The Americans’ controversial defeat—their first in Olympic basketball competition—led to a hit movie in Russia and even CIA interest.
On September 10, 1972, five days after the infamous Munich Massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists, the Soviet Union defeated the United States in the gold-medal basketball game at the Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany. The 51-50 loss was the first defeat in 64 games in Olympic competition for the American men, whose team was composed of college players.
READ MORE: Munich Massacre
The Soviets won the gold-medal contest after confusion over timeouts and the game clock led to the final three seconds being replayed twice. From the United States missing its best player to CIA interest in the result, here is what you may not know about the historic upset:
1. Some Push for Delay of ‘Fun and Games’
In an editorial following the Munich Massacre, the New York Times advocated for delaying Olympic competition, writing, “Munich threatens to become a symbol of callousness that is utterly repugnant to the Olympic ideal. For millions all over the world, this indecent haste on the part of the International Olympic Committee to go back to fun and games is unacceptable.”
READ MORE: When World Events Disrupted Olympics
But competition resumed after only a 34-hour suspension.
Years later, U.S. captain Kenny Davis told the Louisville Courier Journal, “If they had asked us, ‘Do you want to go home now and forget this whole thing?’ I think everybody on our team would’ve said, ‘Yes, let’s go. But looking back on it, I think they did the right thing.”
2. How The Final Seconds Play Out
With three seconds left, Doug Collins hit two free throws to give the U.S. a 50-49 lead. As the Soviets inbounded the ball, assistant coach Sergei Bashkin rushed to the scorer’s table, insisting his team had called timeout. The Soviets were allowed to inbound again, though no officials noticed the game clock had not been reset to three seconds. The Soviets’ pass went astray, and the Americans celebrated their apparent victory. But because of the clock error, officials ordered another restart. This time, the pass successfully reached Alexander Belov as two Americans fell, and he made the winning layup. (Belov died in 1978.)
A jury of appeals for FIBA, the governing body of the sport, rejected the Americans’ appeal of the defeat. In a statement some interpreted as anti-American bias, Great Britain’s R. William Jones, FIBA’s secretary general, told the media: “The Americans have to learn how to lose, even if they think they are right.”
3. U.S. Misses Its Best Player, Bill Walton
UCLA’s Bill Walton, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992, clearly was America’s best college player, having led the Bruins to a 30-0 record and the 1972 NCAA title. But Walton had several reasons for not wanting to represent the United States at the Games. For one, Walton strongly opposed the ongoing Vietnam War—he was arrested in an anti-war protest in May 1972.
READ MORE: Vietnam War Protests
Plus, Walton had a bad experience at the 1970 world championships, telling ESPN in 2004, “For the first time in my life, I was exposed to negative coaching and the berating of players and the foul language and the threatening of people who didn’t perform.” Also, Walton didn’t think he should have to try out for the team.
“When (the Soviets) saw who was and wasn’t on the U.S. team,” Russian sports historian Robert Edelman told ESPN, “that’s when they started feeling like they’d actually have a chance.”
4. Soviet Union Much More Experienced
The U.S.S.R. team, led by 28-year-old Sergei Belov, was a group of experienced players from Soviet club teams, ranging from 20 to 33 years old, while the U.S. team was composed of college players, all under 23. In 1992, Sergei Belov became the first international player inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 2004, Johnny Bach, an assistant on the 1972 American team, told ESPN: “Their team, it was reported, played almost 400 games together. 400 games. We had played 12 exhibition games and the trials.”
5. The CIA Looks Into Result
In a declassified memo, the CIA looked into the controversy surrounding the end of the game and suggested that the FIBA jury of appeals’ decision in favor of the U.S.S.R. was a Soviet plot. “It was rumored that the vote was three (Communist) to two (West),” the memo read.
Sounding like something written by complaining fans, the CIA report included mention of uncalled fouls on the Soviets: “Belov was guilty of fouling two Americans on his drive for the [winning] basket.”
6. Upset Inspires a Hit Film in Russia
Like the hit American film Miracle on Ice, about the United States’ stunning victory over the Soviets in hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics, the U.S.S.R. victory in Munich played out on the big screen.
In 2017, the Russian film Going Vertical told the story of the 1972 team, culminating in the dramatic final play in the gold-medal game, including the winning assist from Ivan Edeshko. In Russia, it’s known as “The Golden Pass.”
The film was wildly popular, becoming the highest-grossing Russian film of the post-Soviet era. It also won six “Golden Eagle” awards, the Russian version of the Golden Globe.
7. United States Runs Out of Big Men
Late in the game, Team USA lost its starting center and leading scorer Dwight Jones when Russian reserve Mishako Korkia tangled with him on the court, and both were ejected. The Americans claimed it was a deliberate attempt to get Jones thrown out; the Soviet coach blamed Korkia’s “hot Asian character” for the fight.
On the ensuing jump ball, 6-foot-9 American Jim Brewer was knocked out of the game by a hard foul. Tom Burleson, the Americans’ 7-foot-2 center, was healthy, but he had been benched for the gold-medal game for letting his fiancee visit him at the Olympic Village.
On the game’s final play, the Americans’ tallest player was 6-foot-11 forward Tom McMillen, a future U.S. congressman, who backed off Alexander Belov before the pass. Because of the language barrier, McMillen misunderstood the Bulgarian referee’s hand signal, thinking he would be called for a technical foul if he crowded Alexander Belov, thus creating a lane for the “golden pass.”
8. Even Referee Protests Outcome
After the game, referee Renato Righeppo of Brazil refused to sign the box score certifying the Soviets’ victory. A second official, Artenik Arababjan of Bulgaria, signed it, saying, “I’m only a referee. It’s not my business to file a protest.”
9. Team USA Still Refuses to Accept Silver Medals.
The United States voted unanimously to refuse the silver medals—Davis and another American player, Tom Henderson, even have provisions in their wills that their children can’t accept the medals either. The Americans’ 1972 men’s basketball team is the only Olympic team, in any sport, to refuse its medals.
After the gold-medal game, Davis told the media: “If we had lost honorably, we would have stood in that second spot on the platform and received our silver medals honorably.”
10. No Olympic Meeting Again Until 1988
At the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea in 1988, in the countries’ first Olympics meeting since 1972, the Soviets defeated the United States, 82-76. The game, played without controversy, was dominated by Soviet center Arvydas Sabonis, a Lithuanian and one of the greatest players of all time.
READ MORE: Collapse of Soviet Union
“I’m very disappointed and the kids are disappointed, but there will be life afterwards,” U.S. coach John Thompson told the Washington Post.
A Soviet Union-U.S. matchup would never happen again. By the next Summer Games, in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain, the Soviet Union was dissolved and the U.S. had turned to NBA stars to play in the Olympics. In Spain, the Americans’ “Dream Team,” led by Michael Jordan, easily won the gold medal.