- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 16, 2002

From a perspective of 30 years, the controversy that surrounded the gold medal men's basketball game between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1972 Munich Olympics may seem somewhat overblown. After all, what most people remember about the Games is that 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by terrorists at the Olympic Village and airport.
Nonetheless, HBO revisits the basketball brouhaha in its one-hour documentary ":03 From Gold," premiering Tuesday night at 10 on the cable network. The title refers to the fact that the Soviets' 51-50 victory was made possible when an Olympic official ordered that amount of time put back on the clock after Doug Collins' two free throws in the closing seconds gave the Americans an apparent 50-49 victory.
The Soviets' Ivan Edeshko promptly threw his inbounds pass virtually the length of the court to Russian star Sergei Belov, who leaped above two defenders to catch it and sink a layup that resulted in a 51-50 victory, ending the Americans' streaks of 63 wins and seven gold medals in the Olympics.
No American players have accepted the silver medals, which remain in the vault of a Swiss bank, and Kenny Davis even has a clause in his will forbidding his descendants from doing so.
"We didn't win that we won the gold," says Collins, now coach of the Washington Wizards, who is one of two team members with ties to the Washington area. The other is Tom McMillen, then a sophomore star at Maryland and later a congressman.
Although HBO tells its tale well, the documentary often is a bit tedious. In 1972, with the Cold War at its height, competition between the United States and Soviet Union at any level seemed vitally important. Today the tendency is to say "so what?" except for those who were involved.
HBO trots out scores of talking heads from both sides, with predictable results. The Russians remember the game as a glorious triumph. The Americans echo the timeless words of Joe Jacobs, the old boxing manager: "We wuz robbed."
The U.S. team entered the Olympics on several negative notes. America's biggest star, UCLA's Bill Walton, did not participate, and the rest of the team was relatively young and inexperienced in international play compared to the more mature Soviets. (This, of course, was long before anybody hatched the scheme of letting NBA players into the Games.)
And besides, McMillen says, "The goal for us was not the Olympics it was to go into the NBA. Guys were starting to come out [of college] early."
Another negative was the choice of Oklahoma State's Henry Iba as U.S. coach. Iba was a stern disciplinarian whose deliberate style played into the Russians' hands. Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan describes Iba as a man who wanted his players to "pass, pass, pass, read the Constitution, read the Koran and then, if was no other option, maybe shoot the ball."
The slaughter of the Israelis cast an obvious pall over all competition, although the Games continued after a one-day break for a memorial service. As U.S. player Mike Bantom puts it: "Our mission to win a basketball game seemed pretty unimportant. I wondered if we should all just go home."
It might have been better if the Americans had. In the first half of the game, which started at 11:30 p.m. to accommodate U.S. television, the Soviets jumped to a 10-point lead. Then the Americans abandoned Iba's slowpoke style and rallied. When Collins stepped to the foul line with 15 seconds left, the United States trailed 49-48.
"I sort of went back to all the free throws I had shot in my backyard as a little kid, with no time left on the clock " Collins recalled. Then came his two shots. Swish swish and the Americans were in the lead.
Bringing the ball inbounds, the Russians tried a long pass that was intercepted by Collins, and jubilation reigned on the U.S. bench with one second left. But William Jones, secretary of the International Basketball Federation, was on the floor and ordering the clock to be set back. Jones claimed he had seen the Russian coach signaling for time out before Collins' second foul shot, but the officials hadn't. Then came chaos and, ultimately, disaster for the Americans.
The U.S. lodged a protest that was denied by a 3-2 vote, with three judges from other Communist nations siding with the Soviets. So the gold was lost, presumably for all time, and the controversy remains if somewhat irrelevantly three decades later.


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