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Soviets given 3 shots to snatch Olympic gold
By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 1999
It was ours. We invented it. And nobody was going to beat us at our own game. Not if we had anything to say about it.
Unfortunately for the United States, the International Amateur Basketball Federation, or FIBA, had the last word. And FIBA said the last shot, by Aleksander Belov of the Soviet Union, counted.
In one of the most chaotic, confusing and controversial endings in the history of basketball, the Soviets were given three chances to score with three seconds remaining.
Despite several apparent violations, they did it on their third try, beating the United States 51-50 for the gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics to end the Americans' 63-game winning streak.
"I've never seen anything like this in all my years in basketball," said 68-year-old U.S. coach Hank Iba, who also had coached the gold-medal teams in 1964 and '68.
So angry and frustrated were the U.S. players that they voted unanimously to reject the silver medal. When the delayed ceremony was held hours later, the Soviets and bronze-medal Cubans were there. The U.S. players were not.
The game was to have been played 24 hours earlier, but the Games were suspended for one day after the slaughter of 11 Israelis by Arab terrorists. And there was an accommodation to American television by showing the game in prime time.
So on Sept. 10, 1972, at 11:45 p.m. in Munich (6:45 p.m. EDT), play began. It ended at 1:14 a.m. In short, here's what happened during the first 39 minutes, 57 seconds:
The Soviet Union led 26-21 at the half. With 12:18 to play, Dwight Jones, the United States' 6-foot-8 scoring and rebounding leader, and a Soviet reserve were ejected after a scuffle over a loose ball. On the ensuing jump ball, 6-9 Jim Brewer was knocked to the floor. He left with a concussion and had no recollection of what was to follow.
Jim Forbes' jump shot with 40 seconds to go cut the Soviets' lead to 49-48. They worked the clock down to 10 seconds, then 6-11 Tom McMillen blocked Belov's shot and Doug Collins intercepted the ball as Belov tried to pass it to the top of the key.
Collins was fouled as he attempted a layup. He was awarded two free throws and, despite the horn going off in the middle of his second shot, made both to put the United States ahead 50-49 with three seconds remaining.
The Soviets grabbed the ball and passed inbounds. It was deflected at midcourt. U.S. players and fans swarmed onto the court, celebrating the apparent victory.
But the clock still showed one second. The court was cleared.
With McMillen waving his arms to block a pass, a Soviet player threw the ball inbounds. It fell short. The horn sounded. Once again players and fans mobbed each other to celebrate.
But the clock apparently had not been reset. Robert Jones, secretary-general of FIBA, ordered that three seconds, not one second, be put on the clock. Again the court was cleared.
Again a Soviet player prepared to throw the ball in. This time, though, as McMillen waved his arms, a referee told him to back off. He did, and the Soviet player threw the ball the length of the court.
With Jones and Brewer out of the game, the job of guarding the muscular 6-8 Belov fell to 6-3 Kevin Joyce and slender 6-7 Robert Forbes. As the ball arrived, all three jumped for it. Belov knocked over the Americans, caught the ball at the free-throw line, turned, drove to the basket and sank the easy layup that gave the Soviets the victory.
The Bulgarian and Brazilian referees signed the score sheets; Iba refused and formally protested the outcome. There were numerous questions, starting with why the horn sounded as Collins was making his second free throw, and whether the Soviets asked for a timeout after the first free throw or tried to call timeout after the second.
Furthermore, videotape showed the referees failed to call two Soviet violations. The player inbounding the ball stepped on the line. And Belov was guilty of a three-seconds-in-the-lane violation. The protest read, in part: "The U.S.A. was shooting the second of a two-shot foul. This free throw was made. At the point the free throw was made, there were three seconds remaining. At this point, according to F.I.B.A. rules ... neither team can call a timeout." The protest also said the official score sheet did not show a timeout in the last three seconds.
"The opponents played the ball and ran off two seconds. According to F.I.B.A. rules, this was the only official way to continue the game. With one second remaining, spectators ran onto the playing court. The referees stopped the game at this time. At this point (with one second left), according to F.I.B.A. rules, they acted accordingly.
"When the spectators were removed, the game was started with one second to go. The one second was played and the horn sounded, officially ending the game. The official score, 50 United States, 49 Soviet Union. According to F.I.B.A. rules, the game is officially over."
Except it wasn't. Hours later, the five-member appeals jury said so.
The 1988 U.S. basketball team, primarily college players like its predecessors, won the bronze medal at Seoul. Then the rules changed. Professionals were welcomed. The NBA's Dream Team, led by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley, ran away with the gold. It will be a while before the rest of the world catches up with Americans playing the American game.