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It's almost impossible to recap the sheer absurdity of the 1972 Olympics men's basketball final between the previously undefeated United States and Soviet Union. Entering the gold medal game, the U.S. had posted a cumulative 63-0 record but the Soviet Union emerged with a 51-50 victory in a game full of controversy and missed calls.
The Olympics often promotes itself as apolitical, but Cold War tensions between the United States and Soviet Union added another layer of pretext to this historic final. Leading up the 1972 final, the U.S. had posted a cumulative 63-0 record and had won seven consecutive gold medals. They were heavy favourites against the Soviet Union, who went unbeaten during the event, with a plus-160 point differential during the group stage.
Since the Olympics prohibited professionals at the time, the U.S. wasn't able to send its best players, while then-college superstar Bill Walton declined an invite.
It was a tightly contested, ugly final, which saw Soviet star Alexander Belov crush Jim Brewer violently, knocking him out of the game during a chaotic first half. Ultimately, this game is remembered for its frantic final minute.
With three seconds remaining, as the Soviets held a tenuous 49-48 lead, Doug Collins was fouled and awarded two free throws. Collins drained the first free throw, but the horn went off as he attempted his second shot, referee Renato Righetto didn't stop play, and the U.S. took a 50-49 lead.
Chaos ensued. A Soviet assistant ran onto the court, arguing that head coach Vladimir Kondrashin had called a timeout before Collins' second free throw. The Soviets inbounded the ball, but the clock was stopped with one second remaining, as a result of the Soviet coaches disrupting the scorer's table.
An on-court debate ensued while play was stopped, with the Soviets successfully arguing they called a timeout prior to Collins' first free throw. Moreover, even though the stoppage officially took place with one second remaining on the clock, the officials didn't count the inbound and reset the clock back to three seconds. Although the U.S. protested, a second inbounds play took place.
During the second inbounds, the Soviet Union illegally substituted Ivan Edeshko into the game, but the referees didn't notice. Edeshko passed the ball to teammate Modestas Paulauskas, who then launched the ball up the court toward Belov but missed his target as the clock expired.
While the U.S. was celebrating its apparent victory, FIBA secretary general Renato William Jones intervened and demanded the Soviets get another inbounds play with three seconds left on the clock. Though Jones had no jurisdiction to overrule the officials, they complied, allowing a third and final inbounds play to occur. U.S. head coach Henry Iba was irate but was worried that if he pulled his team off the floor, they would forfeit and the risk of losing the gold medal without competing for it was an untenable position for Iba and his team.
On the third inbounds, Edeshko threw a full-court pass to Sergei Belov, a jump-ball that was contested by Belov, U.S. guard Kevin Joyce and forward Jim Forbes. Belov caught the ball cleanly, Joyce couldn't contain himself and landed out of bounds, while Forbes landed awkwardly and fell down, allowing Belov to bank an uncontested layup for the 51-50 victory.
Belov was celebrated by his teammates in a raucous pile-up, while the U.S. protested the decision to no avail. It was a comedy of errors, but the Americans weren't laughing.
What was the reaction to the event at the time?
The U.S. was disgusted by the game's ending, and still are almost 50 years later as USA Basketball has unsuccessfully lobbied the IOC to overturn the result. Immediately after the game ended, the U.S. Olympic Basketball Committee filed a formal protest that was heard by a five-member FIBA panel. The panel voted 3-2 in favour of the Soviet Union. "Under FIBA rules, the United States won," Hans Tenschert of West Germany, the game's scorekeeper said.
“We do not feel like accepting the silver medal because we feel we are worth the gold,” Bill Summers, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Basketball Committee said, according to The Guardian.
As for the Soviet Union, it was predictably a different tune.
"We deserve the victory no matter what the circumstances. We had them puzzled from the start since we used a different lineup to confuse them at the beginning," Soviet Union head coach Vladimir Kondrashin said.
What did it change for future Olympics?
In all honesty, not a whole lot, although it is considered arguably the biggest scandal in the history of the Olympics.
Professionals were barred from competing until 1992, when the U.S. "Dream Team" captured global attention for their star power, with Michael Jordan at his basketball apex dominating the competition and spurring global interest in a sport that had been long dominated by the U.S.
There hasn't been any controversy over results since, and the quality of officiating is much better than it was nearly 50 years ago.
Where are they now?
Most of the main participants are either dead or long removed from basketball, but the legacy of this final continues onward.
The U.S. left their silver medals in a vault, residing in Switzerland. In 2012, U.S. team member Kenny Davis organized a reunion of the team's 12 living members, who unanimously agreed not to accept their silver medals 40 years removed from the game.
Sergei Belov died in 2013. Prior to his death, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992, the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2007, and was ranked No. 1 on FIBA's 50 Greatest Players list in 1991.
Several documentaries have been produced about the game. ESPN ran "Silver Reunion," told from the U.S. perspective in 2013 as part of its 30 for 30 series, while the Russian perspective is captured in the 2017 film "Going Vertical."
Watch: The remarkable moments when politics upstaged the Olympics