Trying to Right an Olympic Hoops Wrong 40 Years Later

Jerry MilaniContributor IJuly 26, 2012

MUNICH, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 10:  USA Basketball team battles for the tip off against the Russia basketball team on September 10, 1972 in Munich, Germany. The Russia won this controversial game 51 to 50 after being given extra time to get a final shot off. It was the first loss in USA Basketball history. (Photo by Getty Images)
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For fans of American sport of a certain age, nothing can ever replace the glory of “Miracle on Ice.” If you are a little older and happen to be from Russia, then probably your moment in sports time came a little earlier.

On September 10, 1972, in Munich, a last-second layup by a star-crossed young Soviet star gave the supporters of the Iron Curtain one of their most symbolic and controversial victories over the West.

In the eyes of many, that comparison ended right there, as the basket by Alexander Belov—on the third try after officials reset a clock on a series of technicalities, misunderstood rules violations and missteps in protocol—set off a controversial chain of events. 40 years later, it still creates tremendous angst in many from the West. 

The last seconds of that gold-medal game, the players involved and the history before and after was studied this week in a new series by Bloomberg editor Dan Golden. It unearthed some new facts about Belov and others, including the close relationship between the Soviets and Renato William Jones, secretary general of FIBA, that all led to the controversial final seconds of the game and the result that helped change basketball into today’s global game.

“It was a different time, one when U.S.-Soviet relations were very much in flux, and the controversy around the final seconds of the game, really were reflective of so much going on in the world at the time,” Golden told Bleacher Report.

“The reaction in the Soviet Union as I understand it is close to the same as the ‘Miracle on Ice.’ Maybe not so fervent, but a huge victory. It made the team permanent heroes, and even today, those that are alive are heroes. They had been trying to touch the U.S. in basketball for years, and it seemed like an impossible task. Then they won, and the game changed forever.”

What also changed forever—and is well documented in the series—were the fortunes of the American Olympians, all of whom, to this day, have refused to accept their silver medals. This September, they will gather for the 40th anniversary of the game and continue to try and find a way to have what they think was an egregious wrong, righted for all to see.

Those remaining from the Soviet Union, as well as their families and friends who have followed, do not agree. They would rather see the Americans accept the silver and move on.

“The game still resonates in Russia,” Golden added. "[Atlanta Hawks forward] Zaza Pachulia is from Georgia—two of the starters in that game were from Georgia. They were subs in the other games, but the Soviet coach wanted a quicker team, so he started these two guys from Georgia, and it made a huge difference; they pushed the pace when the U.S. expected the same methodical game. They are remembered as heroes. Pachulia said they talk about it all the time in magazines and TV. 

"There is an annual tournament in St. Petersburg around October 1, in which they honor the survivors at halftime." he added. "For 20-year-olds, it's probably not a touchstone, but for people old enough to remember, it is a point of pride and a high point.”

For Americans on that team, which included current Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins, the game was the nadir of their basketball careers, one which continues to sting to this day. Can the wrong be righted?

“It's a tough call. I think the game should probably have played out to the end without the timeout or putting time back on the clock,” Golden opined. “It was basically stopped with one second for no reason, and the game probably ends unless [Russian guard Sergei] Belov makes a half-court shot."

Golden continued: "I wouldn't discount that he could hit a shot like that, but everything else was kind of unnecessary. The Soviets didn't get the timeout they wanted, and it's hard to figure out why, but that happens all the time. The Americans think there is precedent, but the IOC and FIBA and much of the basketball world have moved on.”

The hoops world has moved on to the place where an American loss in Olympic competition is not as unusual as it once was, although this year’s collection of pros may be pretty unstoppable. Technology has also moved on to the point where egregious human error in terms of scoring and clock management cannot be ignored.

However, politics continues to play its way into international sport, with London 2012 probably not being any exception.

But for a team of now-60-year-old former American college basketball stars, the hope is that somehow the politics see their way clear to right a wrong committed on the field of play. That wrong helped turn the tide of a global sport, at the expense of a team that had dominated the game to that point and probably deserved their chance at the podium, save for a few fleeting and controversial seconds.


Jerry Milani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained first-hand.