The final game of the 1972 Olympic basketball tournament is one of the most controversial events in the history of the Games.
The 1972 Summer Olympics were held in Munich, Germany, from August 26 through September 11. Over 7,000 athletes competed in 195 events in 21 sports. The Games provided a showcase for several remarkable individual performances, including those of Mark Spitz [Daily Dose, 9/4/15], who won seven gold medals while setting seven world records in swimming; Olga Korbut, who became a media star while winning two gold medals in gymnastics, and Finland’s Lasse Viren [Daily Dose, 7/22/16], who won the 5,000 and 10,000 meters [breaking the world record in the latter despite falling during the race]. The Games were marred by the “Munich Massacre,” the tragic slaying of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists on September 5. The ’72 Olympics also became infamous for the final three seconds of a competition that was far more than just a basketball game.
Basketball was first introduced as an Olympic sport a little over 300 miles from Munich; in the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin. The United States won that tournament–and every Olympics thereafter—and entered the 1972 Games having won seven straight gold medals and favored to win in Munich. At that time, the U.S. team was comprised of amateurs; college kids who went through a rigorous tryout process to make the team. A new team was selected every four years. Conversely, the Soviet Union—America’s opponent in the final game—was effectively made up of professionals; older men whose full-time occupation was playing basketball for the Russian team. The American squad was the youngest ever to represent the United States, while the bigger, more experienced Soviets had played over 700 games together. The AAU, charged with selecting the coach, bypassed John Wooden [Daily Dose, 10/14/15], the winningest coach in basketball, and Dean Smith [Daily Dose, 8/12/16] in favor of 68-year-old Henry Iba. Coach Iba, who had coached the U.S. Olympic teams in 1964 and 1968, had last won an NCAA title in 1946 and had lost 80 of 127 games in his final five seasons as head coach at Oklahoma State. Nearly half a century older than his team of baby boomers, Iba’s conservative, defensive style of play was considered out of touch with the modern game. He was assisted by UTEP head coach Don Haskins and John Bach, head coach at Penn State.
In July 1972, 59 young men vied for 12 spots on the U.S. team. Absent were Julius Irving, who had forgone his amateur eligibility by leaving UMass early to sign with the ABA [Daily Dose, 5/13/16], and college stars David Thompson and Bill Walton, who declined over objections with the tryout process. The team worked out three times a day during a brutal training camp held at Pearl Harbor. Center Swen Nater, 6’11” backup to Walton at UCLA, lost 20 pounds during the first week and quit the team. He was replaced with Maryland’s Tom McMillan. Providence College’s Marvin Barnes, the team’s leading rebounder during camp, was cut from the squad. Of the six members of the consensus 1972 NCAA All-American team, only Long Beach State’s Ed Ratleff was named to Iba’s Olympic team.
Following the Palestinian terrorist attacks, the Games of the XX Olympiad were suspended for 24 hours. On September 7, the basketball tournament resumed at Rudi-Sedimayer-Halle in southwest Munich. The Soviets beat Cuba, 67-61, to advance to the final, while Team USA drubbed Italy by 30 points to get into the gold medal game to be held two days later. It was the seventh win of the tournament for the Americans and their 63rd straight victory without a loss in international competition. In seven games, the U.S. squad had outscored their opponents by 230 points, including a 99-33 trouncing of Japan September 3.
The gold medal game tipped off at 11:45 pm local time in order to accommodate American television. Playing a deliberate style, the U.S. trailed by five at halftime. After leading scorer Dwight Jones was ejected for fighting, the U.S. deficit grew to ten with under ten minutes to play. The Soviets led by eight with five minutes left, and Iba loosened the reins. Facing full court pressure, the U.S.S.R. began forcing shots and turning the ball over. They led 49-48 when Team USA guard Doug Collins intercepted an ill-advised pass near his own free throw line and raced for a layup, where he was undercut by Zurab Sakandelidze and temporarily lost consciousness under the basket. Sporting a shiner beneath his right eye, Collins calmly sank two free throws to give the U.S. a 50-49 lead. Three seconds remained. As the Soviets inbounded, assistant coach Sergei Bashkin charged onto the floor insisting that his team had asked for a timeout. Referee Renato Righetto, a Brazilian architect who refereed the previous three Olympic tournaments, stopped play with one second left. After much arguing and confusion [Righetto spoke Portuguese while scorekeepers spoke German], the Soviets were awarded a timeout.
When play resumed and the Soviets failed to score, the horn sounded and the Americans celebrated. FIBA secretary general Renato William Jones intervened, insisting that three seconds were to be put back on the clock. The PA announcer told the crowd the game was not over and more chaos ensued. Haskins considered pulling the U.S. team off the floor but feared a potential appeal, saying he “Did not want to lose this game later tonight, sitting on my butt.” After the floor was cleared and the clock reset, the Soviets were given a third inbounds play. Ivan Edeshko threw a pass the length of the court to Aleksandr Belov, who leapt and caught the ball between two American defenders before making an uncontested layup as the horn sounded for the last time.
Against the tragic background of the murder of Isrealis, the Cold War, and capitalism versus communism, a basketball arena was transformed into a political arena. While scoring the winning basket as time expired in the midst of chaos, controversy and madness, the Soviets had won in the most disputed finish in international basketball history. “We couldn’t believe that they were giving them all those chances,” said forward Mike Bantom. “It was like they were going to let them do it until they got it right.” The U.S. filed a formal protest with the International Basketball Federation, a five-man panel with three communist members. The panel ruled 3-2 in favor of the Soviets. Four-time U.S. Olympic coach Mike Krzyzewski called the game, “a shocking example of politics meddling in sport.”
In the aftermath of the final game, the Americans refused the silver medal and insist they were robbed of victory. The Soviets were angry, too, taking it as a slap in the face—a lack of respect—when the Americans refused to join them on the medal stand. They saw the Americans as sore losers. The first Olympic loss in U.S. history brought about change. After a second straight loss to the U.S.S.R in 1988, the U.S. dropped collegians in favor of NBA All-Stars in international competition, giving birth to the Dream Team [Daily Dose, 9/21/15]. The silver medals from 1972 still sit unclaimed in a vault in Lasanne, Switzerland. “If we had gotten beat, I would be proud to display my silver medal today,” says Bantom. “But we didn’t get beat, we got cheated.” Team captain Kenny Davis, the only AAU player on the ’72 squad, went further, saying, “I have placed it in my will that my wife and my children can never, ever receive that medal from the 1972 Olympics.”
History shows that on this date in 1972, the Soviet Union beat the United States, 51-50, in the gold medal game of the Olympic basketball tournament.