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Basketball at the 1972 Olympics

Controversial Finish and Team USA's First Olympic Loss


USA vs. USSR at the 1972 Olympics

Dwight Jones of the United States tips off against Alexsander Belov of the USSR during the controversial men's basketball gold medal game at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Belov scored the winning points in the Soviet Union's 51-50 victory.

Getty Images / Tony Duffy
Updated May 29, 2014
Team USA was a big favorite to win basketball gold at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Why not? American teams had won the gold at every Olympic competition to that point, and boasted an overall record of 55-0 in Olympic play.

Led by future pros like Bobby Jones, Doug Collins and Tom Henderson, the Americans cruised through the opening round, then crushed Italy, 68-38 in the semifinal, setting up a gold medal matchup with the Soviet Union.

The Controversial Finish

The final game was much closer than any of the previous contests; the Americans were behind 48-49 with three seconds remaining and Collins at the free-throw line...

And then all hell broke loose.

Collins sank the first freebie, tying the game. As he made his second attempt, the buzzer sounded - apparently signaling the end of the game. Despite the distraction, Collins hit the shot, giving Team USA a 50-49 lead. The Soviets inbounded the ball and advanced it as far as halfcourt... but at the same time, their coaching staff ran to the scorer's table and protested, claiming they had called a time out that should have been awarded after Collins' first free throw - and giving rise to the theory that the mysterious end-game buzzer was actually a late attempt from the scorer's table to signal for that time-out. Under international basketball rules in effect at the time, the time-out could not be awarded after Collins' free throw, but the delay caused by the discussion had the same basic effect; the Soviets were able to set up a last-second play.

If you're keeping score, that's two major errors by game officials to this point.

  • Failing to grant the Soviets' time out before Collins' second free-throw (or inadvertently sounding the buzzer)
  • Failing to assess a technical foul on the Soviet coaching staff, for leaving the bench area and delaying the game when the clock should have been running.
Those weren't their only mistakes.

The first do-over

Referee Renato Righetto ruled that play would resume from the point when the dispute had disrupted the game, with the USSR inbounding and one second remaining on the clock. But FIBA Secretary General Renato William Jones came down from the stands and intervened, insisting that play re-start from the point of Collins' made free throw, with three seconds remaining. Play resumed from that point, the Soviets missed a last-second attempt, and the game was over.

Or not.

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 "final" play was completed. The decision was made to re-play the final three second for a second time.

That adds two more gaffes to the tally:

The second do-over

With the Soviets about to inbound and replay the final seconds, game official Artenik Arabadjian appeared to gesture to American Tom McMillen. McMillen reacted by backing away from the inbounder, leaving Ivan Edeshko much more room to make his pass. (And as Rick Pitino learned during the 1992 NCAA Tournament, you always want to defend the inbounder on a last-second play.) Aleksandr Belov caught Edeshko's pass as two American defenders stumbled and was free to hit a game-winning layup.

Post-game controversy

American officials immediately launched a protest, which was heard by a five-member FIBA jury and denied. The fact that three of the five jurors were from Soviet-bloc nations Hungary, Poland and Cuba may have factored into the decision, but that has never been confirmed.

Another protest - to the International Olympic Committee itself - was also denied.

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.

What happened?

The fact that this was a contest between the US and USSR - two nations that knew a thing or two about heated rivalry, especially in the 60s and 70s - makes it easy to regard this game as some sort of iron curtain conspiracy. And I certainly don't discount the possibility that the protest failed because the FIBA appeal jury was more Warsaw Pact than NATO. But all of that just serves to obscure the fact that the officials - on the floor and at the scorer's table - lost control of the game. The game is generally regarded as the most controversial in Olympic basketball history - and rightly so.

But given the stakes - and the net result - it also seems fair to call this game the worst example of end-game officiating in the history of basketball.

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