The United States has dominated the international basketball scene throughout the life of the sport, including at the Olympic Games. Since becoming an official Olympic sport at the Berlin Summer Games in 1936, the U.S. has 15 gold medals in men’s basketball. There have been a few hiccups, including a bronze medal in 1988 that helped initiate the formation of the Dream Team in 1992, and a disappointing bronze finish in 2004 despite the presence of professional players.
No result, however, can match the disappointment, controversy, and infamy of the 1972 Olympic Gold Medal game.
Leading up to the final event of the Munich games that year, the US had won seven consecutive gold medals, going a perfect 63-0 in Olympic competition.
While the Games would be interrupted by the tragic hostage-taking and eventual killing of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches in the “Munich Massacre”, the United States team would advance to the Gold Medal game with few challenges outside a 61-54 win over Brazil in Group Play.
While UCLA All-American center Bill Walton chose not to participate in the Games, the U.S. team was led by former collegiate stars Doug Collins, Dwight Jones, and Tommy Burleson. On the other side of the Gold Medal contest was the experienced and hungry Soviet Union team.
The young U.S.A. team was still favored to continue the country’s Olympic basketball dominance, but the Soviets led most of the way. Further hurt by an ejection of leading scorer Dwight Jones and an injury to Jim Brewer, the U.S. would fall behind by as many as ten points in the second half.
The American team was able to put on the press, cutting the Soviet lead to just one point in the final minute. As the Soviet Union tried to kill off the final seconds, Doug Collins stepped in front of a pass near mid-court and raced the other way. He was fouled hard by Zurab Sakandelidze, sending him to the free throw line for a pair of foul shots with just three seconds remaining and the U.S.A. trailing by one point.
After making the first shot to tie the game at 49, the next several minutes were a wild scene, culminating in a fateful sequence that saw the Americans’ reign come to an end.
The horn sounded as Collins made his second shot to put the U.S.A. up by one point, but the officials signaled for play to continue. As the Soviets inbounded the ball, a U.S.S.R. assistant coach frantically approached the scorer’s table to assert that his team should have been awarded a timeout. However, international rules at the time required that once Collins’ free throw went through the hoop, the coach could not call a timeout. However, Brazilian referee Renato Righetto stopped the game upon seeing the commotion, with one second left.
After several minutes of discussion, Righetto ruled that the Soviet timeout should not have been granted and that the game should resume with one second remaining. Despite having no jurisdiction to do so, FIBA secretary general Renato William Jones of Great Britain left the stands and approached the scorer’s table, overruling the official and indicating that the clock should be reset to three seconds and the game resumed from that point.
The players took to the court again, with the Soviet inbounding quickly but missing on a desperation attempt as the horn sounded and the Americans stormed the court to celebrate a victory. However, the referee administering the inbounds play did not see that the game clock had not been reset to three seconds, instead reading 50 seconds remaining, as the horn was an attempt by the official scorer to get the referee’s attention.
More discussion followed, and the Soviets were given yet another chance to inbounds the ball with three seconds placed on the clock. Six-foot-11-inch American center Tom McMillen was tasked with defending the inbounder, but official Artenik Arabadijan motioned for him to step back, making the inbounds pass easier.
Veteran Soviet player Ivan Edeshko, who had incorrectly been allowed to substitute into the game during the earlier timeout fiasco, was able to heave an unimpeded pass the length of the court in the direction of Alexander Belov. Two Americans stumbled in their attempts to defend the pass, and after coming down with the ball, Belov laid it in uncontested to give the Soviet Union a shocking 51-50 victory, as the team was provided three chances to score the winning basket.
The American contingent had considered leaving the court and claiming victory after the second inbounds attempt, but head coach Henry Iba, a legendary collegiate coach at Oklahoma State, chose to send the team out, reportedly telling his players, “I don't want to lose this game later tonight, sitting on my butt.”
The U.S. Olympic basketball delegation filed an immediate protest, which was heard by a five-member jury of appeal from FIBA. Voting was indicative of the Cold War standoff between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. at the time, as jury members from three Soviet-bloc countries sided with the Soviet Union and the group declared the Soviets the victors in a three-to-two vote.
In an act of protest, the United States team voted unanimously to refuse their silver medals and did not attend the medal ceremony.
Thus concluded one of the wildest and most controversial events in Olympic, and basketball, history.