It remains one of the most controversial basketball games ever.
The ending of the 1972 Olympic gold medal game in Munich featured a Russian team getting three chances to inbound the ball late in the game and down one point, and it was on the third they were able to execute a length of the court pass and layup that gave Russia the gold medal (the first time the USA hadn’t won the gold since 1936).
The USA team considered it unfair and never picked up their silver medals, not showing up to the ceremony in protest.
But Russian coach David Blatt — who grew up a Celtics fan in Massachusetts — says it was the right call, as reported at TrueHoop.
“By the way, there’s a wonderful film about that, and I hate to say it as an American, but it looks like the Russians were right,” Blatt said. “The American team was not cheated. Funny things happened, but in reality it was fair. It was fair.”
The USA and Russia will play each other Thursday in the FIBA World Championship quarterfinals, 38 years to the day after that infamous game.
The USA team now is filled with NBA players — young ones primarily this time around, but guys still seasoned by NBA-level play. Back in 1972 we sent our top college kids, that year led by Doug Collins (yes, Sixers coach Doug Collins) and Paul Westphaul (now the Kings coach). The team was coached by the legendary Henry Iba, who demanded a slow-paced offense and a focus on defense. Bill Walton was the notable absence, having been advised by doctors to take the summer off due to knee issues he was already having (although other factors about coaching and his USA experience in 1970 played into his decision).
The Russians had what was essentially a professional team, part of the Russian military technically the team was older and had played 400 games together ad were much older.
The USA had rolled almost untested to the gold medal game, but in the Russians found the most talented foe they had faced. And a team that like the slow pace the Americans were forced to play at by Iba.
Russia controlled this game. The USA was down by five points at halftime and at the start of the fourth quarter were down 10.
The USA’s Kevin Joyce sparked a comeback that had the USA down one with 30 seconds remaining. The Russians tried to protect that lead by running out the clock (there was no three point line at the time so today’s strategy of fouling was far less effective). Then Collins intercepted a Russian cross-court pass and went racing for a breakaway layup only to be fouled in the act of shooting.
Two pressure free throws, and he drained both. The USA was up one with three seconds on the clock.
The Russians inbounded the ball then with one second left the referees stopped the game. They gave in to complaints from the Russian coach that he had called a time out between Collins free throws that was never granted. Three seconds were put back on the clock and after the timeout given late the Russians got another chance.
The Russians inbounded the ball again, didn’t score and the USA players celebrated… until the referees said the Russians got to inbound the ball again. They said the clock had not been reset to three seconds and the play had to be done over. Again.
The third time a Russia’s Alexander Belov caught a length-of-the-court pass and laid in the game winner.
It was a game — played in then Soviet bloc East Germany — that was filled with Cold War implications and politics. Whether what happened or not was fair has divided the international basketball community ever sense. (Even some American writers, such as the Los Angeles Times Randy Harvey, weren’t convinced the USA was cheated.)
Thursday the teams and stakes will be completely different. But the ghost of the 1972 game will be haunting the game in Turkey, a shadow over the latest matchup in this rivalry.