Chapter 3: The Russian Reaction

Russia celebrates its game-winning basket to defeat the U.S. in 1972 in a highly controversial ending. US Presswire

Four decades later, alumni from the Soviet squad that brought a halt to the Americans' run of seven consecutive gold medals in men's basketball continue to be regarded as national heroes, despite the fact that less than half of the 12 players on the roster were actually Russian.

"Those are our idols," Russian guard Vitaliy Fridzon said after scoring 24 points in a huge Olympic pool-play victory over Spain.

Yet it would be a stretch to suggest that the moment is held in the same esteem that American sports fans view what a U.S. team full of amateurs achieved on a famed hockey rink in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980 in what will forever be known as the "Miracle on Ice."

UC San Diego professor Robert Edelman, for decades regarded as one of the foremost experts in the world on matters of Soviet and Russian sport, contends that the USSR's 1988 gold-medal team in the Seoul Olympics holds even greater prominence when the story of the Soviets' rise to international prominence on hardwood is retold.

"The most historically important team, in truth, is the 1988 team," Edelman says of a group led by an in-his-prime Lithuanian legend Arvydas Sabonis and which famously dumped John Thompson's USA team of elite college kids into the bronze-medal game.

"Because without the '88 team, we don't have the Dream Team and we don't have NBA players playing in the Olympics. And the rest, as they say, is basketball history."

Where you'll get no debate, no gray area, is the feeling among the surviving Soviet players and officials from that era about their dismay with the Americans' stubborn refusal to accept their defeat.

"I can assure you that they don't feel sheepish [about the ending] for one second," Edelman said.

"They view it as a just victory. And I think when you actually look [at the final three seconds] in detail, although it wasn't square, it was fair. Mistakes were made along the way, but they were corrected before the game was over."

Belorussian guard Ivan Edeshko, who threw the home run pass that ultimately reached Russian star Aleksandr Belov for the winning layup, hasn't budged from the position he shared in ESPN's "SportsCentury" documentary that aired in 2002, when he criticized his opponents for their refusal to "admit loss." In the corresponding HBO documentary ":03 Seconds From Gold," Sergei Belov added: "I've always been terribly insulted that the Americans never accepted our victory."

Not that the contempt has faded much on the American side, either. Collins, for one, has only mildly softened position from the 1980s, when he was coaching the Chicago Bulls and wound up at the same summer league game in Los Angeles with Edeskho. Collins refused Edeshko's request to meet.

A few years later, Collins' unease around his former foes had abated to the point that, by then a blossoming broadcaster covering the 1994 World Championships in Toronto, he requested the standard pregame visit with Soviet-opponent-turned-Russian-coach Sergei Belov before calling one of Russia's games.

"He had an interpreter the whole time," Collins recalls. "He answered every question in Russian. And then when the interview was over, as I was walking away, he looked at me [and said] in perfect English, 'Tell your son Chris good luck at Duke this year.'

"That sucker got me again."

Caught in the middle, meanwhile, are the members of the current Russian squad, particularly their American-born coach David Blatt, thanks to the weeklong tease that they were headed for a historic collision with the United States in the gold-medal game here in London.

Blatt, who also holds Israeli citizenship, has gone to great lengths throughout this tournament to remind reporters that the powerhouse Soviet teams of the past could pull players out of Lithuania, Ukraine and Georgia as well as the territory that sits within Russia's modern borders. He guided Russia to a first-place finish in Group B in these Olympics, thereby keeping them out of Team USA's path until the final, with a much smaller talent pool to draw from.

What do you want me to say? I like the win. I like the win in '72.

-- Russian forward and Minnesota Timberwolf Andrei Kirilenko

Calling himself the "classic Cold War child" who grew up "fearing and even spiteful" of what the Soviet Union represented, Blatt said the idea that he'd be coaching Russia's national team was incomprehensible when his coaching career began. Now, though, he holds passionate news conferences talking about the team built around Andrei Kirilenko, which ranks as the most physically imposing team -- with the likes of recent Minnesota Timberwolves signee Alexey Shved as a 6-foot-6 point guard -- after Team USA in the eyes of most coaches here.

"It is very much in our favor that we are just a little bit outside the circle," Blatt said of Russia's underdog status when the tournament began. "[But] this is a group that's been together for a while. I've been here seven years and most of the players have been with me during the whole process.

"... This is a new Russia. It's a different day. It's a different age. The political climate has changed drastically and that's trickling down into sports. And slowly but surely we're becoming a part of that inner circle of well-known and respected teams.

"We have our own generation and our own identity. We're very respectful of what those [Soviet] teams did, very cognizant of their accomplishments, but the world has changed. And we have changed."

Kirilenko tried to make the same claim when he was asked about the prospect of playing his NBA colleagues for a gold medal and the flood of 40-year-old memories such a showdown would trigger.

"Right now it's a different time," Kirilenko said. "Then it was a communist time. Right now everybody is playing together. Some Americans play in Russia. Some Russians play in America. It doesn't really go into politics."

Yet when pressed about 1972, Kirilenko couldn't stifle a huge grin as he kept talking.

"What do you want me to say?" he asked. "I like the win. I like the win in '72."