Last week, the members of the 1972 USA Olympic team got together to remember the good old days.
And most of the focus was on the game and that controversy. That was the team that lost the gold medal game to the Russians 51-50 after Russia got three attempts at a final shot. It was a controversial ending to say the least, with the officials debating whether the Russians called a time out before Doug Collins free throws that should have won the game, how much time was on the clock, and each time the referees changed their minds they allowed another last play again until the Russians made a shot. Then it ended.
Team USA did not pick up their silver medals. They still haven’t.
But that was far from the worst tragedy at the 1972 Munich games — pro-Palestinian terrorists took 11 Israeli athletes hostage and killed them at those games.
And USA center Tom Burleson was closer to it than most. He had been out sightseeing with his fiancé that day and when he tried to come back to the Olympic village his train was stopped outside and a long line formed to get back in and show ID. Burleson had seen a back way into the village before through a parking lot and decided to skip the line with a couple Italian players and sneak in through the lot. But he was stopped there by German police who had automatic rifles and were not playing around.
Steve Aschburner of NBA.com picks up the story from there, with the German police talking to 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.”
Hands to the wall, he heard the transfer begin through that garage door, the terrorists herding the hostages out of the Village. They were to be taken to Furstenfeldbruck airport by helicopter. From about 60 feet away, he glanced directly at one of the Palestinians.
“When I looked at him, the German soldier took the gun out of the small of my back and placed it in back of my head, and said ‘Face the wall!’ ” Burleson said, his voice thickening. “I still see the blemishes today in that wall. I started praying to God to allow me to get out of this situation and back to the room where I needed to be.”
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!”