“The Game Ended and We Won. Then the Game Ended and We Won Again”: The 1972 Olympics Men’s Basketball Debacle

It’s safe now, everybody breath. Going to be okay. The sporting world is restored, back on level. On the basketball floor in the Basketballhalle in Greater Munich the youngest team ever to represent the United States in an Olympic basketball tournament celebrates, glorious in victory, relieved of their burden. We did it, they say, we represented!  Sixty-four straight wins in amateur play for USA basketball, less than twenty for this particular lineup. 6,500 spectators pack the arena, including FIBA Secretary General Renato William Jones. The game was decided by a single free throw, oh so close, but a win is a win. Gold medals for everyone, names in the record books, all that.

It was sweet for the USA team who persevered despite their head coach, and his slow-down, defense-first philosophy. Had they run up and down the court, fast paced, they wouldn’t have needed two pressure-packed free throws with three seconds left on the clock to take the final lead of the game. Had they done what they do best, out-sprinted, out-jumped, used talent and fitness and confidence (arrogance) that defined America’s game of basketball, and our country as the framers of the new world, the gold medal would never been in doubt. This game was designated a microcosm of the Cold War, a test of political systems and what they can do, as fair or unfair as that may be. As starting guard Tom Henderson said, We should have ran, and we’d have ran them back to Russia.

This was that heartrending 1972 Olympics, that epic tragedy in Munich when the games ground to a mind-numbing halt as eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team were murdered by Arab terrorists. The games went on hold for nearly two days as the world digested the terror, sorted it against an Olympic ideal of purity and well-being, and came out the other end. When competition resumed, so did USA basketball, defeating Italy to advance to the gold medal game and extending their Olympic winning streak to 63 games.

They were the favorites, sure, under the strict, ornery stare of legendary Oklahoma State dictator Hank Iba, he of the suffocating defense and half-court sets. No American team had ever lost in men’s basketball in Olympic play, seven gold medals dating back to 1936. The bigger, more experienced Soviets weren’t typical underdogs, well-seasoned and well coached. They had a great team, said U.S. assistant coach John Bach. Their team, it was reported, played almost 400 games together. 400 games. We had played 12 exhibition games and the trials. That’s right, an amateur team that played 400 games. And there was that Cold War thing.

No matter, there was team USA on the floor celebrating, game over.

And then this happened.

At the Basketballhalle in greater Munich on September 9th, 1972, the final buzzer sounded four different times. The scoreboard read USA 50, USSR 49 after three of them. The problem was that it read USSR 51, USA 50 after the fourth. Here’s what happened (see if you can follow it):

With three seconds on the clock and the score ties 49-49, Doug Collins is in the middle of shooting his second, game-winning free throw, when the horn sounds for no particular reason (Horn #1). He makes the shot with the horn going off and the score changes to 50-49, USA. International rules say you can’t call a time out after a made second free throw, so team USA thinks maybe time has miraculously expired and the game is over. The officials realize this isn’t the case and continue play. The Soviets inbound and get the ball to half court, stopping the clock with one second left.  The Russian coaching staff charges the scorer’s table, insisting they had tried to get a time out BEFORE the second free throw by Collins. Officials rule that play will resume from the point when the Soviet coaches disrupted the game, with one second remaining on the clock. The Soviets inbound the ball and miss their desperation shot. Game over (Horn #2).  But FIBA Secretary General Renato William Jones comes down from the stands and insists play re-start from the point of Collins’ made free throw, against FIBA rules since you can’t call a time-out AFTER a made second free throw. Jones, by his own admission, after the fact, had no authority to make rulings on a game in progress. Okay, whatever, celebration postponed. Play resumes, three seconds left, Soviets down one, inbounding under their own basket. The Soviets miss another last-second attempt (Horn #3), and the game is FINALLY over, let the party begin.

But, as Lee Corso says, Not so fast.

As it turns out, the referees allowed play to resume before the scorer’s table had finished re-setting the clock; the game clock still showed 50 seconds when the play was completed. So what, right?  Manually count three second off the play and end the game. Instead, a decision was made to re-play the final three second again.

And, of course, with another crack at it, Aleksandr Belov catches Ivan Edeshko’s pass as two American defenders stumble. Belov hits the game-winning layup. Horn #4 sounds. Final score USSR 51, USA 50.

The American team voted unanimously not to attend the medal ceremony or accept the medals themselves, some have even written that protest into their wills. Forty-eight years later, the silver medals sit unclaimed in a vault in Lusanne, Switzerland.

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