Buckner, May helped U.S. recover gold 40 years ago

Indiana University’s Quinn Buckner and Scott May not only went undefeated and won a national title in 1976 but also a gold medal for the United States. The Americans were trying to put the bitterness of losing the gold to the Soviet Union four years earlier behind. Here’s a significant portion of my story from earlier this week, recounting the events of 40 years ago:

What happened four years prior was anything but forgotten when players convened for the 1976 Olympic Trials under North Carolina coach Dean Smith.

“We saw how the ‘72 team was handled and thought gold medals and championships were part of the American fabric,” Buckner said. “We didn’t have much conversation about that as a team, and Coach Smith kept it in perspective. He made sure we were prepared to go through the process. But no question I had it on my mind.”

Smith chose four of his own players for the squad — Walter Davis, Phil Ford, Mitch Kupchak and Tom LaGarde — plus Buckner and May from the national champion Hoosiers. Also on the team were Adrian Dantley of Notre Dame, Phil Hubbard of Michigan, Ernie Grunfeld of Tennessee and three more ACC players.

“I think (Coach Smith) showed us the film of the ‘72 game, the controversy they had at the end of the game,” May said. “And it was pretty self-explanatory of what you saw. We were on a mission, and no matter who was in the way, we went out and played the way that we played.”

The way they played was up-tempo, overcoming any number of criticisms in the lead up to the Montreal Summer Games.

“All the things we heard in exhibition games were, ‘Oh, they’re too small. They can’t rebound enough. Oh this, oh that,’” May said. “We heard it all. Through that, what I don’t think people realized how tough we were, how dedicated we were, how much we played together, how close we were as a team, unselfish. And that made up for a lot of our size. We were extremely quick. We ran quite a bit.”

The Tar Heel quartet and their coach helped ease the transition from individual talent to collective team.

“They tried to get a nucleus of players and some players the coaching staff knew how easily they would blend,” Buckner said. “Then they got some people with success such as Scott and myself, Adrian Dantley and added those guys to it.

“But Phil (Ford)’s ability to tell me what Coach Smith was looking for made the adjustment less complicated than if it had been anybody else who hadn’t been on the floor for Coach Smith. That made all the difference in the world.”

Still, the Americans were about to square off with professionals from across the world, something Buckner had found out about previously by playing not only in the World University Games, but with the U.S. men’s team in the 1974 FIBA World Championships, where the Americans won bronze.

“You could tell how they handled themselves they were men, much more than I was,” Buckner said. “There was something really at stake for them. If you didn’t play with a sense of resolve, you’d get beaten.

“International teams may not have been as skilled in the nuances, not as athletic and not handled the ball as well, but they would make shots. It made it where you couldn’t take them for granted. They were grown men who knew how to execute. They had played together, if not the previous year, then in previous Olympics. We were making it happen in weeks, and they did it for years.”

Let the Games begin

The United States got off to a flying start with a 106-86 win over Italy, a game that essentially provided a statistical template for the tournament. May had 16 points and five rebounds, while Buckner provided four points, four rebounds and three assists.

May, the No. 2 overall pick by the Chicago Bulls in the June NBA Draft, ended up averaging 16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. Buckner, who was selected seventh overall in the NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks, averaged 7.3 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game as Ford was the primary playmaker with nine assists per game.

The closest call came in the second game against Puerto Rico, a 95-94 U.S. win as Buckner had 10 points and six assists.

“That game was played at 7:30 or 8 in the morning,” said May, who scored 12 points. “Who plays at that time of day?”

A 112-93 win over Yugoslavia followed, as May had 24 points and seven rebounds. After a forfeit by Egypt, the Americans capped pool play with an 81-76 win over Czechoslovakia.

That put them in one semifinal against the host Canadians, while the Soviet Union took on Yugoslavia in the other semifinal. Just one game stood between the two world superpowers and a rematch.

The Russians perhaps got caught looking ahead, falling to Yugoslavia 89-84, while the U.S. was determinedly dispatching its North American neighbors, 95-77.

“In context, most of our guys would have preferred to play the Soviet Union in the championship game, but they lost,” Buckner said.

The Americans didn’t lose focus, however, steamrolling Yugoslavia for a second time by a 95-74 count to win the gold medal.

Mission accomplished

Soviet Union or not, winning the gold medal was in no way diminished for the U.S. team. That was especially true for Buckner, who saw the Olympics as his most significant title.

“Once it’s over, I think what I felt was a little similar to what I’d felt in previous championships — a sense of accomplishment and some sense of revenge having completed the mission,” Buckner said. “At least in my own small mind, we showed the world that the U.S. was the best basketball country in the world at the time, and then just the joy of guys coming together on such short notice and having success. That’s special and for me, it’s the most important championship by far, because it’s for your country.”

For his part, May got a lesson on the significance of winning a gold medal from Hall of Famer Bill Russell, who was part of the broadcast team for the Games. He asked May why the national college player of the year played in the Olympics.

“I’ll never forget the point he was making,” May said. “I said, ‘I don’t know, to win the gold medal.’ He says, ‘No, the reason you play in the Olympics is because everybody doesn’t have a gold medal.’

“It’s not something everybody has, and now that I’m older, I realize what he’s talking about. It was very important. I’m honored to have played and honored that after losing four years prior, we came back and won in ‘76.”

It was perhaps small consolation for the members of the ‘72 team, which refused to accept the silver medals that are rumored to still occupy a room somewhere in Switzerland.

But for Buckner and May, it was a salvage mission accomplished.

“Nothing else mattered but the gold medal, and you go after it,” May said. “The memory of doing that will last forever for me.”

5 comments

  1. It’s my recollection that May and Buckner had rather short NBA careers. I believe May had knee problems… Hard to imagine both of these outstanding athletes/leaders losing out on the many experiences that came on the tailwinds of Indiana’s national championship. They made way too much of international teams bringing “pros” to the Olympics….Those international teams were so far behind the curve….The only thing I can compare it to today is calling oneself a “pro” golfer(earned by some minimal requirement of being a “clubhouse pro”) while never having any realistic level of equivalent skills to compete with the top 1000 golfers in the world.
    Also ever remember any hullabaloo over May and Buckner being high draft picks…Nobody cared and it wasn’t a selling point to legitimize the quality of the team or coach. The only goal of the university/team was to hang banners. The method was one game at a time. College is now merely a temporary development camp for the NBA…Those with the skills to play at the next level are treated as the “gold” to be coddled and marketed as some sort of representation of a successful program.

    And the Olympics, in terms of basketball, has become another distorted joke. Guys who bolted out of college, jump from NBA team to NBA team, some making in excess of 20 million dollars per year, arrive as “Olympians” with no demonstrated loyalty to anything are suddenly “proud to be representing the stars and stripes.” Our hunger for the gold is more a greed than a way to open a world to amateur athletes and some of the best 4-year college players who are forced out of the experience.

    A coach is a “winner” if he merely lands a couple players who will draft high..NCAA Final Fours are merely cherries atop the sundae and the true purpose of college functioning as an NBA billboard(instead of Phil Ford). .A nation is a “winner” when we send multimillionaires instead of staying true to a spirit of what should be an opportunity to cherish the “amateur” athlete who hasn’t jump shipped for every new chance a thicker wallet… or could never afford such experiences otherwise. And with every ESPN and NBC highlight these “big name” basketball professionals steal away from us caring about some nothing of a human who can throw a javelin the length of three football fields, we flex our collective might into flavorless experience built on narcissism gone wild.

    1. May’s NBA career only lasted until 1982, then he went overseas through 1988. But Buckner had a 10-year NBA career that included a championship with the ’84 Celtics.

  2. I certainly don’t remember Buckner stealing any NBA headlines….He was a role player(strong defender) and his minutes were very limited …One year following that championship season on the Celtics, he was traded and later waived by the Pacers. Solid defender and true leader, but he wasn’t a “headline” player by any means.

  3. Coincidentally ……It’s Quinn’s birthday today…62! HAPPY BIRTHDAY QUINN!

    Averaged 4.9 ppg and 15 mpg during his three seasons with the Celtics. The Quinn-tessential college baller in a day amateur basketball players still had a chance to see the world and play on Olympic teams. Of course, NCAA titles helped improve those chances.

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