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SportsCentury: 1972 Olympic Basketball
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Friday, August 6, 2004
Classic 1972 USA vs. USSR Basketball game
By Frank Saraceno
Special to

In a different era, the global perception of amateur American basketball was one of domination. As the 1972 Summer Olympics commenced, this notion was punctuated with the impressive fact that no American team had ever lost in men's basketball in Olympic play, winning seven gold medals dating back to 1936. All of this changed on the morning of September 10, 1972.

The youngest squad to ever represent the United States in Olympic competition stepped onto the floor to face their athletic and political enemy, the Soviet Union, for the gold medal in men's basketball. By comparison, the bigger, more experienced Soviets were far from your typical underdog. Led by the inside outside combination of guard Sergei Belov and forward Alexander Belov, the well seasoned and well coached Soviets proved to be the stiffest competitor the Americans had ever faced.

"They had a great team," said U.S. assistant coach John Bach. "Their team, it was reported, played almost 400 games together. 400 games. We had played 12 exhibition games and the trials."

The quasi-professional Soviet club stood in stark contrast to America's system of selecting a new amateur team every four years to conquer the world's best. In 1972, the politics involved with picking the right team and naming the right coach became thorny issues. Henry Iba, the legendary retired head coach of Oklahoma State, was chosen to coach the U.S. team for a third straight Olympics. Iba led the U.S. to gold in 1964 and 1968, but by 1972, his conservative, defensive style of play was viewed as out of touch with the modern game.

"They knew what they were getting when they picked coach Iba," said USC guard and current Pepperdine head coach Paul Westphal. "They weren't picking a guy who's going to go out there and press and run and play basketball the way American basketball was being played at that time."

Bill Wall was a member of the committee that selected the U.S. squad. "Everybody felt that his defense, his knowledge of the game, and the fact that he was a proven winner on every level for 40 years was enough," he said.

One player who was conspicuous by his absence from the 1972 U.S. team was the college player of the year, Bill Walton. The UCLA center declined an invitation to play in Munich, and the reasons varied.

"The doctor had advised him between seasons to really not play," said legendary UCLA head coach John Wooden. "Before every practice he soaked his knees for a half-hour, and he packed them with ice a half-hour after practice."

"Bill did not want to try out," said U.S. guard and current Washington Wizards head coach Doug Collins. "He would've played in the games but he didn't want to try out. Hank Iba was adamant that if you were going to be on the team, you were going to go through the process like everybody else."

Others attributed his decision to his intense opposition to the U.S.'s involvement in the Vietnam War, and Walton alluded to a disastrous experience playing for the United States during the 1970 World Championships in Yugoslavia.

"For the first time in my life, I was exposed to negative coaching and the berating of players and the foul language and the threatening of people who didn't perform," said Walton.

Against this backdrop, the young Americans took Munich by storm, winning their first seven games before the Games came to a tragic and sudden halt on September 5th. The massacre of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team by Arab terrorists put the Games on hold for nearly two days. When competition resumed, the U.S. defeated Italy by 30 to advance to the gold medal game and extended their Olympic winning streak to 63 games. From the outset in the game against the Soviets, the style of play became an issue of concern.

"You had guys who liked to run the ball up and down the floor, and we come back and run the offense, you pass the ball six, seven, eight times before you can get a shot off," said U.S. guard Ed Ratleff. "That's the thing that threw us off more than anything else."

"We played their game, the slow down game," said U.S. guard Tom Henderson. "We should have ran, and we'd have ran them back to Russia."

"There was no reason to suspect that that system wasn't going to work in this game," said Dennis Lewin, who produced the gold medal game for ABC Sports. "Unfortunately the Americans were surprised by a team that was better than they ever counted on it being."

Trailing by five points at halftime, the U.S. deficit grew to 10 with under 10 minutes to play. A furious comeback aided by the play of guard Kevin Joyce shrunk the Soviet lead to one point with 38 seconds remaining. Trying to protect their lead, Alexander Belov's cross-court pass with less than 10 seconds to play was intercepted by Doug Collins. Collins was fouled hard driving to the basket with three seconds to play.

"I remember Coach Haskins and Coach Bach saying to Coach Iba, 'We gotta get somebody to shoot these free throws,'" said Collins. "Coach Iba said, 'If Doug can walk he's shooting them.'"

Under enormous pressure, the Illinois State guard sank both free throws giving the Americans a 50-49 lead, their first of the game. After the Soviets in-bounded the ball, the referees halted the game with one second remaining. The decision was made to put three seconds back on the clock. At issue was the Soviets' contention that they had signaled for a time-out between Collins' two free throws. The game officials never acknowledged the time out. The validity of whether a time-out was legally signaled for has divided passions on this game for 30 years.

After the Soviets in-bounded the ball a second time, the horn sounded signaling an apparent American victory. Moments later, the teams were ordered back on the floor because the clock had not been properly reset to show three seconds remaining. Because of this mistake by the scorer's table, the celebrating Americans stood in disbelief when they were told they had not won anything yet.

"We couldn't believe that they were giving them all these chances," said U.S. forward Mike Bantom. "It was like they were going to let them do it until they got it right."

"They had to reset the clock, so they (the Soviets) got a third chance," said L.A Times writer Randy Harvey. "The Americans thought that at every turn they had been cheated when, in fact, they probably hadn't been. But they'll never acknowledge that."

Alexander Belov, who moments earlier had been the goat, became the hero. Rising between Americans Jim Forbes and Kevin Joyce, Belov caught a full-court pass and scored the winning lay-up as time ran out, this time for good. The controversy did not end with the game. Convinced they had been wronged, the U.S. team filed a formal protest with the International Basketball Federation. Later that afternoon, a five-member panel ruled in favor of the Soviets.

"Everything progressed according to strictly Cold War politics," said Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith. "There were three Communist Bloc judges. It's a three to two vote. America loses. The Soviet Union wins the gold medal, and at that point the American players are facing a stark reality. Do they accept the silver medal?"

"We felt like they just did something to us that was illegal and we didn't know any other way to protest than to say that you're not about to get us to show up to take that silver medal," said team captain Kenny Davis expressing the team's ultimate response.

Thirty years later, the silver medals sit unclaimed in a vault in Lusanne, Switzerland. The intervening years have done little to hide the emotions of that historic night in Munich.

"The American team was offended, and it wasn't right," said Ivan Edeshko, the player who threw the game-winning pass for the Soviets. "It was the cold war. Americans, out of their own natural pride and love of country, didn't want to lose and admit loss. They didn't want to lose in anything, especially basketball."

"If we had gotten beat, I would be proud to display my silver medal today," Bantom said. "But, we didn't get beat, we got cheated."

"I have placed it in my will that my wife and my children can never, ever receive that medal from the '72 Olympic games," said Davis.

"It was sort of like being on top of the Sears tower in Chicago celebrating and then being thrown off and falling 100 floors to the ground," said Collins. "That's the kind of emptiness and sick feeling I felt."

NOTE: This documentary includes testimony from all 12 members of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team along with assistant coaches John Bach and Don Haskins, Soviet assistant coach Sergei Bashkin and Soviet player Ivan Edeshko. Bill Walton, John Wooden and Bobby Knight also were interviewed. It will explore in detail the problems that led to this shocking result and the lingering effects this game holds 30 years later. We will also go inside and look at how the team was selected, trained and, ultimately, forged ahead through the tragic events in Munich.

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