U.S.A. vs U.S.S.R.: More Than Just a Game
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Well, I guess it was leaning more towards the latter than the former. Summer of 1972, and we were engaged in a Cold War with our rivals from the East. The gold medal basketball game between the Soviets and the US at the 1972 Munich Olympics represented more than just a sport with a ball and a hoop, it was symbolic of everything going in the world, and neither side wanted to admit defeat.
Munich, then in West Germany, won its bid to host the 1972 Summer Olympics, beating the cities of Detroit, Madrid. The decision was made in 1966, and the city had plenty of time to prepare for the big moment. For example, German security was practically nonexistent: the Germans felt that a “pacifist” strategy was the most effective answer to rising terror at the time.
The last time the Olympic games had been held in Germany was in 1936, when Hitler’s Nazi government reigned supreme. Coming into the 1972 Olympics, West Germany aimed to show the world they were now a much more democratic and promising group of people, not one being brought down by the possible drawbacks and pessimism of a Cold War.
Such intentions never saw the light of day.
Although I will be getting into the sports aspect of this piece shortly, the disappointing finish to a basketball game, something more important happened some days earlier. Something we will never and should never forget. On September 5th, 1972, known now as the Munich Massacre, one of the most horrific moments of Olympic history took place. Eight Palestinian terrorists, a group belonging to the Black September organization, broke into the Olympic Village and took eleven Israeli athletes hostage. Almost immediately, two of them were killed. The hostage standoff in the Olympic Village lasted 18+ hours, and when a German rescue attempt at Fürstenfeldbruck airport failed, the remaining Israeli hostages were killed by the Palestinians. At that point, all but three of the Palestinians were killed as well, and two of those three were later killed by the Israeli Mossad.
The Olympic games were suspended for a brief moment in time, but the International Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage, stated that the Games should continue in the spirit with which they began. After a 34-hour suspension, the Olympic Games resumed action.
Let’s now fast-forward to September 10, gold medal game between the Soviets and the US. The events that had already taken place at the Olympics placed a dark cloud over this game, one filled with plenty of anger and disgust. The Soviets had on red jerseys, the US white. The stage was set, and at stake was not only a gold medal, but issues of international diplomacy.
The American side was made up of college athletes, the youngest group ever assembled for an Olympic team. The Soviets had much more experience, a team comprised of players who could have been professional ball players anywhere in the world at the time. They had played over 400 games together before the ’72 games, while the American squad had only been together for a dozen exhibition games. But come on, it’s basketball. This was and is our game. Being the best at hoops had become a rite of passage for anyone playing the game in this county. American teams had won seven consecutive Olympic gold medals before 1972, including 63 consecutive games before facing the Soviets. Sure, the Soviets were pretty damn good but there was no chance anyone was going to knock out the red, white, and blue!
“These were the two strongest countries in the world fighting for supremacy and basketball was ours,” remembers the US guard Doug Collins, now head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. “We were the kings. And there was no doubt we wanted to make sure a message was sent.”
The U.S.S.R. started the game strong, pulling ahead for a 26-21 lead at halftime. Halfway through the second half, with the Soviets up 38-34, both Dwight Jones (USA’s leading scorer and rebounder) and Dvorni Edeshko (U.S.S.R.) were ejected from the game after a scuffle over a loose ball. Let ‘em play ref!
On the following jump ball, USA’s Jim Brewer suffered a concussion after being knocked to the floor. Things weren’t looking good for the US as they continued to stay a few points behind most of the second half. However, after a Jim Forbes’ jumper with 40 seconds remaining the game, the Soviets were only up one point, 49-48. They dribbled out much of the remaining clock, but at the 10 second mark, Tom McMillen blocked Aleksander Belov’s shot and Doug Collins got a hold of the ball when Belov tried to pass it back out.
Collins drove to the basket, and was fouled hard on a shot with three seconds remaining. It took a moment for Collins to get up. A bit groggy from the hit, he stumbled to the free-throw line where he knocked them both down, giving the U.S. a 50-49 lead. Here is where all the confusion started. Despite the horn going off in the middle of his second free-throw attempt, there were 3 seconds on the clock after his two makes. At this point in time, the comeback seemed perfect, and the Americans were a few seconds from celebration.
The Soviets had supposedly tried to take a time-out in between Collins’ free throws – a strategy the Americans maintain to this day was not allowed. They were finally awarded a time-out with one second remaining. It appeared there wasn’t much time for anything to happen, but the Soviets again had lady luck on their side. Dr. William Jones, the British secretary of Fiba, intervened and ordered the clock to be reset to 3 seconds, and the play restarted. Confused yet? Trust me, so were the Americans.
Play resumed, the buzzer sounded as a Soviet pass was mishandled, and the Americans again were ready to celebrate. Somehow another three seconds were put back on the clock.
“People say, ‘Why didn’t you leave?’” says Collins. “We were told that if left we would forfeit so we were pushed out on the court.”
As Mark Heisler put it, “Their loss to the Soviet Union in the Olympic final was a blow to the national pride, no matter how unjust the circumstances. Twelve young men 23 and under came home feeling as if they had helped launch Sputnik I.”
“The American team was offended, and it wasn’t right. It was the cold war. Americans, out of their own natural pride and love of country, didn’t want to lose and admit loss. They didn’t want to lose in anything, especially basketball” – Ivan Edeshko
“If we had gotten beat, I would be proud to display my silver medal. But, we didn’t get beat, we got cheated” – Mike Bantom
Even generations later, the mere mention of that game evokes highly emotional responses from both sides. How personal did the US take the defeat? To this day, the players have refused to take their silver medals. Team captain Kenny Davis went so far as to put in his will no member of his family can accept silver.
It was a mind-boggling experience for everyone involved. Somehow, politics had determined the outcome of a game. At the end of every Scooby-Doo episode, the villain says, “I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids!” In this case, the American squad can say, “We would have won, if it hadn’t been for politics meddling in sport.”
The Olympics are meant to be the highest level of sports competition, an event where people from every corner of the world can co-exist and display their talents. The games are met with joy, and friendship, a few months where people can come together for a common purpose. It is a couple of months where healthy competition creates an unbreakable bond, experiences that remind us to live with dignity and respect.
The 1972 Olympics were supposed to represent peace.
Unfortunately, the 1972 Olympics are remembered for all the wrong reasons. The events that transpired that summer show how backwards we as humans really can be. The terrorist attacks that summer are often identified as the start of modern terrorism. Black September went on to instill fear in not only the hearts of athletes world-wide, but more importantly, every single person who heard about what had happened. What then happened on the basketball court was merely a continuation of all this. No, I’m not comparing a terrorist attack to an unjust ending of an basketball game.
We tend to put athletes on a pedestal, thinking they live in some other, far superior world. The 72 Olympics act as a reminder that sports and athletes are not immune from the realities of life.
What I’m attempting to communicate is that it is a reminder of a very dark moment, not just in sports but in world history. It represents a period where corruption was rampant, and a fair result was unheard of. Fear continued to govern many people around the world, and the U.S. Basketball team was a casualty of that war.
To this day, those silver medals are in some Swiss vault.
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