Those final three seconds, played out in those three installments in the early hours of Sept. 10, 1972, have been studied, dissected and rehashed countless times over the past four decades.
ESPN produced a "SportsCentury" documentary on the fate of the '72 squad in 2002, with HBO producing its own documentary as well. Just last month, Donald Gallagher and Mike Brewster released their book that, for the first time in the printed realm, interviews all 12 players from the team. Also in July, Bloomberg Markets Magazine printed an exhaustive series from reporter Daniel Golden that dug into the other side as deeply as anyone ever has, offering an extensive examination into the motivations that night of then-International Basketball Federation general secretary R. William Jones.
It was Jones who, with one second left on the clock after Doug Collins' two huge free throws put the Americans ahead 50-49, came down to the floor from the stands to order the game's referees and official scorers to put two more seconds on the clock, insisting that the Russians were not granted a timeout they called after a horn sounded before Collins' second free throw ... which Collins acknowledges hearing. It was also Jones who, after the Soviets inbounded the ball under their own basket and didn't come close to scoring -- setting off a robust celebration involving U.S. players and fans that had spilled onto the court -- insisted that three more seconds be restored because the clock operators didn't have the time right before the ball was inbounded. And it was FIBA's Jones who told U.S. assistant coach Johnny Bach that the Americans would forfeit the gold medal if they didn't stay on the floor for Russia's third try, which saw Soviet big man Aleksandr Belov forcefully shake loose from American defenders Kevin Joyce and Jim Forbes to catch Ivan Edeshko's full-court heave of a pass and convert the game-winning layup.
"Keep in mind that, when all of this was going on, none of this was really being explained to us," said U.S. forward Mike Bantom, now an executive with the NBA. "There wasn't a lot of English being spoken. The message basically was, 'Just get back out there and play.' So you can understand how it contributed to the confusion."
"If I had to do it over again," Bach said by phone this week from his Chicago-area home, "I would not have delivered the message to Coach [Hank] Iba. I tried to make the case to [the scorer's table] that you can't put time back on the clock and you definitely can't do it repeatedly. But to this day, I regret bringing Coach Iba that message."
The implication is clear. If Bach hadn't passed on Jones' threat, Iba might have allowed the Americans to walk off the floor before the fateful Edeshko pass to Belov and let International Olympic Committee officials decide whether or not they'd collect their gold medals, as some on the bench were pushing for. The reality, though, is that the list of American regrets generated by their first-ever loss in Olympic men's basketball after 63 straight victories has its own 40-years-long feel. It's that extensive.
The belief persists to this day that the defensive-minded Iba, 68 at the time after coaching the United States to gold medals in 1964 and 1968, was the wrong man for the job, installed only because the various warring factions in American basketball at the time couldn't bear to come to the easy consensus and give the job to UCLA's ultra-deserving John Wooden or an up-and-comer at North Carolina named Dean Smith. And with no Wooden, there would also be no Bill Walton, who didn't want to play for anyone else at that stage of his life after an unpleasant experience at the 1970 World Championship and remains so dismayed by the whole saga today that the famously talkative Walton uncharacteristically told ESPN.com this week that he'd prefer not to discuss the matter.
"If [Walton] plays," Forbes told ESPN as part of the "SportsCentury" documentary, "all of this becomes academic."
Said San Diego-based Soviet and Russian sports historian Robert Edelman: "When (the Soviets) saw who was and wasn't on the U.S. team, that's when they started feeling like they'd actually have a chance. They followed American basketball closely and they knew that no Walton was going to be a big deal."
Walton wasn't the only difference-maker missing. Julius Erving had turned pro with the ABA's Virginia Squires in 1971 after his junior year at UMass, denying Iba another potential star. And Walton's UCLA backup, Swen Nater, was yet another crucial casualty. Nater left the team's Hawaii boot camp in misery after ranking as the leading scorer during Olympic trials because he said Iba's grueling practices and unforgiving schedule had caused him to rapidly lose 20 pounds.
The in-game regrets are plentiful, too. The Americans didn't make their second-half rally until the players, led by Tommy Henderson and Joyce, took it upon themselves to ignore Iba's slowdown instructions and make the game frenetic. Henderson said later that "we'd have ran them back to Russia" if they had played that way from the start. Complicating matters further for Iba and the Americans was the loss of two more big men in the second half: Dwight Jones was harshly ejected after a brief tangle with Soviet forward Mikhail Korkiya and Jim Brewer suffered a concussion when a tussle on the ensuing jump ball sent him head-first into the floor.
There's even more. On the third inbounds pass, Edeshko's Hail Mary that rewrote history, Iba passed on the chance to insert a defensive specialist or two even before Tom McMillen backed way off the ball in fear of being hit with a technical foul for getting too close to Edeshko. 7-foot-2 center Tom Burleson, who says he begged Iba before the third restart for the chance to obstruct Edeshko's view, had been benched for the gold-medal game because he let his fiancée visit him at the team's Olympic quarters.
"I feel that Coach Iba, Coach Bach and Coach [Don] Haskins taught me more about basketball than any group of coaches I was ever under," Burleson said. "And I played for some great coaches in the NBA. But there were mistakes made everywhere. Why didn't they stick me and Bobby [Jones] in there at the end? Or at least one of us? And why didn't we run up and down the whole game? We had a team of thoroughbreds. But everybody makes mistakes. Referees, scorekeepers, coaches. Was our coaching staff good? It was great."
Holger Geschwindner, known today as Dirk Nowitzki's personal shot doctor but known back then as the captain of host West Germany's Olympic squad, watched the gold-medal game from inside the Basketballhalle in Munich that night and remembers asking himself many of the same questions Burleson raised.
"It was the first time that an American team really got outcoached," Geschwindner says. "The Russian coach [Vladimir Kondrashin] was really a fox. That was the key. The [Americans] really did not take care of business."
If you would do that all over again about a hundred times, that pass would probably never be completed again.
”-- Doug Collins
That's a fact Henderson acknowledged in the "SportsCentury" documentary, saying that the United States "didn't really deserve to win" given the way it played over the 40 minutes.
The reality, furthermore, is that there were some contributing factors beyond their control as well, most of them connected to R. William Jones.
According to the recent Bloomberg report, Jones, who died in 1981, had "enjoyed close ties with the Soviets" and "ran European basketball by whim" and had long hoped that a legitimate rival would emerge to put a halt to the United States' run of seven straight gold medals, thereby giving hope to the rest of the basketball world. The Bloomberg report likewise details how Jones denied for two days that he ordered the scorer's table to set the clock back. The five-member panel that heard the United States' protest and rejected it by a 3-2 vote, furthermore, was also appointed by Jones. Jones' close friend, Ferenc Hepp of Hungary, and judges from Cuba and Poland voted against the U.S. protest; panelists from Italy and Puerto Rico reportedly approved the protest.
"I'm pretty sure it's the only game of that magnitude, in the history of sports, decided by an arbitrary committee," Collins said during a recent sitdown with ESPN.com in his Philadelphia office.
As for an ending he can't bear to go back and watch, Collins said: "If you would do that all over again about a hundred times, that pass would probably never be completed again."
Said Bantom: "With some hindsight and some perspective, you realize that bad decisions happen quite frequently in the Olympics. You've seen it happen in gymnastics, track and field, boxing. It happens all over the place. It was pretty personal to us that it happened, but looking back it's not that unusual that something like that happened. In 1972, it just so happened that we were the people who got screwed."