If you are still a living and breathing veteran of the Cold War on the Russian side, chances are later this summer you may smile and think back fondly to a time 40 years ago like some Americans will harken back to the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. The date was September 9, the place was Munich, Germany, and the event was the men’s gold medal basketball game between a team of collegiate All-Stars and an-ever improving team from the USSR. The Soviets shocked the basketball world with a 51-50 win when Aleksandr Belov on the third try of an inbounds pass, laid in a basket that set off a controversy that has raged until today. The series of events and the aftermath, which includes alleged consipracy and misdeeds by IOC officials, improper interpretations of rules and the still standing refusal to accept the silver medals still by the entire U.S. men’s hoops squad is the subject of a three part series this week by Bloomberg News, on the eve of the 2012 Games.
The series, by award winning Bloomberg News Editor-at-Large Dan Golden, took months to compile, unearthing a report in a forgotten Moscow archive which confirms that Renato Williams Jones, secretary-general of FIBA, had a close relationship with the Soviets and rooted for them in earlier Olympics despite the fact that as part of the federation—he was supposed to remain neutral. Golden also extensively documents Belov’s misbehavior off-court before and after the legendary game, including a move by longtime basketball executive Jerry Colangelo (now head of USA Basketball) that hid a shoplifting charge a few years earlier against Belov while the Soviets were on a trip to Arizona, a move that, if reported, could have cost the colorful young future Russian star a spot in the ’72 Olympics and may have changed the course of history. Instead history was changed in a different fashion, and the international game that is basketball today was thrust forward because of three botched seconds.
Could history right itself still and restore the gold to team USA? Despite the continued examination of the facts, Goldman remains unsure. “There is precedent for sure,” he said recently. “Jim Thorpe’s medals were restored to him decades after they were vacated and the door remains open, but many people, especially those at the IOC and those who are still around who were part of the Russian delegation, consider it a close issue, a part of history.”
Still the Americans who were part of that team, one which included many talented future NBA players but no real stars (Tom McMillen, current Sixers coach Doug Collins, current NBA exec Mike Bantom among them), continue to beat the drum and have yet to accept their silver medals which remain en masse in storage. “For many of those players this remains a huge deal,” he added. “They felt betrayed by the system and some never really recovered…certainly most if not all have never forgotten and they never will. It a significant change in international basketball and in many ways signaled the beginning of the end of an Olympic system that was pitting amateurs against professionals and gave rise to the more professional system we have in many Olympic sports today. It was certainly a different time then both politically and athletically, and these guys were part of a huge change and still feel the wrong can certainly be righted.”
While the business of basketball on a global scale has never been stronger than it is today, largely in part to the attention brought by the Soviet victory in 1972, those Olympic hoops stars still carry the scars from that unfortunate turn of events that ended with the Belov basket. It would have been like “Miracle on Ice” star Mike Eruzione being stopped on a last second shot following a face-off not once but twice, only to be given a third shot by officials not even on the ice, until he finally scored and changed the face of American hockey forever.
“The Russian win in 1972 remains a big deal for those who were around, it is commemorated every year in a tournament in St. Petersburg and the members of that team, many of whom have passed away, are still treated as national heroes,” Golden added. “They may be a little nostalgic about the outcome but feel that the American players should move on now and forget challenging what happened.”
The Americans will gather for a reunion this September again, as they have in the past, Golden added, and are still steadfast and universal in their refusal to accept the result. As to whether the current American team will find a way to honor their forerunners on the court in London this year, Golden was unsure. “I havent heard of anything, but you never know,” he added. “The only commemoration I know of is the reunion the guys have planned, and that is not in London.”
And that’s just the way, Russians at least would like to keep those memories. Way away from the spotlight, in the hopes that a 40 year old controversy continues to fade, even in the mind of their still-bitter and probably wronged opponents from the States. The fulls series can be seen at http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-07-23/three-seconds-at-1972-olympics-haunt-u-s-basketball.html