It happened exactly 38 years ago to the day, but even two generations later, the mere mention of the gold medal basketball game between the United States and the Soviet Union at the 1972 Munich Olympics still evokes highly emotional responses from both sides.
Those emotions spilled over once again this week as the US and Russia prepared to face off Thursday in Turkey in the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Championships.
In what is widely regarded as the most controversial conclusion to a basketball game in international competition, the USSR “defeated” the US 51-50 to claim the gold medal. It was the Americans’ first defeat in Olympic basketball history, snapping a streak of 63 straight victories and seven consecutive gold medals.
The US trailed much of the game but took the lead on two free throws with 3 seconds remaining. At that point, confusion among the referees, timekeeper, and even FIBA secretary R. Williams Jones resulted in the USSR receiving three attempts to inbound the ball and score. It succeeded on the third attempt, with a perfect full-court pass, a nice catch, and some sloppy defense resulting in the winning layup. (For a more thorough description of the game’s final seconds, click here.)
In his book American Hoops: U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball from Berlin to Beijing, sport historian Carson Cunningham wrote of the 1972 game: “The ending was not merely poorly supervised; it was chaotic, confusing, and without precedent” (p. 229).
To this day, the US is still bitter about the game’s outcome, refusing to accept the silver medal both at the 1972 Munich Games and every subsequent time they have been asked to accept the second-place prize.
This year’s coach of the Russian World Championship team, David Blatt, said earlier this week he believes the USSR was the rightful winner of the 1972 gold medal game, and admitted that he cried joyously after the Soviet victory.
Those words didn’t sit well with US coach Mike Krzyzewski, who fired back at Blatt’s recollection.
“You know, he coaches the Russian team, so he probably has that viewpoint, and his eyes are clearer now because there are no tears in them. So, it’s great. Whatever he thinks, he thinks. … It is what it is. It’ll be a negative from the way the US looks at it forever, and should be. And it’ll be in some ways a positive for those who believe in fairy tales.”
The Cold War has long since concluded, but the cold feelings between the two countries’ basketball representatives about the 1972 Munich Games are obviously still just as strong as they were 38 years ago.
For video of the final 3 seconds and the ensuing aftermath, click on the video below, courtesy of ESPN Classic via YouTube.