Today in 1972, the United States and the Soviet Union met in the final match of the Olympic basketball tourney to determine which team would go home with a gold medal. It would prove to be the most controversial game in the history of international basketball competition, set against a backdrop of national embarrassments, Soviet-influenced judging and terrorism.
The city of Munich, then in West Germany, won its bid to host the 1972 Summer Olympics in 1966, beating the cities of Detroit in the United States, Madrid in Spain and Montreal in Canada. The last Olympic games held in Germany were in 1936, when the nation was under the iron grip of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi government. West Germany wanted to present an optimistic and democratic land, not the divided nation cut in two by Cold War mistrust and antagonism. It was not to be.
Although several small event-related occurrences happened during the games, it was the events of September 5th, known today as the Munich massacre, that most darkened the Olympic atmosphere. On that day, a group of eight Palestinian terrorists belonging to the Black September organization broke into the Olympic Village in Munich and took eleven Israeli athletes hostage in their apartment, soon killing two of them. The subsequent standoff in the village lasted for almost 18 hours. During a badly botched German rescue attempt at the military airport of Fürstenfeldbruck, where the captors with their hostages had been transferred by helicopter on their way to board a plane bound for an undetermined Arabic country, all the surviving Israeli hostages were killed by the Palestinians. All but three of the Palestinianians were killed as well. Two of those three were later killed by the Israeli Mossad. The Olympic events were suspended, but Avery Brundage, the International Olympic Committee president, decided that the Games should continue in the spirit with which they began. The Olympics resumed a day later.
And so a pall of grief and anger settled over the Olympics as the Soviet and American basketball teams faced one another for the gold medal. The American squad was made up of college athletes, the youngest group ever assembled for a run at the gold. The Soviet team was made up of experienced players who would’ve been considered professionals anywhere in the western world. That team had played together in hundreds of games before Munich; the Americans had played together through only 12 exhibition games and the Olympic trials. But the United States invented basketball---next to baseball and football, it was the most popular sport in the country. American teams had won seven consecutive Olympic gold medals before 1972 and had won 63 consecutive games before facing the Soviets. While the Soviets were definitely the stiffest competition the Americans faced, they had been beaten in previous years and there was no reason to believe they would not be beaten now. Each team entered the final contest with eight wins and no losses.
The USSR took a 7-0 lead early and by halftime was in possession of a 26-21 lead. With 12:18 to play and the Soviets holding a 38-34 lead, Dwight Jones, the USA’s top scorer and rebounder, and Dvorni Edeshko were ejected from the game after a loose ball scuffle. On the ensuing jump ball, Jim Brewer suffered a concussion after being knocked to the floor. The U.S. continued to lag behind in the second half, but narrowed the gap to one point, 49-48 on Jim Forbes' jumper with 40 seconds remaining in the game. The Soviets worked the clock down to 10 seconds but Tom McMillen blocked Aleksander Belov's shot and Doug Collins intercepted his pass as he attempted to pass it back out to center court. Collins drove to the basket and was undercut by a Soviet player as he attempted a shot with three seconds left. Awarded two free throws for the foul, a groggy Collins sank both free throws to put the USA ahead 50-49 with three-seconds left despite the horn going off in the middle of his second attempt.
For the next few seconds, there was mass confusion among the players, referees and the crowd. Immediately following Collins' free throws, the Soviets passed the ball in bounds but failed to score. But one official had whistled for the play to stop with one second remaining after hearing the earlier horn and seeing a disturbance near the scorers’ table. The Soviets argued that they had requested a timeout before Collins' foul shots. The referees ordered the clock reset to three seconds and the game's final seconds replayed. However, the clock was in the process of being reset when the referees put the ball in play. A full-court Soviet pass missed its mark, the horn sounded and the American team began celebrating.
It was premature. R. William Jones, Secretary General of the FIBA (The International Basketball Federation), stepped in and ordered the clock again reset to 0:03 and the game replayed from that point. This time, the Soviet Aleksander Belov and the USA's Kevin Joyce and Jim Forbes went up for the pass. Belov caught it at the foul line, sending the two Americans sprawling. Belov then drove to the basket for the layup. As the buzzer sounded, it was the USSR 51, the USA 50.
In protest, the US team refused to accept their silver medals, claiming that the victory was stolen from them by sheer manipulation of the game clock. They appealed to an Olympic panel to have the final score overturned, but the vote was rejected 3-2 along Cold War lines: Puerto Rico and Italy voted for the US, while Cuba, Hungary and Romania voted against.
On the 30th anniversary of the game, the International Olympic Committee approached the US team and offered them their silver medals once again. To a man, they refused. And so they remain in a Swiss vault, a reminder of a quasi-war that was fought not just on battlefields, but in every arena of human competition.