Tom McMillen recalls terror of Munich in 1972 through recent events
An 18-year-old gunman opened fire in downtown Munich last Friday, a tragic mass shooting that claimed the lives of nine innocent bystanders and left 35 more injured.
The German shopping mall where the attack took place is located in part of the former Olympic Village used at the 1972 Games, and for Tom McMillen, a former Congressman and a member of the U.S. basketball team in ’72, the proximity brought back memories of one of the most harrowing days of his life.
"All these terrorist events bring back 1972," McMillen told FOX Sports Tuesday, referencing the the events of Sept. 5, 1972, when 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and later killed by a group of Palestinian terrorists. "Because Munich was really, in many ways, the start of modern terrorism, where terrorism really started changing events around the world.
All these terrorist events bring back 1972.
"It’s something that, having been there sort of at the beginning, when you were 20 years old — when you still see the tragic consequences of it 44 years later, it’s pretty sobering."
At the time of the 1972 massacre, McMillen and the U.S. team had just finished a perfect run through group play and were awaiting a semifinal matchup with Italy, scheduled for Sept. 7. McMillen and his teammates awoke to the news that the the Israelis — six coaches and five athletes — had been kidnapped during an early-morning raid by a terrorist group called Black September.
Throughout the day, McMillen followed along, meanwhile ABC’s Jim McKay reported back to the States live from Munich. And initially, McMillen said, the American players feared for their own safety.
"We quickly, obviously, heard that terrorists had stormed the village, but there were a lot of false rumors like bombs being planted and all that kind of stuff," McMillen said. "And you could literally walk over and see where the hooded terrorists were on the balcony. It was literally from dusk to dark, that whole day just transfixed the world."
By the early morning hours of Sept. 6, 1972, all 11 hostages had been killed, in addition to a West German police officer. Five of the eight Black September members had also been killed, with the other three captured by police, but it did little to quell the nerves of the athletes, who still had competition ahead.
"I remember not understanding," McMillen said. "It was all so novel, and when you went by a garbage can, you thought of a bomb. … It was a surreal atmosphere, but we had to continue to play basketball because our world final game was five days later. We had to go practice, and there were talks about whether the games would even continue at all. It was a pretty tumultuous period."
Two days after the murders — and after a large memorial service at the Olympic stadium — the U.S. cruised to a 68-38 win over Italy to advance to the gold-medal game. But even as the Americans prepared to face the Soviet Union, the uneasiness over the week’s events persisted.
"The couple days in practice, it weighed down on us, but eventually we had to get back to the task at hand, which was to continue the legacy of the United States’ gold medal tenure," McMillen said. "We couldn’t forget about it, so obviously we had to sublimate it to what we were trying to do."
The U.S. wound up suffering its first Olympic defeat — one of five to this day — a highly controversial 51-50 loss to the Soviets. The hostage situation made a lasting impact on McMillen, who said he returned to the States knowing what he’d witnessed would change the world.
"You look at 1972 and 9/11, and those were kind of seminal events that really changed, literally, how we live our lives, whether it’s going through an airport or going to a sporting event," McMillen said. "And to be there, and to be part of it — when I came home from those games I was very shocked by it all. I went over there very idealistic about the Olympics, so it was a very sobering experience."
Upon returning from Munich, the 6-foot-11 McMillen finished his career at Maryland and was later selected ninth overall in the 1974 NBA Draft. McMillen then spent 11 years in the league before retiring to pursue a political career, and in 1986 he was elected to Congress as a Democrat out of Maryland’s fourth district.
McMillen went on to serve three terms in the U.S. House, and over the years witnessed the way terrorism continued to change the world around us. And while there are no known threats on the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, it’s a given that the area will be on high alert — something that couldn’t be said for the unsuspecting Olympic Village in 1972.
"The security was so light — probably all of the security in Munich (cost) a million dollars, and London, itself, was a billion (in 2012)," McMillen said. "The consequences of Munich really transformed the Olympic games to where they’re armed villages now.
"But to think that almost the whole (Israeli) Olympic team was wiped out, it was incalculable," McMillen added. "It’s hard to even fathom it. It was such a surprise that, even 44 years later, it’s hard to comprehend."
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.