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Second-Hand Smoke

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thirty years later, Ivan Edeshko buries his face in his hands and groans: “Oh no.” Not another question about those three seconds.

“All my life was three seconds,” he says. “All my life.”

The memory should be cause for joy. With three seconds left in the gold-medal basketball game at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games, Edeshko lofted an inbounds pass the length of the court, into the hands of teammate Aleksandr Belov, who scored to give the Soviet Union a stunning victory over the United States.

In that glimmer of a moment, the Americans lost for the first time in Olympic history and the Soviets truly arrived as a basketball power.

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But the 51-50 victory still ranks among the most controversial finishes in international sport, with coaches charging onto the court and officials arguing, with the Americans celebrating an apparent victory only to have three seconds put back on the clock, giving Edeshko a chance to throw his pass.

To cloud matters further, the game was played against a tragic backdrop, the murder of 11 Israeli team members by Palestinian terrorists in the Olympic village days earlier. The Cold War played a role too, capitalism versus communism, the basketball arena transformed into political arena.

So the questions Edeshko has faced for three decades have not always been pleasant, the comments not always congratulatory. It is enough to ruin an otherwise pleasant afternoon of sipping beer at a sidewalk cafe in Indianapolis where he was serving as assistant coach of the Russian team at the World Basketball Championship last week.

The way he sees it, there are two versions of what happened: the American version and the truth. If he were back home, he could better respond.

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“People ask me questions,” he says. “I give them a videotape of the game.”

The Letter

Speaking by telephone from his office in Landover, Md., Tom McMillen talks about a packet of newspaper articles he has collected. Munich was far more shocking than the losses suffered last week by the U.S. team at the championship in Indianapolis. All these years later, he says, people are still writing about the injustice.

With three seconds left, McMillen was the American player assigned to cover the inbounds pass, standing eye-to-eye with Edeshko. Exactly how far apart they stood is a matter of contention, but more on that later. For now, suffice to say McMillen is seeking redress.

“I think we have a case,” he says. “And I think it’s worth exploring.”

His feelings might be even stronger than in 1972, his interest piqued by the case of the Canadian pairs skaters who finished second to a Russian duo at the Salt Lake City Olympics last winter.

After that questionable finish, a French judge said she had been “pressured” to vote for the Russians. The International Olympic Committee then agreed to award duplicate gold medals to the Canadians, and McMillen took note of a comment by IOC President Jacques Rogge.

A sailor for the Belgian Olympic team in 1972, Rogge was on hand for the basketball controversy. The skating incident, he said, “was peanuts compared to that.”

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“If you read between the lines, you know what he is saying,” McMillen says. “Our game was worse than what happened to the Canadian skaters.”

Having served as a Maryland congressman after his playing days, McMillen decided to take action. He conferred with his former teammates, then wrote a letter to Rogge asking that their game be officially revisited.

To this day, the silver medals awarded to the U.S. remain in a Swiss vault. McMillen and his teammates refused to accept them in 1972 and have likewise declined when the IOC periodically has asked them to reconsider.

“We’re not militants or anything,” says Ed Ratleff, a guard on the team. “We feel we got the gold taken away from us.”

McMillen says, “There are a lot of factors that keep circling around this game.”

The Game

Circling like buzzards. Thirty years later, people still pick over the carcass, squabbling over bits and pieces, scrutinizing events that took place even before the Games began.

Top collegians such as Bill Walton and David Thompson had declined to play in Munich, so America’s hopes rested on a young squad featuring McMillen and Ratleff, Dwight Jones and Doug Collins, Jim Brewer and Bobby Jones. There was debate over the man chosen as coach, the aging and conservative Hank Iba.

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“We had the wrong coach,” says Ratleff, an All-American from Long Beach State. “They brought in a bunch of thin, fast guys. You’re talking about guys who loved to score, who never passed up shots in college, but he made us slow it down and make all these passes.”

Meanwhile, the Soviets brought a veteran team that had been slowly but surely closing the talent gap on the once-untouchable Americans.

In the championship game in Munich, a game in which both teams looked nervous and awkward, the Soviets took control and led by eight points with five minutes left. Only then did Iba loosen the reins.

Don Haskins, an assistant coach, insists this was planned.

“Mr. Iba told me all summer long that the Russians would choke at the end,” says Haskins, the former Texas El Paso coach. “And that’s when we started to press.”

Facing full-court pressure, the Soviets began forcing shots and turning the ball over. Their lead was only 49-48 with six seconds left when Belov, trapped against the baseline, threw an ill-advised pass. Collins intercepted and, racing for a layup, was undercut by Zurab Sakandelidze. Though dazed, Collins made both free throws to give his team a 50-49 lead.

Three seconds remained.

From there, the action proceeded in fits and starts, almost dreamlike. As the Soviets inbounded the ball, assistant coach Sergei Bashkin charged onto the floor screaming that his team had asked for a timeout, causing referee Renato Righetto of Brazil to stop play. One second showed on the clock.

After much confusion and arguing, the Soviets were awarded their timeout. When play resumed, they failed to score, the horn sounded and the Americans celebrated. But the game wasn’t over.

The public address announcer told a startled arena that three seconds were being put on the clock. More chaos ensued, people shouting in various languages around the scorer’s table. Haskins wanted to end matters by pulling the U.S. team off the floor but Iba, looking red-faced and confused, was concerned about a potential appeal.

“I don’t want to lose this game later tonight, sitting on my butt,” he told Haskins.

Finally, officials cleared the floor and reset the clock, giving the Soviets a third inbounds pass. Edeshko threw to Belov, who outjumped two defenders and laid the ball in the basket.

The American Version

Where to begin?

Even before the controversy, the Americans were angry because their top scorer, Dwight Jones, was ejected along with Soviet player Mishako Korkia for fighting. They have since suggested Korkia, far less valuable to his team, started the scuffle intentionally.

But that complaint pales in comparison to issues raised in the final moments.

First of all, Ratleff wants to know why Bashkin, the Soviet assistant, was not given a technical foul for stepping on court during play. Then he wants to know why officials made a big deal about the Soviet timeout.

“If a coach calls timeout and it’s missed, it’s just missed,” he says. “It happens all the time.”

Haskins and Brewer insist that when the horn blew after the Soviets’ “second” chance, the game should have ended. McMillen has qualms with the way the “third” chance was handled.

As Edeshko prepared to throw his pass, referee Artenik Arabadjian of Bulgaria made several gestures, first pointing toward McMillen, then toward the end line. McMillen says Arabadjian told him to back away.

No rule required the defender to back away, but McMillen recalled something Iba had told the team before the Olympics. The rest of the basketball world is out to get us, the coach said, so don’t expect a fair shake.

In a recent HBO documentary, Arabadjian denied telling McMillen to back off. But the player, mindful of his coach’s warning, drifted toward the free-throw line, giving Edeshko a clear view of the court.

“We were conscious the game could be won by hook or crook,” McMillen says. “I was afraid of a technical being called on me.”

Once the pass was thrown, several American players insist that Belov illegally pushed away from defenders Jim Forbes and Kevin Joyce.

Even more troubling to McMillen was something that happened off the court. There would be no controversy, he says, if not for the late R. William Jones, secretary general of the International Amateur Basketball Federation (FIBA).

Jones was known for running his federation with an iron fist. Sometime around the “second” chance, he came out of the stands and instructed officials to put three seconds on the clock. In an interview a few years before his death, Jones insisted his decision was correct, but admitted he had no authority to intervene.

McMillen draws an analogy: Imagine if NBA Commissioner David Stern had run down to the court and told referees what to do during a controversial playoff game between the Lakers and Sacramento Kings last May. “David Stern just doesn’t come out of the stands,” he says.

Jones’ actions now form the crux of McMillen’s appeal to the IOC.

After the skating incident in Salt Lake City, Rogge was asked if awarding duplicate gold medals to the Canadian skaters might lead to revisiting previous Olympic controversies. Rogge said the IOC acted only because the French judge initially claimed to have been pressured.

The IOC would not reconsider past officiating errors, Rogge said, only cases in which there appeared to be “manipulation of the judgment.”

In his letter to the IOC, McMillen cited “a blatant abuse of authority by Dr. Jones” as evidence of such manipulation. He also referred to the American protest after the game, which a FIBA panel denied, 3-2, the dissenting votes cast by representatives from Communist bloc countries.

“If the referees had made a bad judgment call, there would be no case,” he says. “But, clearly, our game was victimized by manipulation.”

Another Viewpoint

In the folklore of American sport, there is no question about what transpired. Ratleff explains: “We’re not the team that got beat, we’re the team that got cheated.”

As a lifelong basketball fan, Robert Edelman says he would like to agree. But as a professor of Russian history at UC San Diego, he takes a clinical approach. “The thing that bothers me as a historian is this idea of the United States being cheated has lived on and has never been challenged with any kind of research,” he says.

Sitting in the den of his Solana Beach home, playing and replaying videotape of the game, Edelman believes the American case is not so clear-cut.

First he deals with the fight that got Dwight Jones ejected. Some Americans have claimed Korkia was a benchwarmer sent in to provoke Jones. In fact, Korkia was a starter and the videotape appears to show Jones swinging the first elbow as the players grappled for a rebound.

Then comes the matter of the final seconds.

At the time of the 1972 Olympics, coaches called timeouts by pushing a button on the sideline. Soviet Coach Vladimir Kondrashin has maintained that he pushed the button after Collins was fouled, intending to huddle with his team between free throws.

But it appears that officials at the scorer’s table became confused. They either forgot to award the timeout, thought Kondrashin had changed his mind or simply neglected to inform the referees.

On the videotape, a horn sounds just before Collins releases his second free throw and one of the referees looks toward the sideline, all of which suggests that someone at the scorer’s table wanted to rectify the error. Before that could happen, Collins’ shot swished through the net and the Russians quickly inbounded the ball.

Only a second remained on the clock when Bashkin got to the scorer’s table and the game was stopped. Then Jones got involved and can be seen holding up three fingers.

But when the Soviets got their “second” chance, the scoreboard clock showed 50 seconds. And the horn that sounded on the second inbounds, the one that sent the Americans into a joyous frenzy, seemed to come too quickly.

The timing suggests that, once again, the scorer’s table was trying to stop the game to correct a mistake. Thus the “third” try.

And nothing on the videotape suggests Belov fouled his defenders.

“It was obviously a poorly supervised game,” Edelman says. “But I don’t think it happened the way many people remember it.”

The Aftermath

In one respect, the outcome of a basketball game--even a gold-medal game between superpowers--could not have mattered less. The death of 11 Israelis made sport seem trifling.

“A lot of the guys were pretty overwhelmed,” McMillen recalls. “There were a lot of us who thought the Games should have been canceled.”

But the late Avery Brundage, then president of the IOC, decided otherwise and, somehow, athletes and fans found a way to care about the championship game that started late Sept. 9 and stretched into the early morning hours of the next day. What transpired--the first U.S. defeat, the confused ending, the Cold War implications--remains among the strongest memories of the unusually memorable Munich Games.

“When something happens that is a lie, that is not on the up-and-up, it doesn’t go away,” says Brewer, now a Toronto Raptor assistant coach. “If it was an honest mistake, people could accept that. But the way it happened, politics entered onto the court.”

That is why McMillen launched his appeal. With no response from the IOC yet, he plans to ask American politicians to join in support of his effort.

The Soviet players--who held a reunion this week to celebrate the anniversary of their victory--are angry too. They took it as a slap in the face, a lack of respect, when the Americans refused to join them on the medal stand. They still see the Americans as sore losers.

“I think it rankles even more now,” Edelman says. “I mean, the Americans won the Cold War. But they won’t recognize this one Soviet victory.”

That is why Edeshko hates to hear these questions and would rather answer them by handing over a videotape. Still, he understands why questions keep popping up. Like his American counterparts, he knows the memories will not die.

“It was the first time the Americans lost and everyone remembers the first time,” he says. “It was a time of Cold War, the Soviet Union against the USA, and sport was political.”

So on a sunny afternoon he takes another sip of beer, lights a cigarette and talks a while longer.

“Thirty years from now, I will still speak about it,” he says. “It’s history.”


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