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1972 Gold Medal Game

It was a case of now-you-win-it, now-you-don’t. That’s what people remember about 1972’s gold medal game—how the USA celebrated victory only to watch in horror as the Soviets won the second time around.

The Soviets had control of the game from the opening tip until the furious final seconds. They led 26-21 at half time and 38-28 with 10 minutes to play. Then the USA began to chip away. With less than 40 seconds left, Jim Forbes made a 20-foot jump shot to cut the deficit to 49-48. Here’s what happened in the chaotic final 10 seconds—or to be precise, 13 seconds, since those last three were played twice:

  • 10 seconds to go—Tom McMillen blocks a jumper by soon-to-be-hero Aleksandr Belov. The ball bounces back to Belov, who quickly tries to pass it back to mid-court.
  • 07—Doug Collins intercepts the pass and dashes for the other basket with Zurab Sakandelidze in pursuit.
  • 03—Sakandelidze tackles Collins rather than give him the winning lay up, ramming Collins into the basket support. Collins gets up woozily, walks to the free-throw line and makes both shots as Soviet coach Vladimir Kondrashkin prematurely tries to signal time out USA 50, USSR 49.

The Soviets inbound the ball; two seconds elapse while their coach continues frantically to signal time out.

  • 01—The referees, one from Bulgaria, the other from Brazil, stop play to check the commotion. The Soviets inbound with one second left. A pass glances off Belov’s hand and caroms harmlessly off the backboard.
  • 00—The horn sounds and USA players celebrate the hard-fought victory. Final score: 50-49 USA.

Only it wasn’t final. Enter Great Britain’s R. William Jones, secretary general of the International Amateur Basketball Federation (FIBA), the organization that governs international amateur basketball. Technically, he had no authority to intervene in an Olympic game. But he ruled international basketball with an iron hand, and when Jones ordered three seconds restored, apparently to honor the Soviets’ attempt to call a timeout, game officials acquiesced.

Under international rules of the time, the Soviets were not entitled to a time out. “I think Jones thought he could avoid controversy by giving them the time out,” says Bill Wall of Amateur Basketball Association/USA. “Instead he created it. I just think he never thought they’d score.”

USA coach Henry Iba says one of the referees suggested he pull his team off the court. “But walking away with your tail between your legs is not the American way,” Iba says.

As it was, the Soviets appear—on tape replay—to commit at least three infractions on the winning play.

  • 03—With three seconds back on the clock, McMillen prepares to defend against the inbound pass. But the official moves him to the foul line. The Soviets launch a court-length inbound pass. But the player throwing it steps on the end line just before he released it.
  • Violation No. 1. Belov shoulder-blocks two USA defenders, Forbes and Kevin Joyce and they sprawl to the court as Belov catches the ball.
  • Violation No. 2. Belov shuffles his pivot foot as he sets himself to lay in the winning basket.
  • Violation no. 3. The shot banks in and the Soviets take the court for a victory dance similar to the USA’s frolic of moments before, USSR 51, USA 50. The USA files a protest that is rejected (Italy and Puerto Rico side with the USA; Hungary, Poland and Cuba do not). Iba was doubly robbed: A pickpocket lifted $370 from him as he signed the protest papers.

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