John Brown cried first.
Before the players on the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team had their hearts broken in the controversial, jerry-rigged final seconds of the gold medal game in Munich, Brown got crushed three weeks earlier.
He would not, coach Hank Iba told him, travel overseas with the team he had made – he was a starter – for a chance to defend America's unbroken string of Olympic success. A stress fracture in his bum foot meant that 11 teammates and a called-up alternate would head to Germany for U.S. glory and the experience of a lifetime.
Brown was going home to Dixon, Mo., where his mother worked 17 years in a shoe factory, earning maybe $1 an hour, while trying to raise six kids by herself.
Glory? Gold medals? Brown wasn’t even getting the suit of clothes from Sears that all the Olympians would wear. Just like that, he was the 13th man, dropped from one of the most famous basketball teams ever.
"Not being able to go to those games is the most depressing thing athletically ... there's nothing that bothers me more than not having gone with that team," Brown said in a phone interview on the brink of the 40th anniversary – Sept. 9, 1972 – of the notorious final game against the U.S.S.R.
His voice catching some 40 years later, Brown said: "I've gone through a lot of things. But that was the toughest thing I ever went through."
In the summer of '72, John Young Brown was a 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward, competing for an Olympic berth between his junior and senior years at Missouri. He grew into basketball quickly, and as a senior at Dixon High, Brown averaged 32 points for a team that went 36-0. As a junior under Missouri coach Norm Stewart, Brown averaged 21.7 points and 10.5 rebounds while shooting 56 percent. And thanks to his familiarity with Iba from over at Oklahoma State, he got off to a great start at the Olympic trials in Colorado Springs.
"Quiet, he wasn't noisy, he didn't come in with a lot of pizzazz," Johnny Bach, an assistant coach for the U.S., remembered this week. "The team needed another player, as it turned out, who could play a little center. He had the team made."
Brown survived the cutdown after the trials. He endured three weeks of hell in the Pacific – Iba's training camp held at the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii. It truly was a military environment for the players, from the open-air barracks and bunks to the mess hall and mosquitoes. Some days, Iba would run them through three practices. Every day, they had to grind.
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On the final day of camp, in the last practice, Brown cut to the basket and turned his ankle over. It was sprained, sure, but there was something else: a stress fracture that didn't immediately reveal itself. He rested the injury as the U.S. began a series of exhibition games back on the mainland – Dayton, Louisville, Los Angeles – but even after the swelling subsided, he couldn't cut left or right.
Noted orthopedist Robert Kerlan in L.A. discovered the break. Brown, they said, would need surgery and a bone graft. His Olympic dream was over.
He was replaced on the squad by Jim Forbes, a 6-foot-7 forward from Texas El-Paso who played for Don Haskins, the other U.S. assistant, and thus was familiar with the coaches' system. According to "Taps" Gallagher and Mike Brewster, co-authors of the book "Stolen Glory" about that 1972 team, there was speculation that maybe Bill Walton – the best player in college basketball but conspicuously absent from the Olympics effort that summer – might take Brown's place. That, of course, might have changed everything.
But it never happened. And finances being what they were – or maybe it was Iba's resistance to possible distractions – Brown was not permitted to accompany the team to Munich if he couldn't compete. So the Olympic squad boarded a plane to Greensboro, N.C., for a final exhibition against the ABA All-Stars. Brown waited for a flight home, tears in his eyes.
"Making the team was the apex of my athletic life, and having to leave the team was my absolute low point," Brown recalled. "And the two things happened there within a month."
Rather than tuning out, though, or growing bitter, Brown did what he could to follow the Americans' progress in Munich. By the night of the gold medal game, he was watching with classmates in their dorm at Missouri.
"Like everybody else," Brown said, "we were celebrating after the 'first win.' And after the 'second win.' And then we were all just dumbfounded at the outcome. I went through all the emotions of it."
There is, however, a happy ending to this story. Brown's foot healed without surgery, in time for him to have a strong senior season for the Tigers (21.0 ppg, 11.0 rpg). He was selected by Atlanta in the first round of the 1973 Draft -- sixth in a cluster of seven players from that '72 team taken in the first 11 picks.
Brown made the league's all-rookie first team, then had his best NBA season a year later (11.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg and 27.2 mpg in 1974-75). He lasted seven seasons, averaging 7.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists for the Hawks, the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz. His 486 regular-season games were more than '72 Olympians Tom Burleson, Kevin Joyce (ABA), Ed Ratleff and No. 1 pick Doug Collins logged as pros.
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He played for some great NBA coaches (Hubie Brown, Larry Costello and his favorite Cotton Fitzsimmons, whose read-and-react triangle attack meshed nicely with Brown's basketball IQ and his college background with Stewart). He played alongside some terrific NBA teammates (Pete Maravich, Lou Hudson, Artis Gilmore, Reggie Theus, John Drew, Adrian Dantley among them).
He found himself in locker rooms for Atlanta with Tom McMillen, Dwight Jones and Thomas Henderson, members of the '72 team. But Brown noticed a pattern, even when they were killing idle time on road trips and his curiosity revved up.
"Those guys never would talk about those games," Brown said. "When they got back, it was almost like being wounded in battle. I don't know whether they were embarrassed because they didn't bring home the gold, or whether they were so bitter with the whole thing at the end. But I didn't really push 'em and they didn't really offer."
Brown's NBA options dried up in 1980 but he played three more years in Europe – two in Venice, one in Rome. Then he got busy developing properties back home in Missouri, something he has stuck with for 30 years. He and his wife live in Rolla, Mo., raising two daughters (Brown coaches their school teams). "Our lives are pretty simple and relatively stress-free," he said. "Life is good."
Oh, and long after creaky knees and busy schedules have sidelined most of his U.S. teammates, Brown still plays, competing in age-class tournaments nationally and globally. For instance, he has plans to head to Torino, Italy, in 2013 with a squad featuring former NBA players Mickey Johnson, John Gianelli and Bud Stallworth. McMillen said he might join them.
It was back in 1998, in a tournament in Portland for teams in the 40-plus bracket, that Brown got a measure of revenge. His squad, with former NBAers Bob Gross, Larry Steele and Greg Smith, handily beat a Russian team that included several members of the 1972 Soviet squad. Brown scored 40.
"I kinda got my little gold medal," he said. "It wasn't an Olympic gold medal, but I still have that on my wall. I cherish that."
Getting another glimpse at the dreaded Soviets gave Brown some perspective, too. "If those players would have lost that gold medal game, they might have ended up in Siberia," he said. "By 'winning,' they kept that team together and I'm sure those guys had nice houses, nice cars. It really enriched their lives greatly."
All of Brown's memories and stories rushed back when he was invited to, and attended, the 40th reunion last month in Lexington, Ky. The event was organized in part by Kenny Davis, the Georgetown (Ky.) College guard and captain of that team. Davis, Collins and several others spoke warmly of and toasted Brown, treating him very much like one of the 12.
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"Finally, 40 years later, they did share their feelings and thoughts about it all," said Brown, who smiled his way through the weekend. "About when Dwight got ejected from the [gold medal] game. Details about the end, why Tom Burleson wasn't covering the ball out of bounds, all sorts of loose ends that over the years I never had answers for. I finally was able to talk to the guys. And they opened up."
In the first gathering of the entire team since their dreary flight home from Munich, Forbes sought him out. "I never knew what to think about the guy who replaced me," Brown said, "but I gained a lot of respect for him. I didn't know if he felt guilty, but... he is a fine, fine gentleman."
Forbes may feel some kinship with Brown. Back home in Texas after the Olympics, he wrenched a knee while training. He made it through his final years at UTEP and got drafted in fourth round in 1974 by Chicago. But he never played professionally, one of just two players from that team (Davis is the other) who did not.
Forbes, incidentally, was the player trying to cope with Soviet big man Aleksandr Belov on the third and last running of the championship game's final play. Forbes got knocked to the floor by contact, giving Belov an easy layup. That came up, too, at the reunion, along with Brown's what-if thoughts.
"I viewed myself as a missing piece," he said. "I was always a good defender. Even in the pros, I guarded the Dr. J's [Julius Erving] and later, the Larry Birds and the Bob McAdoos. Really, very few guys ever went off on me.
"I sure would have covered that Belov - similar size and ruggedness. I just don't think he would have gotten (that basket). Whether I could have really made a difference, who knows? But that summer, that was some of the best I ever played."