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Cold War Basketball

“We was robbed!”

– Joe Jacobs


We remember the 1972 Olympics primarily for an event beyond the scope of the games: the deadly attack on the Israeli Olympic team, resulting in the death of eleven athletes.  Within the realm of sport, 1972 stands out because of the first defeat of the Unites States Men’s Basketball Team in Olympic play.  The United States lost to the Soviet Union in what remains perhaps the most controversial basketball ending in history.

munich-postersLet us begin with some background on the 1972 Olympic Games. The Games of the XX Olympiad had a political tone from the start. The Olympic Games took place in Munich, located in what was then called West Germany – The Federal German Republic.  The last time Germany hosted an Olympic Games prior to then was 1936 in Berlin under Nazi Rule, and was a showcase of Nazi propaganda. West Germany used the 1972 games to show the world how far the nation had come, rejecting their Nazi past and showing the world how they’d built a strong democracy from the ashes of their fascist past.

The Game took a horrifying and deadly turn when members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September took a group of Israeli athletes and coaches hostage. Subsequently, eleven members of the Israeli Olympic Team lost their lives. The event cast a pall over the Games, which were, ironically, known as the “Cheerful Olympics.”

Before the 1972 games, The United States Men’s Basketball Team had been invincible in previous Olympics.  The Olympics prohibited professionals from playing, so college players comprised the majority of the Olympic team.  Despite their history of success, 1972 started with several controversies that foreshadowed a difficult Olympics for the United States’ squad.



Behind the bench was Hank Iba of Oklahoma State University, whose old-school coaching style rubbed some of the team’s top players the wrong way.  Iba coached a slow and deliberate game, very much out of step with the top pro and college teams, like the Boston Celtics and UCLA Bruins, both of whom emphasized speed and pushing the tempo.  Critics bemoaned their pace of play, saying Iba’s style failed to take advantage of the American players’ greatest strength over the competition: their speed.  Further, there was not a particularly warm relationship between John Wooden, coach of the UCLA men’s basketball team, and the Olympic committee.  Their contentious relationship stemmed from the fact that despite being the dominant men’s college basketball program for decades, UCLA players were historically not picked to play in the Olympics.  Even the great Gail Goodrich failed to make the team in 1964.

These tensions no doubt influenced Bill Walton’s reluctance to join the team; however, Walton did offer to play for the team provided he did not need to try out or train with the Team until three weeks before the Games.  The Olympic Committee and Coach Iba turned him down.  It is worth noting that Bill Walton’s doctor advised him to cut back on basketball between seasons, as his knees and feet were already developing some of the injury issues that ultimately suffocated his pro career.

The United States, missing the best college player and playing a style that failed to emphasize their strengths, still dominated their competition, winning their first eight games. They easily reached the finals against the Soviet Union in a battle for the gold medal.

The Soviet Union’s Team was much older and more experienced – for lack of a better word, the Soviet players were “quasi-professional.”  Still, the Soviets beat Cuba by only six points in their semi-finals series, while the United States hung a thirty point differential on Italy in the other.

ilsu-dcollins-oly-250The game itself was a hard-fought contest all the way. The Soviets were up 49-48 with 3 seconds left when Doug Collins made a spectacular steal, drove in for a lay-up, and took a hard foul.  Collins shook off the hit, hitting his first free throw.

Then the controversy began.

Collins shoots his 2nd free throw and the buzzer sounds, but he makes the shot anyway.  A Soviet assistant coach frantically called for a timeout because the rules at the time stated that a made second free throw resulted in a live ball. International rules at the time dictated that time-outs were called by either hitting a button or calling for it.  This process was crucial because, if you called timeout, you could then elect to use it after the 2nd free throw.  The Soviets inbounded the ball and began dribbling up the court, but the referee stopped the play due to the assistant Soviet coach’s complaints.

The refs met and, along with the help of the Head of FIBA, Renato Jones, decided not to grant the timeout, resuming play from 1 second left. The refs, and Jones, decided to give the ball back to the Soviet’s with 3 seconds to play but no time out.  The Soviet coach also made a substitution before their second in-bounds play which should not have been allowed because the timeout was over-ruled.

The referee blew the inbound whistle before the time had set and the clock read 50 seconds remaining. American television cameras faced away the ball. The Soviets inbounded the ball, and the horn blew after only one second.

1972_1_66zjvuil_otf7nwofFans swarmed the court as American players began to celebrate: however, the referees ordered that the court be cleared, and the clock reset. Allegedly, the horn that sounded after one second was the scorer’s table trying to signal they had not reset the clock.

Then the Soviets ran a third inbound play. The Soviets complete the inbound pass – of course there was some controversy about the inbounder’s foot being on the line, but that’s peanuts compared to the rest of the fiasco.  Soviet player Aleksandr Belov caught the pass from Ivan Edenshko – the player incorrectly substituted in – and finished the play with a game-winning basket. The Soviets won.

The United States refused to accept the silver medal, believing that international officials had cheated them out of the gold.

So what does this writer think?

I hate to take the Non-American view, but I believe the referees did the best they could under the circumstances, and that the Soviet’s had a legitimate win.  The timer saw the timeout, and blew the horn accordingly – it’s the only logical explanation, and it makes sense. Sometimes the simplest solution is the truest.

Once the officials made that call, the Soviet’s deserved three seconds.  They only got one second, and the horn blew early.  If you believe the horn sounded because the timer saw the timeout, then they actually deserved the full three seconds, not just the one second they received.

russianbasketballThird, If the American cameras had captured the action at the time, the announcers would have understood what happened, and history would be changed; instead, television audiences did not see what happened at the other end of the court, it just looked like the American players were celebrating a win before the ‘commies’ stole it away.


Yes, there is some contention over Edenshko’s entrance into the game, and the grumbling makes sense.  While the substitution was technically, the game went on, and the Soviets still made the play.

Given the high stakes and political backdrop to the game, it was simply a bizarre, but not unfair, result that can reasonably be chalked up to the breaks of the game.  It might not have been handled 100% correctly, but the outcome is well within the boundaries of a bad break, hardly reason to claim anyone was ‘robbed’.

Given the way we talk about this game, I’m aware this is not a popular position among USA basketball fans, and I would say one fact does leave me with some doubt. In 2012, with some excellent research, Bloomberg found a report on former FIBA head Renato Jones in old Soviet Archives. The report stated that he was “rooting for the Soviets” and some at the time suspected that he had socialist sympathies, though he insisted he was a loyal British citizen.


I still say, with little doubt, the events have not been portrayed accurately in the media.  When most retell the story, it sounds like the refs and Jones were socialist swindlers who just kept giving the ball to the Soviets until they finally scored. This narrative portrays Olympic competition as if it were a U6 soccer league practice where Johnny kept kicking until he made a goal and his parents were satisfied: that simply wasn’t what happened.  Like any event, there are many ways to interpret it, and mainstream history, at least in the West, is far from objective in this matter.

It was bad luck in a bad situation; but thems the breaks, kid.

By Dan Ryan