled him in 2003, Yasser al-Najjar was an official of the Palestinian Authority living in Gaza.
In 2012, a man named Ammar Campa-Najjar worked in the Obama Administration, which failed to reveal that Ammar was in fact the grandson of Muhammad Abu Youssef al-Najjar. That reality emerged in a February 2018, Haaretz report headlined “Grandson of Munich Massacre Terrorist Is Running for Congress.” The revelation was not in Ammar Campa-Najjar’s campaign materials, which said only that he was “the son of a Mexican American mother and a Middle Eastern immigrant father.”
Ammar Campa-Najjar lost to Duncan Hunter in 2018 and Darrell Issa in 2020, but the “Latino Arab-American” will doubtless try again in 2022. When it comes to Munich, one might say, what goes around comes around.