Honoring El Paso’s Black History: Jim Forbes and the 1972 Summer Olympics

El Paso News

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — After winning the previous seven Gold medals, the U.S. Olympic basketball team thought they had the 1972 Summer Olympics were on lock. But one of the most bizarre events took place that changed the course of history.

KTSM 9 News spoke with a member of that team, who is currently coaching for the Andress High School basketball team.

By any metric, it’s one of the most infamous moments in Olympic history. Lifelong El Pasoan Jim Forbes was right in the middle of it.

“When it happened, we had no idea it would gain such traction,” he said.

Forbes, who starred at Bel Air High School and at the University of Texas at El Paso and who played briefly in the NBA, was a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team.

“That’s one of the joys of my life as an athlete,” Forbes said.

But that team is famous, for the wrong reasons.

“Arguably, it might go down as the most controversial basketball game in history, the way it finished, and the stakes,” said Doug Collins. “There was a gold medal riding on that.”

On Sept. 9, 1972, the Olympic Gold medal game between the United States and the Soviet Union played in Munich in the middle of the Cold War.

Tipping off at midnight to accommodate the American TV audience, the clash was nip and tuck throughout. Forbes made a jumper to get the U.S. within one late and with just three seconds left. Doug Collins drained two free throws to give the Americans a 50-49 lead.

“Two of the most clutch-free throws in basketball history in my opinion,” said Forbes. “That’s when things got wacky. Mistakes by the officiating crew and the scorers table allowed the Soviets to inbound the ball with a chance to win.

Not once. Not twice. But three times. On the first try. The Soviets called a timeout before the inbound occurred. On the second attempt, officials decided that the clock started too early.

“Here’s the irony of it, it gets talked about a lot, but had we won the game,” Forbes said. “No one would ever talk about the 1972 Olympic team again.”

The American protested the 51-50 defeat, but the international Olympic Committee upheld the Soviet’s victory. Team USA refused to take the medal stand and accept their Silver medals — a decision that Forbes and his teammates stand by to this day.

“We didn’t earn a Silver medal; we earned a Gold medal,” Forbes said. “We won that Gold medal in regulation time, and that’s just it.”

Doug Collins added: “It wasn’t about we were sore losers and we weren’t gonna go out there and do it.”

A rash of injuries ended Forbes promising career before it truly got off the ground, but he’s still living his dream. For 37 straight seasons, he’s been a history teacher and a high school basketball coach in El Paso, leading Riverside and Andress to the Final 4 in 1995 and 2015, respectively.

“Putting it together was the toughest part on his end and he figured that being disciplined was going to bring success to our team,” Ruben Rodriguez said. “He did a good job of keeping us intact. I noticed what I needed to do from him and I still instill that in our program here.”

Forbes has won hundreds of basketball games, but his role as a history teacher is perhaps more affecting. Part of his childhood was spent in the segregated south and when Forbes teaches the Civil Rights movement, he draws from his own personal experiences.

“A lot of kids will watch videos about it and read books about it, but it wasn’t that long ago that I saw that,” said Forbes. “You’re blessed to see things progress.”

Bel Air has retired his jersey, Riverside named its gym after Forbes in 2018.

“I’m really proud of him. To get in the classroom and be a great teacher and role model for these young people, I’m just so happy he’s carved out a great niche in life,” Collins said.

Forbes is 68 now, but he said he’s not ready to hang up the whistle.

“I’m doing exactly what I said I wanted to do in 1973. I’ll know when it’s time and right now it’s not time,” said Forbes.

Whenever the time comes, Jim Forbes will forever be and El Paso legend.

“He stayed home, graduated from here, went to UTEP. Went to the NBA, got hurt, went to the Olympics, represented El Paso,” said Lewis. “When it’s all said and done, Jim Forbes should be on the Mount Rushmore of most important figures in El Paso.”

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