Forty years ago yesterday, the USSR beat the USA 51-50 in the 1972 Olympic gold medal game, handing the Americans their first loss in Olympic competition. From a global perspective, it’s the most famous basketball game ever played. The contest is notorious not only for the outcome, but for the series of game management errors that caused the controversial finish.
(For those unfamiliar with the game, it was re-aired during a 2002 special on ESPN Classic and can be viewed here. If you don’t have an hour to spend on this, see this 15-minute piece narrated by Jim McKay 20 years ago. It has a couple of minor factual errors, but is the most accurate portrayal of events that I’ve seen.)
What’s striking to me about the game is just how many people who watched – or even participated in – the game that don’t remember what happened. For example, Doug Collins was the central figure in the closing moments. He would make two free throws to put the Americans ahead with three seconds remaining. In order to get those free throws he had to make a steal on the Soviets’ last possession before their game-winning effort. The U.S. was down one at the time. Here was Collins’ recollection of that moment…
If you don’t think your memory can fail you, consider that this figures to be the most memorable moment of Collins’ basketball life, and yet he’s mistaken about the situation. Video confirms that the Soviets took over possession with “inside 40 seconds” according to play-by-play guy Frank Gifford. The Soviets launched a shot with approximately ten seconds remaining because they had to due to the constraints of the 30-second shot clock that was used under 1972 rules.
(Interesting piece of broadcasting trivia: For the entire contest, neither Gifford nor his analyst Bill Russell mentioned the existence of a shot clock, which was seemingly an important detail in a game with a final score of 51-50.)
Also in the ESPN piece, the second-half ejection of starting center Dwight Jones is examined. Jones was tossed following a ruckus with the Soviets’ Mikheil “Mishako” Korkia. Host Dave Revsine sets up the questioning thusly…
It’s a plausible story and assistant coach John Bach’s response plays along with the premise but his memory seems to be faulty as well because the premise is completely false. Korkia actually played in each of the Soviets’ previous eight games during the ’72 Olympics.
He started the gold medal game, and was the seventh-leading scorer on the team. The Soviet version of Nehemiah Ingram he was not. If you watch the game from start to finish, there’s no evidence of any baiting going on. Korkia seldom guards Jones, and in the incident in question, it’s difficult to see how exactly he provokes Jones to lose his temper.
You don’t have to spend too much time hunting down interviews about the event to see other examples. When describing the decisive score by the Soviets, Bill Wall, executive director of USA Basketball from 1975-1992, is quoted in the McKay piece as saying…
Tom Burleson wasn’t in the game for the final play, nor was he ever in the game, effectively suspended by head coach Hank Iba for a violation of team rules. Nor did the official wave anyone back from the baseline. He merely indicates the plane of baseline is not to be crossed, which Tom McMillen misinterprets.
The latter discrepancy on Wall’s part may not be faulty memory. Perhaps it’s better attributed to blinding loyalty to USA Basketball. As are Wall’s mistaken claims that the Soviet inbounder stepped over the baseline, or that Soviet hero Aleksandr Belov committed a three-second violation, or that he committed a foul in catching the basketball. These accusations were repeated by oft-interviewed player Kenny Davis in a Bloomberg piece this summer.
As Bloomberg narrator Maureen Damer says, Davis expresses the “American version”. But too often, reports of the game settle for this version unchallenged, and video of the game gives enough evidence to cast significant doubt on it. For instance, most reports on the game mistakenly assert that the Soviets’ got three chances to win the game.
It was one thing for this to appear in wire service recaps immediately after the game when confusion reigned, but multiple stories regarding the recent 40th reunion of the team regurgitated the same line. This one from the Philadelphia Inquirer is an example…
They feel as strongly as they did in September, 1972, when a series of outrageous decisions by game officials and FIBA president R. William Jones gave the Soviet Union squad three separate chances to replay the game’s final three seconds. There were enough errors made, including a few by the Americans, to spend hours detailing and analyzing.
The bottom line is the Americans had a 50-49 lead after Collins, driven hard into the basket support, calmly made both free throws. And Jones exceeded his authority by ordering the game officials to give the USSR a do-over of the final three seconds. And then the U.S. team celebrated wildly after successfully defending that attempt.
But Jones and the game officials ordered yet another do-over based on an error by the clock operator. This time, in disarray and uncertain whether to remain on the court or walk off, the U.S. allowed an easy layup that ignited a similar celebration from the Soviet players.
It’s an easy appeal to an American audience to say the Soviets had three chances, but it’s not correct. The Soviets had one chance to score. A contrived one, mind you, but just one nonetheless.
The “first chance” was immediately after Collins’ second free throw. Brazilian referee Renato Righetto can be seen approaching the scorers’ table as the Soviets inbound the ball, attempting to resolve whether the Soviets’ had called time out before Collins’ free throw. Clearly the Soviets’ do not have a legitimate chance to score here. Righetto isn’t even retreating to a normal officiating position on the throw-in. While the clock runs to one second before it’s stopped, it’s clear that Righetto disrupts the play from the beginning. As soon as he does this, the fairest solution is to reset the clock to three seconds.
The “second chance” is bungled when the Bulgarian official, Artenik Arabadjian, rushes action back into play before the clock has been reset. The scorers’ table, in a panic, sounds the horn even before the ball is first touched in bounds setting off a wild American celebration. Clearly, this isn’t a legitimate chance. The Soviets were supposed to have been given three seconds to score and they were given none.
The third chance is the only legitimate one, and because of McMillen’s confusion, it turns out to be a good one for the Soviets. I’m not saying the U.S. didn’t get hurt by the chain of events. It worked to the Soviets benefit that play was stopped play after Collins’ second free throw, but then, the Soviet coach believed he called a time-out that wasn’t granted before Collins’ second free throw.
It’s expected that people’s memories of these events would fade, and perhaps some sort of pass can be given to sloppy reporting in modern times since these reports have relied on the memories and statements of the people involved. What really stunned me was that reporters on site even saw things that aren’t corroborated by the video. Take the AP report appearing in newspapers the following morning…
The officials, amid mass confusion and American rejoicing over an apparent 64th straight Olympic triumph, determined that there were three seconds still to go and that Russia deserved another effort.
This time, Zurab Sakandelidze heaved the ball the length of the floor and it bounded high off the rim and the 6-foot-7 Belov followed it from in close as the Russians erupted in glee.
I realize deadlines were tight – the game started at around midnight in Munich to accommodate a prime-time broadcast in the U.S. – but nothing like this happened. It must have been some sort of fantastical dream cooked up by the un-bylined writer in the heat of the moment. In addition to a fictional sequence involving a full-court pass that “bounded high off the rim”, the writer gets the name of the passer wrong, and refers to the Soviets as Russians. At least six of the 12 players on the Soviet roster weren’t actually Russian.
Forty years later, nearly every piece surrounding the event states that the U.S. team is united in not accepting the medals. But even the reporting surrounding this issue is sloppy. Tom Burleson has been on record for years (at least dating back to this ’92 SI piece by Gary Smith) stating he would accept his silver medal, bringing a refreshingly levelheaded approach to the issue. And according to that article, multiple players had in the past returned a secret ballot in the ‘80s indicating they would like their medals.
But the IOC has stipulated that all team members must agree to accept them for any to be awarded, and Kenny Davis and Tom Henderson have it written in their wills to never accept them. It’s clear the Americans, as a team, will never accept the medals. No amount of reason will overcome the piercing emotions that the players felt in Munich’s Basketballhalle forty years ago.
What’s most interesting is not the team’s unique refusal to accept the medals. (Though given other, bigger Olympic injustices, like Roy Jones and Lance Larson, the basketball team’s continued refusal of the medals is a fascinating topic on its own.) It’s that almost everyone remembers something incorrectly about the most famous game ever played.
[Postscript: Conspiracy theorists should watch the whole game. It’s cleanly played and there’s no evidence of manipulation on the part of the officials. The charge by certain American players of dirty play on the part of the Soviets is flimsy. At least until the brutal foul on Collins at the end. Also, I’d recommend visiting last3seconds.com which has a comprehensive collection of historical documents from the game. The end of the game really is an awful story, not specifically to the Americans, but because it ruined a great game between the two best teams in the world.]