U.S., Russia, And Memories Of 1972

For all you youngsters out there, the rehashing of the 1972 Olympic basketball final is a lesson on how the Cold War influenced every facet of life back in the day.

The United States defeated Russia 89-79 Thursday in the quarterfinals of World Championships (Kevin Durant scored 33 points). But the most interesting thing about the matchup was that it was played on the 38th anniversary of perhaps the most infamous sporting event in history.

Russian coach David Blatt, an American, said this week that the Soviet Union won that 1972 game fairly. American coach Mike Krzyzewski took umbrage with that. Umbrage, I say!

YouTube has what appears to be the entire game in really, really high quality, broken down into six parts. Here are the final moments. And here’s the summary provided by David Wallechinsky in “The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics:”

One of the greatest controversies in the history of international sports took place in Munich in the early morning hours of Sunday, September 10. The United States entered the final match with a record of 62 wins and no losses in Olympic basketball competition. The game began at 11:45 p.m., in order to accommodate U.S. television. One of the American team’s strengths was speed, but the United States coach, Hank Iba, chose not to exploit it, ordering his squad to play at a more cautious and deliberate pace instead.

The U.S.S.R. scored first, led 26-21 at the half, and was ahead by eight points with 6:07 to play. But then the United States applied a full-court press and the Soviet team began to crumble. Nonetheless, with six seconds to play, the Soviets had the ball and clung to a one-point lead. Then Soviet star Sasha Belov inadvertently threw the ball toward Doug Collins of Illinois State. With three seconds left, Collins was fouled intentionally by Sako Sakandelidze. In fact, he was fouled so hard that he momentarily lost consciousness. Dazed, he mechanically followed his free throw routine — “three dribbles, a little spin, and then shoot” — and coolly sank two free throws to give the United States its first lead of the game, 50-49.

As an aside, never in the history of basketball has anybody faced more pressurized free throws than Collins faced. Never. And he made them. Despite a horn going off in his ear, as Wallechinsky explains:

The Soviet team in-bounded the ball, but two seconds later head referee Renato Righetto of Brazil noted a disturbance at the scorer’s table and called an administrative time-out. The Soviet coach, Vladimir Kondrashkin, claimed that he had called for a time-out after Collins’ first shot. Indeed, the time-out horn had gone off just as Collins released his second free throw attempt. According to the rules of the day, a coach calling for a time-out in a free throw situation could ask that the time-out begin before or after the first shot. Kondrashkin wanted his time-out after Collins’ first shot. The German officials in the excitement of the moment apparently forgot about this option and, noting the Soviet players went to the line for Collins’ first shot, thought that Kondrashkin had canceled his request, and so they failed to inform the referees of a time-out.

With one second on the clock, the U.S.S.R. was awarded a time-out. When play resumed, they in-bounded the ball and time ran out. The United States players began a joyous celebration.

But at this point Great Britain’s R. William Jones, the Secretary-General of the International Amateur Basketball Federation (F.I.B.A.), intervened and ordered the clock set back to three seconds, which was how much time remained on the clock when Kondrashkin originally tried to call time-out. Technically, Jones had no right to make any decisions, but he ruled F.I.B.A. with an iron hand, and hardly anyone dared to question his authority. Kondrashkin brought in Ivan Edeshko, who threw a long pass to Sasha Belov. Belov caught the pass perfectly, pushed past two defenders, and scored the winning basket. The United States filed a protest, which was heard by a five-man Jury of Appeal. Jones appointed Ferenc Hepp of Hungary to be chairman of the committee, and Hepp provided the deciding vote in favor of the U.S.S.R. He was joined by representatives of Poland and Cuba, while representatives of Italy and Puerto Rico voted to disallow Belov’s basket. The U.S. team voted unanimously to refuse their silver medals. Coach Hank Iba felt doubly robbed. At 2 a.m., while he was signing the official protest, his pocket was picked and he lost $370.

The loss haunted many of the United States players for years to come, but others were able to put it in perspective. In 1992, Kenny Davis told Sports Illustrated, “I went back to my room and cried alone that night. But every time I get to feeling sorry for myself, I think of the Israeli kids who were killed at those Games . . . Think of being in a helicopter with your hands tied behind your back and a hand grenade rolling toward you . . . and compare that to not getting a gold medal. If that final game is the worst injustice that ever happend to the guys on that team, we’ll all come out of this life pretty good.”

As for Sasha Belov, he died in mysterious circumstances on October 3, 1978. He was 26 years old.

That was Wallechinsky’s take on the whole affair. But the only part that matters is this: Hungary, Poland and Cuba were on the five-person committee, guaranteeing the vote would go in the Soviets’ favor. Hungary and Poland were part of the Eastern Bloc and under Soviet control; Cuba was a communist country and eager to curry favor from the U.S.S.R. By the same token, Italy and Puerto Rico were destined to vote the United States’ way for political reasons.

Which brings up a question: Why can’t they let Switzerland decide these things?

The final decision had nothing to do with basketball, and everything to do with politics. We’re talking real politics, like the struggle for world domination and a clash between the ideologies of super powers; not politics like, “My kid didn’t make All-Stars because of politics, not because he wasn’t good enough.”

Global politics still play a role in the sporting world, but it’s nothing like it was during the Cold War. And it’s probably difficult to understand if you aren’t old enough to remember the Berlin Wall. But maybe this helps explain why some innocuous comments from the Russian coach got Mike Krzyzewski so riled up and generated so much media coverage.

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