When the game finally ended, the commentator for Soviet television, Nina Eremina, a former player for the women’s national team, was too overcome by emotion to describe what she had just seen. She sat before millions of viewers across 11 time zones and 15 republics and cried.
In another time and place, but in an equally improbable Olympic moment, one of Eremina’s American counterparts would say, “Do you believe in miracles?”
The Soviet Union’s basketball victory over the United States in the championship game of the 1972 Summer Olympics at Munich, Germany, was as astonishing to most fans throughout the world as the U.S. hockey team’s semifinal victory over the Soviets would be eight years later in the Winter Games at Lake Placid, N.Y.
And even more dramatic.
With three seconds remaining, three seconds that, 20 years later, would still inspire the winners and infuriate the losers, the Soviets’ Ivan Edeshko threw a length-of-the court pass to teammate Alexander Belov, who laid the ball into the basket for the winning points in a 51-50 victory.
It was the United States’ first Olympic loss in 63 games, and, for the first time since basketball became an Olympic sport in 1936, the country where the sport originated did not win the gold medal.
The U.S. players returned home from Munich with no medals, having voted to boycott the medal ceremony out of anger over a controversial, perhaps unprecedented decision that added three seconds to the clock, three seconds that enabled the Edeshko-Belov connection to win the game for the Soviets.
U.S. officials protested to the International Amateur Basketball Federation (FIBA), which the following day rejected their claim, as did the International Olympic Committee some months later.
Twenty years later, U.S. players continue to protest. The IOC offered twice within the last 10 years to retrieve the abandoned silver medals from a Swiss bank vault, on the condition that the 12 players unanimously agree to accept them. Both times, the offer was rejected. In a recent Sports Illustrated article, 10 players said they would vote against accepting the offer if it were made today, considering their loss an Olympic injustice.
There is, however, another side to the story in the capital of the former Soviet Union, where the players from that Olympic championship team do not apologize for their victory.
“They were really strong, and, reliving the game thousands of times in my dreams, I can’t help but admire them,” Alzhan Zharmukhamedov said of the U.S. players, nine of whom eventually played in the NBA. “They shouldn’t be that offended, though, for we unquestionably deserved the victory.
“As for the controversial three seconds, they never spoiled my happiness at winning the Olympic gold medal. I won it because I deserved it, same as the rest of us on the team.”
But others on the team are resentful, believing that their gold medals have been tarnished by the unusual circumstances leading to the victory. The national sports newspaper, Sovietski Sport, devoted only one sentence to the controversy in its account of the game, but some players were unable to ignore the gnawing feeling they had that night that their triumph would never be acknowledged by the Americans, a foreboding that proved true.
“Even now, 20 years later, I can’t help feeling a bittersweet taste because of this controversy,” said Edeshko, currently the coach of the Central Army Sports Club team. “That was my only Olympic gold medal, and it is a pity that some people may think it was not deserved.”
One of those is former NBA guard and coach Doug Collins, a leading player for the U.S. team in 1972, who pointedly declined an opportunity four years ago to be reintroduced to Edeshko while the Soviet coach was touring with a team in Atlanta.
“The Americans should not be sore at us,” Edeshko said. “Let them remember how we played and led absolutely most of the game. We did deserve the victory.”
In retrospect, perhaps the victory was not as remarkable as it seemed.
Anticipating their initiation into the Summer Olympics in 1952 at Helsinki, Finland, the Soviets formed their first national basketball team in 1947. Five years later, they were the class of Europe, having won two continental championships, and they finished second at Helsinki, losing the championship game by 11 points to the United States.
The United States did not take the improving Soviets lightly in the finals of the next two Olympics, beating them by 34 points in 1956 at Melbourne, Australia, and by 24 points in 1960 at Rome. But four years later, in the championship game at Tokyo, the Soviets led after the first 10 minutes before losing by 14 points.
According to a book entitled “USSR-USA Sports Encounters,” by former Sovietski Sport reporter Anatoly Pinchuk, the Soviets believed that they were ready to play on an even plane with the best U.S. amateurs. He wrote that one week before the Soviet team departed for the 1968 Summer Olympics at Mexico City, the coach, Alexander Gomelski, declared he would not be satisfied with a silver medal.
But were his words really so bold? By then, Soviet teams routinely were winning games against U.S. semi-pro and college all-star teams. The Soviets were not so naive as to think that they were beating the best amateurs the United States had to offer. They knew that, as far as international basketball was concerned, the United States concentrated only on the Olympics. But, in 1968, Gomelski was encouraged almost to the point of overconfidence when he learned that the United States would be without its best collegians, Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Elvin Hayes and Pete Maravich.
Gomelski’s team lost to Yugoslavia in the semifinals and settled for the bronze medal.
Two years later, after another third-place finish in the World Championships, the Soviets changed coaches, from the avuncular Gomelski to the disciplinarian Vladimir Kondrashin, and began looking forward cautiously to 1972, when they believed they would have their strongest team.
If they had known then that the United States, again weakened by the refusal of outstanding collegians such as Bill Walton and David Thompson to participate, would send one of its most vulnerable teams to Munich, they might have made the same mistake as Gomelski.
“The Americans badly underestimated the strength of our team, as did nearly everybody else,” Edeshko said. “Even our chiefs in Moscow planned for us to take second place. Everything in our country was planned at that time, including international sports.
“So having secured the desired and targeted second place (by advancing to the championship game), we felt quite well covered and were able to play an easy and unrestrained game. We didn’t care much if we lost; we had done what we were told by Moscow.”
In control for most of the game, the Soviets led by 10 points entering the final 10 minutes and by eight with 6:07 remaining. “With the rules existing at that time, that was a hell of a lead,” Edeshko said.
But when the U.S. team changed to a full-court pressure defense against players who were notoriously inept at dribbling with their left hands, momentum began to shift. The Soviets went almost seven minutes without a field goal.
Admitting that he and his teammates succumbed to pressure, Edeshko said: “Our legs started trembling. Our hands refused to obey us.”
Another player, Alexander Boloshev, added: “When it came home to us that we were actually beating--and rather easily--the brilliant American team, we, as if by evil magic, turned from relaxed and confident players into overstressed clock-watchers. The last minute of that game was probably longer than the rest of the match--or the rest of my life, at that.”
The Soviets still had a 49-48 lead with eight seconds remaining, when an off-balance Belov threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted near midcourt by Collins, who drove toward the basket. Zurab (Sako) Sakandelidze caught Collins and fouled him. There were three seconds remaining.
It would be the longest three seconds in Olympic history.
According to “Serious Fun: History of Spectator Sport in the Soviet Union,” a soon-to-be-published book by UC San Diego Russian history professor Robert Edelman: “With Collins going to the line for two foul shots to give the U.S. the lead, Kondrashin signaled for a timeout. According to the rules then in force, a coach had a choice of taking the timeout before the first or second foul shot but not after both shots had been taken.
“As a special technical innovation for the Olympics, coaches had been given a button that turned on a red light, which alerted officials at the scorers’ table. Kondrashin intended to take time out after the first shot, but the inexperienced German game officials, thinking he had changed his mind when he did not take time immediately, failed to give the Soviets any timeout at all.”
So instead of being awarded his timeout after Collins made the first free throw, Kondrashin watched in a stupor as the American sank the second to give the United States a 50-49 lead. Soviet assistant Sergei Bashkin charged to the scorers’ table, screaming for the timeout he knew Kondrashin had requested.
But the referees, a Brazilian and a Bulgarian, had not been informed of the timeout by the German game officials and ordered the Soviets to inbound the ball.
When they did, the ball was deflected out of bounds by a U.S. defender with one second remaining. Thinking the game was over, jubilant American spectators rushed onto the court to celebrate, joining Kondrashin, Bashkin and several players from the Soviet bench who were still protesting the timeout they had not received.
Amid the chaos, the referees cleared the court and ordered the Soviets to inbound the ball a second time. The pass again was deflected as the buzzer sounded, and the U.S. players joined their fans in the merriment.
It was at that point that the late Robert Jones, FIBA’s secretary general, intervened. Although he was not authorized by his federation’s rules to participate in the officiating of a game, he ruled that the Soviets should be allowed the timeout that they had requested, and that three seconds should be restored to the clock.
The U.S. players see the rest--the pass by Edeshko, the off-balance attempt of defenders Kevin Joyce and Bob Forbes to intercept, the Belov catch and layup--in their nightmares.
U.S. officials filed an official protest, claiming that the Soviets had not called for a timeout at the proper time, but, in interviews with reporter Pinchuk for the book, “USSR-USA Sports Encounters,” that was denied by Kondrashin and Bashkin.
Bashkin: “When Sako made the foul (on Collins), Kondrashin asked for a timeout. There was a long lead to the officials’ table--you pressed the button and a lamp lit up on the table. He pressed the button and got up from the bench.”
Pinchuk: “Perhaps the system was not working.”
Kondrashin: “It worked all right! When I was in Geneva recently, I saw a color film of the match. The lamp is burning and the (German game officials) are nodding their heads. . . .”
FIBA’s jury of appeals, meeting the day after the game, agreed with the Soviets, voting, 3-2, that the result should stand. U.S. officials made much of the fact that the three votes in favor of the Soviets came from representatives of communist countries, ignoring Jones being British.
In an interview a few years before his death, Jones said that he was as shocked as everyone else at Munich when the Soviets scored and admitted that he might have overstepped his authority, but he insisted that the decision to award them the timeout and the three seconds was correct.
Edelman, the Soviet sports historian, said that he believes Kondrashin’s version for two reasons.
“I don’t think he would have made that mistake,” Edelman said during a recent interview at his home in Los Angeles. “He had the reputation of being an extremely good bench coach because of his play-calling, substituting and use of timeouts, and he was extremely experienced with international rules, because those were the rules they used in the Soviet Union.
“Also, he knew that he had to have the timeout to get Edeshko into the game. Edeshko had made two passes from the sideline in game-ending situations earlier in the year against touring American teams. He also had beaten Kondrashin’s team (Spartak Leningrad) two years earlier in a (Soviet league) playoff game with the same pass he made at Munich. Kondrashin didn’t forget.
“Whatever anyone wants to say about those last three seconds, it was a fantastic athletic play.”
Edeshko said that the “real drama” began after Belov scored, while the Soviets waited for FIBA’s decision the next morning on whether the game should be replayed.
“Before the game, we prepared heaps of cold beer, German sausages and other snacks to celebrate our success whether we won or lost,” he said. “But, there we were, spending a sleepless night in front of all that cold beer and snacks, shattered and exhausted.
“In the morning, our coach gathered us together and said, with a straight face, ‘Well, guys, there is going to be a replay . . . in 1976 in Montreal.’ Boy, did we get at that beer!”
Postscript: There was no rematch in 1976 because the Soviets, for the second time in eight years, lost to the Yugoslavs in the semifinals. Because of the U.S. boycott in 1980 and the Soviet boycott in 1984, the United States and the Soviet Union did not meet again until the 1988 Summer Olympics at Seoul, where Gomelski, back in favor, coached the Soviets to an 82-76 semifinal victory en route to another gold medal.
Times staff writer Randy Harvey wrote this story from Barcelona, special correspondent Sergei L. Loiko reported from Moscow.