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Tom Burleson and the 1972 Munich Olympics

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The News and Observer ran a story today detailing the 1972 Olympic Basketball Team in honor of the unit's reunion at Georgetown College in Kentucky. Particularly central to their story is Tom Burleson, the towering 7 and a half foot tall center for the American team that year and Wolfpack hoops legend. The story narrates the setting of the Munich games, and discusses in brief the shock and disbelief the world felt at the result of the gold medal match that year between the Soviet Union and the United States in basketball (if you don't know what I'm talking about, jump below and watch the embedded video). Even more remarkable, however, is the tale Burleson tells to the N and O about his experiences with the OTHER tragedy at the Munich 1972 games - the Israeli athlete hostage crisis. Incredibly, it seems Burleson unknowingly walked into the middle of one of the most tense moments of the crisis - while returning to his quarters, Burleson attempted to enter through the garage of the team's dorm. When he did, he came across a German commando:

"Young man," he said in English, "you are in the wrong place. They are getting ready to bring the hostages out and you are right in the middle of it. So stand there and face the wall and put your hands on the wall."

Burleson told the authors he still has nightmares about what happened next.

"I was right inside the garage door," he said in the book. "I can still see the blemishes in the concrete in that wall. He (the guard) put his gun in my back. The leader of the terrorists stepped around the corner and I can see him in the corner of my eye. The German soldier takes the gun from my back to my head and says, 'Face the wall and don't move.'

"I am now frozen against the wall and praying for my life when I should have been praying for the hostages' lives. As they brought the hostages behind me, I couldn't see them, but I could hear the emotion of the Israeli athletes, crying and their feet shuffling."

After the hostages were put on a helicopter to take the terrorists to the airport, Burleson was released by the German commando. Less than an hour later, German forces attempted a rescue. A terrorist threw a hand grenade into the helicopter. None of the Israelis survived.

Unbelievably, Burleson was not done facing tragedy in Munich. That night, he invited his fiancee to his room, something that he said was done by all the other athletes and didn't occur to him as wrong. USA coach Henry Iba thought differently, and decided that Burleson's punishment would be to sit out the gold medal game. The Soviet Union emphasized size and a slow-down game over skill, meaning that as the game came down to its final three seconds (as it did three seperate times), the US did not have a player on the floor capable of matching up with the tall Soviet players.

"You can look at the tapes and see me begging coach Iba to let me in the game," Burleson told the authors. "A year later, I was playing on another international team and ran into the Soviet coach (Vladimir Kondrashin). He asked me why I didn't play in the gold-medal game. When I told him, he couldn't believe it. He told me he would have found another way to punish me - make me run or something. But he never would have held me out of that game."

As the 12 players from the '72 team reunite for the first time, for most the memories will be bittersweet. The US went from winning the gold twice in a row, or so they thought, to having their hopes crushed, in a series of events that was at the very least suspicious and at worst blatantly biased enough to make a Tar Heel proud. But for Tom Burleson, the memory of the gold medal match is not the most haunting of the Munich Olympics.

"I was the last athlete the Israelis had contact with, about 45 minutes before they died," he said in the book. I didn't share that story with very many people at the Olympics because I was afraid they would send me home. That whole scenario gives me nightmares."

1972 Olimpic Gold Medal Basketball Issues and What happened to the Medals (via happydog500)