DURHAM – A student of basketball and history, Chris Collins eventually learned the story of the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team and the gold medal that never came home.
He just didn’t hear about it in his own home.
Doug Collins sank two free throws to give the U.S. a one-point lead over the Soviet Union in the championship game before a strange ending, in which the final three seconds were played and replayed three times, allowed the Russians to grab the gold with a 51-50 win.
Even 40 years later, it’s the most controversial game in Olympic basketball history.
Chris Collins, a Duke assistant coach on Mike Krzyzewski’s Team USA staff in London for today’s Olympic gold-medal game with Spain, said he was 13, though, before he saw how much that loss pained his father.
“It’s not something I will go back and watch (on video),” Doug Collins said.
Instead, Chris absorbed the full meaning in a California gymnasium when, with Doug Collins coaching the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, father and son attended a summer-league basketball game in 1987.
Two players from the 1972 Soviet Union national team happened to be in attendance. They sent word through a third party that they’d like to speak with Doug.
Chris saw anger immediately fill his father.
“I have nothing to say to those guys,” Doug Collins said.
“That was the first memory I had of how much that hurt,” Chris Collins said. “That’s when I fully understood just how tough of a situation that was.”
He understood. And he also filed it away because, nearly four decades later, the chance for a bit of redemption would come his way.
Three seconds to gold
Looking back to 1972, it’s easy to see why Doug Collins’ bitterness is so deep.
A high-scoring guard from Illinois State, Collins embodied the quickness that could be found up and down the 1972 U.S. Olympic team’s roster. The Americans had never lost an Olympic basketball game prior to 1972 and Team USA rolled into the Sept. 9, 1972, final against its Cold War rivals from Russia.
The Soviet team, an average of five years older that the Americans, led the entire game and built an eight-point lead with six minutes to play.
That’s when U.S. coach Henry Iba, a Naismith Hall of Fame member, unleashed a full-court pressure defense, the Americans got more aggressive on offense, and the Soviets began to melt.
The U.S. had trimmed the deficit to one point when Collins intercepted a Russian pass with six seconds to play. Collins drove to the basket for a layup but was undercut by Russia’s Zurab Sakandelidze.
“In today’s day and age,” Chris Collins said, “it would have been an intentional foul. He flipped him.”
After hitting his head on the basket’s stanchion, Doug Collins lost consciousness for a few seconds. A suggestion was made to Iba to have someone else shoot the free throws, but Iba said “If Doug can walk, he’s shooting these two free throws.”
Groggy and barely conscious, Collins stepped to the line and made the first free throw to tie the score with three seconds left.
Then things started to get really strange.
As he began to shoot the second free throw, a buzzer sounded from the scorer’s table. Collins made the free throw, giving the U.S. its first lead at 50-49.
The Russian coaches were attempting to call a timeout by using a wire with a button that would light a lamp at the scorer’s table. Under the rules of the time, timeouts could not be called after the shooting of the second free throw.
Nevertheless, after Collins made the shot, the U.S. led by a point.
The game official under the basket signaled for play to continue. The Soviets inbounded the ball and guard Sergei Belov, with Collins guarding him, dribbled the ball in the backcourt. With the clock down to one second and Belov at the midcourt line, referee Renato Righetto of Brazil stopped play.
The Soviet coaches had gathered at the scorer’s table – with assistant coach Sergei Bashkin on the court – because their timeout had not been granted. The rules gave Righetto the right to call a technical foul on the Russians, but instead he stopped play.
That’s when William Jones, the head of FIBA (the International Federation of Basketball), came out of the stands and signaled for three seconds to be put back on the clock. Jones did so even though he had no jurisdiction because the game referees had final say in matters of time during the game.
After the USSR’s timeout, the clock operator put one minute on the clock and began running it down to get to three seconds. But with 50 seconds on the clock, the referees signaled the Russians to inbound the ball. Officials at the scorer’s table frantically waved their arms to stop play, but the Russians inbounded the ball. A three-quarters court shot fell short and the U.S. players and coaches began celebrating the apparent gold medal.
The celebration lasted about two minutes before the public-address announcer called for the court to be cleared so the three seconds could be replayed again.
Some of the American players wanted to leave the court for the locker room, but Collins said they were told that they would have forfeited had they not remained to play the three seconds again.
Tom McMillen, a center from Maryland, guarded the in-bounds pass but was told by an official to back off. Fearing a technical foul, he complied. That gave Russia’s Ivan Edeshko a clear view and he fired a full-court pass to Alexander Belov, who caught it near the basket. Two U.S. players stumbled and Belov scored the basket, giving the Soviet Union the 51-50 win.
The U.S. immediately filed two appeals to have the decisions reversed. But a five-man panel, featuring three representatives from Soviet-bloc countries, voted 3-2 to deny the Americans the next day. The three Soviet-bloc representatives, from Hungary, Cuba and Poland, voted against the U.S.
In protest, The Americans decided to not accept their silver medals at the medal ceremony. To this day, the medals sit in a Swiss vault.
An NBA career and a legacy
Doug Collins was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1973 NBA Draft by Philadelphia and made four All-Star teams. He coached the Chicago Bulls from 1986-89.
At that time, Chris Collins’ basketball career began to develop. By 1993, when his dad was a NBA broadcaster, Chris began his career as a Duke guard. He played through 1996 and became an assistant under Krzyzewski in 2001.
The lesson that Doug passed on to Chris about that fateful 1972 game is simple.
“The one thing you always say is you would like to put yourself in a position where the referees don’t have a say in who wins and loses,” said Doug Collins, now the Philadelphia 76ers coach. “Try to perform under pressure and try to be your best.”
Still, the pain from the 1972 loss stayed with Doug Collins, and Chris Collins, as evidenced by that day in the California gym, never forgot that.
“It’s a pretty big thing,” Chris Collins said. “To go through all that stuff that happened after and be robbed of that and not have that gold medal was very hurtful to him and something that our family felt for so long.”
Healing the pain
By 2008, Chris Collins joined Krzyzewski’s Team USA staff for the Beijing Olympics.
Doug Collins worked for NBC as a game analyst and would be calling the Beijing games.
In Las Vegas, Team USA gathered for training camp prior to heading to China for the Olympics.
Krzyzewski asked Doug Collins to address the team about his Olympic experience. An emotional Collins told players such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, who weren’t even born in 1972, about what happened.
“It was awesome,” Chris Collins said. “Some of them knew (about 1972) and some of them didn’t. He gave a heartfelt talk about what it means to play for the U.S. and not to take for granted these opportunities.”
Krzyzewski said the players were moved by the speech and he credits it for fueling their drive to win the gold medal, particularly after the U.S. settled for the bronze in 2004.
A few weeks later, after the U.S. beat Spain 118-107 in the gold-medal game, several American players headed to the side of the court where Doug Collins was broadcasting the game to involve him in the celebration.
“I think anytime anything happens to you that’s very painful, you carry it for a long time,” Doug Collins said. “As time goes on you learn to deal with it. I had a lot of closure in 2008.”
There was more to come, courtesy of his son.
The overdue medal
In 2009, Doug Collins was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame for his broadcasting work on TNT and NBC.
After the ceremony, the Collins family gathered at a restaurant for a private, celebratory meal.
Shortly before the Hall of Fame induction, Chris Collins received his gold medal from the 2008 Olympics. Coaches aren’t awarded official medals at the Olympics, but USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo had gold medals made for the 2008 staff.
At the dinner that night, Chris Collins arose to emotionally address the group. With tears in his eyes, saying it was 37 years too late, he gave his father his gold medal.
“That,” Chris Collins said, “is one of the proudest things that I have ever done.”
The heartfelt gesture moved Doug Collins.
“That was a very touching time,” he said.
Gold-medal time again
Today, the U.S. takes on Spain again for the gold-medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
Chris Collins is there helping Krzyzewski’s staff in what will be Krzyzewski’s final game at Team USA’s coach. Doug Collins is there broadcasting for NBC.
For the longest time, the old Jimmy Ruffin Motown song “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?” harkened Doug Collins back to 1972. It was the last song he heard prior to the 1972 gold-medal game.
“For the longest time,” Doug Collins said. “I had it as my ringtone.”
The 2008 games changed that. Today, Chris Collins could earn another gold medal of his own.
The Collins family is a little less brokenhearted.
“I viewed that song differently after they won in 2008,” Doug Collins said. “It’s funny how that changed for me.”
Read more: The Herald-Sun - Chris and Doug Collins reflect on 1972 look toward 2012 Olympic title game