1972 Munich Olympics
 USA vs. USSR Basketball Game

           Russia 51 United States 50
Now over thirty years later, "the silver medals from 1972 Olympic basketball competition sit unclaimed in a vault in Lusanne, Switzerland."  The U.S. team voted unanimously to refuse their silver medals.
Pennsylvania was represented by Mike Bantom of Philadelphia,  Tom McMillan from Mansfield, and Coach John Bach from Penn State.

    1972 USA RESULTS (8-1)
USA 66       Czechoslovakia  35
USA 81       Australia 55
USA 67       Cuba 48
USA 61       Brazil 54
USA 96       Egypt 31
USA 72       Spain 56
USA-99       Japan 33
USA 68       Italy  38
USSR  51    USA  50

In baseball, the saying is "three strikes and your out." But in the 1972 Olympic basketball competition the saying was "if you get three chances to score, you can win!"  The Russians trailed by one point with only seconds remaining, but had three chances to play out those few seconds due to decisions made by the game officials.  Still at the very end, it took a spectacular pass thrown the length of the court by Sergei Belov to a waiting Alexander Belov, who took the pass in mid air and nudged it off the backboard and into the basket for a Russian win.  No American team had ever lost in men's basketball in Olympic play, winning seven gold medals dating back to 1936. All of this changed on the morning of September 10, 1972 with the game between the Russians and Americans ending with an apparent American victory.  But the clock was reset and the Russians were given a second chance.  The game ended again with an apparent American victory.  But the clock was reset and the Russians were given a third chance.  This resulted in the Belov basket and gold for the Russians.

In 1972, the Olympic Trials were still controlled by the Olympic Basketball Games Committee, however, the Trials format was changed and 66 athletes were invited to tryout, 28 from the NCAA, eight from the AAU, junior college, NAIA and U.S. Armed Forces ranks, and six at-large.  One player who was conspicuous by his absence from the 1972 U.S. team was the college player of the year, Bill Walton. The UCLA center declined an invitation to play in Munich.

Henry Iba of Oklahoma State was the head coach for the U.S. Olympic team and John Bach, from Penn State was one of the assistants, and
Don Haskins, Univ. of Texas-El Paso was another assistant.   It was the youngest squad to ever represent the United States in Olympic competition and it stepped onto the floor to face  both an athletic and a political enemy, the Soviet Union, for the gold medal in men's basketball. By comparison, the bigger, more experienced Soviets were far from your typical underdog. Led by the inside outside combination of guard Sergei Belov and  forward  Alexander Belov, the  experienced and well coached Soviets proved to be the stiffest competitor the Americans had ever faced.

The Americans won their first seven games before the Games came to a tragic and sudden halt on September 5th. The massacre of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team by Arab terrorists put the Games on hold for nearly two days. When competition resumed, the U.S. defeated Italy by 30 to advance to the gold medal game and extended their Olympic winning streak to 63 games.

In the fateful game with the Soviet Union, trailing by five points at halftime, the U.S. deficit grew to 10 with under 10 minutes to play. A furious comeback aided by the play of guard Kevin Joyce shrunk the Soviet lead to one point with 38 seconds remaining. Trying to protect their lead, Alexander Belov's cross-court pass with less than 10 seconds to play was intercepted by Doug Collins. Collins was fouled hard driving to the basket with three seconds to play. Coach Haskins and Coach Bach said to Coach Iba, 'We gotta get somebody to shoot these free throws, Collins is injured.'"  Coach Iba said, "If Doug can walk he's shooting.'"  Under enormous pressure, Doug Collins, the Illinois State guard sank both free throws giving the Americans a 50-49 lead, their first of the game. 

The Soviets in-bounded the ball right away ,  but the referee, Renato Righetto of Brazil, blew the whistle with one second on the clock.  Following a conference with the officials, it was determined that the Soviet head coach Vladimir Kondrashkin had called a time out. The decision was made to put three seconds back on the clock. At issue was the Soviets' contention that they had signaled for a time-out between Collins' two free throws. The game officials never acknowledged the time out. The validity of whether a time-out was legally signaled for is still open to question.

After the Soviets in-bounded the ball a second time, the horn sounded signaling an apparent American victory. Moments later, the teams were ordered back on the floor because the clock had not been properly reset to show three seconds remaining. Because of this mistake by the scorer's table, the celebrating Americans stood in disbelief when they were told they had not won anything yet.  "We couldn't believe that they were giving them all these chances," said U.S. forward Mike Bantom. "It was like they were going to let them do it until they got it right."

"They had to reset the clock, so they (the Soviets) got a third chance," said L.A Times writer Randy Harvey. "The Americans thought that at every turn they had been cheated when, in fact, they probably hadn't been. But they'll never acknowledge that."  This time the Russians ran a play which used a pass the length of the court.  The result a Russian basket and a 51-50 win.

Alexander Belov

Alexander Belov, who moments earlier had been the goat, became the hero. Rising between Americans Jim Forbes and Kevin Joyce, Belov caught the full-court pass from Sergi Belov and scored the winning lay-up as time ran out, this time for good. Convinced they had been wronged, the U.S. team filed a formal protest with the International Basketball Federation. Later,  a five-member panel voted on the protest. 





Sergi Belov

There were three Communist bloc judges who all voted for the Soviet Union.  The final vote 3-2 for Russia.  America loses. The Soviet Union won the gold medal, and the Americans won the silver. However, over thirty years later, the silver medals sit unclaimed in a vault in Lusanne, Switzerland.   As one U. S. player said, "If we had gotten beat, I would be proud to display my silver medal today.  But, we didn't get beat, we got cheated!" So they left the silver medals behind!

Little known facts: Alexander Belov, the Soviet basketball player who scored the disputed winning basket in the gold medal game against the United States at the 1972 Munich Olympics, died just 6 years later in 1978 at the young age of  26.  On the other hand, the player who delivered the pass, Sergei Belov later became recognized as the greatest international player of all time and  was the first international player to be elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

(Credits:  Frank Saraceno, USA Basketball, Gerry Brown, infoplease.com and the Basketball Hall of Fame)

(Special thanks to Clint Porter for providing information to correct an error in the original article presented here).

U.S. Roster
Mike Bantom 6-8 St. Joseph's Philadelphia, PA
Jim Brewer 6-9 Minnesota Maywood, IL
Tommy Burleson 7-4 North Carolina State Newland , NC
Doug Collins 6-6 Illinois State Benton, IL
Kenny Davis 6-1 Marathon Oil (Georgetown College) Georgetown, KY
James Forbes 6-7 Texas-El Paso El Paso, TX
Thomas Henderson 6-2 San Jacinto J.C. Bronx, NY
Bobby Jones 6-8 North Carolina Charlotte, NC
Dwight Jones 6-8 Houston Houston, TX
Kevin Joyce 6-3 South Carolina North Merrick, NY
Tom McMillen 6-11 Maryland Mansfield, PA
Ed Ratleff 6-6 Long Beach State Long Beach, CA