Customarily, the moral comes at the end of the tale, but since I've got two morals, I'll put one here, the other at the bottom.
Moral Number 1: If someone says to you, "Hey, why don't you go learn Bulgarian," don't say, "What do I need to do that for?" Learn Bulgarian. Trust me. You never know.
I direct your attention to the photo. That's me, seated at the scorer's table, expostulating, striving to alter the course of history. Standing to my right is Hank Iba, the coach of the 1972 U.S. men's Olympic basketball team, waxing wroth. To his right is Artenik Arabadjan, a basketball official, his right hand protecting the ball—the game ball!—head inclined, hanging on my every word.
This enigmatic tableau will soon be resolved. Trust me.
Starting on page 64 of this issue is Gary Smith's article on what he calls, with considerable justice, "the worst injustice in Olympic history." This was the Soviet Union's defeat of the U.S. for the gold medal in the 1972 Games. If you haven't read his piece, what Gary did was interview all 12 members of the U.S. team. Gary didn't interview me. It would've been worth his while, for I, too, played a critical, if hitherto unrevealed and, alas, like that of the guys on the team, utterly futile role on that desolating September night 20 years ago.
In his account Gary skips from the Soviet team's postgame bacchanalia to a U.S. team meeting in the Olympic Village the next day. But it was in the interval, that obscure and critical caesura, in which the bizarre episode depicted above took place: three strangers—Rogin, Iba, Arabadjan—coming together, interrelating (kind of) and then parting, never to meet again.
There is a saying—a prohibition, really: No cheering in the press box. To explicate, or exonerate. On Sept. 10, 1972, I was in the Basketballhalle in Munich. I was there as chef de mission of the SI Olympic team, so I was only nominally a scribe, as sportswriters were widely called in my day, a more courtly time. Also, I wasn't in the press box. I was seated high in the stands, cheering loudly, fervently, patriotically and without shame. To this day, I have no idea whether there was a press box in the Basketballhalle.
Here a curtain falls, memory fails. As the Soviet revels began, I must have risen righteously from my seat as I did when I stopped a prize fight in Miami Beach, when I erupted at my stepson's high school basketball games, roaring, "On the arm! On the arm!"
Impelled by the justness of my cause, my rage, I must have made my way to the scorer's table. I can imagine the crowd affrighted, murmuring, parting. I must have looked like some kind of nut.
At the table—the photograph is my judge—the ref, Iba and I ineluctably conjoined. What am I telling Arabadjan so calmly, so fluently, so knowledgeably? Look at the snap. That's me, eloquently discoursing on the international rules of basketball, pointing out with devastating effect why the last Soviet basket should be disallowed, that the U.S. had won. I know as much about the international rules of basketball as I do about the rules of taekwondo. But I was in a zone and the ref was, as I said, hanging on every word I was saying. Or so I thought until I heard someone behind me saying, "Give it up."
The following dialogue is what you might call a dramatization.
"Why? He's listening. I think he's buying my case. We're going to win this thing."
"He's listening, but he doesn't know what the hell you're talking about."
"What do you mean? He keeps nodding his head. I tell you, he's going to disallow the——basket."
"What he is, is being polite. He doesn't understand English."
"He doesn't understand a word you're saying. He's Bulgarian!"
The score stood. Hey, I tried. And, in a way, I came out better than Iba. Somebody boosted his wallet with $370 in it, perhaps at the very moment the picture was taken.
Moral Number 2: If you're going to try to change the outcome of a big-time basketball game, sit down first.
Which brings to mind a much more agreeable evening 40 years ago, a long, rapt and smoky room, everyone half in the bag and Chippie Hill singing, "If you can't sell it, sit right down on it. Don't give nothing away."
A former managing editor of Sports Illustrated, Gilbert Rogin is now corporate editor of Time Inc.