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40 Years Later, Ratleff Remembers Olympic “Victory”

Group photo of members of the 1972 Olympic basketball team include Coach John Bach, Tom Burleson, Jim Brewer, Doug Collins, Tom McMillen, Bobby Jones, John Brown, Jim Forbes, Mike Bantom, Dwight Jones, Tom Henderson, Ed Ratleff, Kevin Joyce and Kenny Davis, shown with then-Sports Illustrated reporter Billy Reed.

By Shayne Schroeder

Ed Ratleff in the 1972 Olympics gold medal game.

Ed Ratleff in the 1972 Olympics gold medal game. Photo by Rich Clarkson

When you talk to Ed Ratleff about the 1972 Olympic gold medal basketball game in Munich, Germany against the Soviet Union, he’s matter-of-fact about the outcome.

“We did win that game,” said the former Long Beach State basketball two-time All-American who was on the USA team. “We came back and won the game.”

The official results, however, say differently, showing the Soviet Union beating the United States 51-50 on a desperate basket at the final buzzer.

The saga led to a new book, Stolen Glory, by Donald Gallagher, as well as a 40-year “Courage in Munich” reunion in August at Kentucky’s Georgetown College, where all 12 U.S. team members and an assistant coach reminisced for the first time since the ’72 Olympics.

“We didn’t even know if we were going to play that [1972] game,” said Ratleff, noting that the shootings of Israeli athletes four days earlier placed a dark cloud over the entire games. “To be honest, we didn’t even care about playing, not with all the stuff that was going on. We felt badly for all the people who were killed and their families. It was really pretty sad.”

But the showdown between the Americans and Russians indeed took place. Unlike in today’s Olympics, the U.S. team was comprised of college standouts while the Russian team was a group of experienced veterans.

“They were older than us and some of them had been to three Olympics, so you know how much bigger and stronger they were,” said Ratleff. “We played right into their hands and we were down by eight points with six minutes to go. Then towards the end we started pressing them to come back and that’s how we won. We started running the ball like we should have. (Coach Hank) Iba’s style was to slow down play and pass seven or eight times before you shoot the ball. That just wasn’t the players’ style.”

U.S. guard Doug Collins stole the ball and was fouled hard in a layup, but still managed to hit two free throws to put the Americans up by a point with just three seconds to go. The Russians then inbounded the ball and missed the shot as the game clock expired. The American celebration was short-lived when the officials granted the Soviet team a time-out called after Collins made his second free throw.

“In international ball you can call time-out before you attempt a free throw, but you cannot call time-out afterward, so that was a clear violation,” said Ratleff. “Once the ball is shot, it is in play. Doug makes the two free throws, they inbound the ball and their guy shoots and misses.”

Game over and gold medal USA, right? Not quite.

“Their coach was on the floor calling time-out, which is an automatic technical foul,” added Ratleff. “The game should have been over at that point, but the officials allowed the Soviets to take the ball out for a second time. Even in that scenario they should have had just one second if they called timeout, but they put three seconds on the clock and they shot and missed it again.”

Again, the Americans thought they had won.

“Then William Jones (head of the International Basketball Federation) comes out of the stands and tells them to put time back on the clock,” continued Ratleff. “He had no business coming out. He tells Coach Iba that if we didn’t come back out on the floor we would be forfeiting the game and if we did that, the United States may not be invited back to the Olympics.”

Reluctantly, the Americans returned to the floor, giving the Soviets a third opportunity.

“They took the ball out for the third time, knocked down two of our guys and made the basket,” he said. “Of course we protested and five countries voted on the protest. Three of them were from the Soviet Union region and we lost the vote 3-2.”

At that point, team members banded together and unanimously decided not to accept their silver medals.

“It was unanimous, so when they had the medal ceremony, the podium for the silver medal team was empty,” said Ratleff. Today, the silver medals lay unclaimed in a storage room maintained for the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. “My personal feeling was that I didn’t want it, that we got cheated. But if you ask me, I’ll tell you we won the game because we did.”