Mike Wise
Mike Wise
Columnist

2012 Olympics: Forty years ago the basketball news was really big

LONDON — In 2052, neither my progeny nor my replacement at The Post — whom you will either read on your land-speeder touchpad or your I-Socket — will write an anniversary column entitled, “The Day The Dwight Howard Trade Made Olympic Basketball Completely Irrelevant.”

But almost 40 years ago, something happened on the Olympic basketball floor that still resonates: Munich Olympics, USSR vs. USA.

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The college kids from the States saw their gold medals snatched from them, when three seconds were unjustifiably put back on the clock so the Soviets could beat them on a Hail Mary pass for a layup at the horn.

Forty years later, we just missed a rematch of sorts. More than anyone, Doug Collins wished the Russians could have gotten past Spain in the semifinals before the United States smoked Argentina in the late game.

“Would I have liked to have seen a rematch 40 years later? Yes, absolutely,” said Collins, the NBC commentator and 76ers coach, who played on that ’72 U.S. team. “To call that game . . . that would have been special.”

Instead of cueing up the Rocky IV soundtrack — “Two Worlds Collide, Rival Nations . . .” — and dragging out every Cold War cliche imaginable, we get USA-Spain II, for all the gold medal marbles again, just like Beijing. No animosity. No bad blood percolating over time. The most accomplished players on each team — Kobe Bryant and Pao Gasol — are NBA teammates.

It was different in ’72. That was some seriously politically and socially charged hoops.

Collins hit two of the most pressurized free throws in the history of international basketball to complete a scintillating comeback and give the United States a 50-49 lead.

One second remained. Even after a Soviet timeout, the game appeared to be over. But William Jones, the British secretary of FIBA, ordered the clock to be reset to 0:03. The Americans even withstood that larceny and celebrated after an errant shot by the Soviets. Then, inexplicably, as the clock was in the process of being reset when play resumed, the floor had to be cleared again, and the three seconds were reinstated.

Ivan Edeshko threw the ball the length of the floor to Alexander Belov, who outmuscled Jim Forbes and Kevin Joyce and hit a layup to send the Soviets into a state of bedlam. The U.S. protest was rejected, and the result was upheld. The U.S. players never made it to the podium in Munich. To this day, they refuse to claim their silver medals, which sit somewhere in the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.

“We didn’t win that,” Collins said, when asked why he can’t let it go after 40 years. “I don’t want something I didn’t earn. All 12 guys would have to agree to it. Kenny Davis has it in his will even if he dies, his kids could never accept it.”

A Chicago lawyer has recently released a book detailing the fiasco in ’72 called “Stolen Glory.” He and former Maryland all-American Tom McMillen, the guy who actually defended the out-of-bounds play, are behind a push to have the International Olympic Committee eventually award the United States duplicate gold medals.

Every player on the U.S. team will meet later this month for a reunion.

“The 12 of us have never been in the same room since that game,” Collins said.

It’s a different world now, of course. The Russians aren’t the bad guys anymore. They’re Andrei Kirilenko, NBA millionaire. They’re the best players on your American hockey teams.

McMillen wrote recently for the Daily Beast that if the gold medals ever were given to the U.S. team, he would try to influence the U.S. players to auction them off, and that money would then go toward Russian orphanages — provided the Soviet players from then were okay with the arrangement, too.

David Blatt, the American-born coach of the 2012 Russia team, holds Israeli citizenship. He was obviously hoping for the same rematch as Collins, but also shed some perspective on the issue:

“I like what Doug said: that as much as we want to talk about the significance of that game, the real significance of Munich were the Israeli athletes killed,” Blatt said. “When we talk about the 40-year anniversary of that event, that should always be the significance.”

At this very moment I’m supposed to be in a news conference next door at North Greenwich Arena, where Kevin Durant and Coach K will alternately be asked how the NBA pendulum swung back to Kobe and the Lake Show once the deal for Howard was consummated somewhere around halftime of the Spain-Russia semifinal here.

And I don’t really care. NBA blockbuster trades are dime a dozen. The more you talk to Collins, what happened then means more.

At the 1994 world championships in Toronto, Collins finally sat down with Sergei Belov, Russia’s coach, who played on the ’72 team. In the hallway between games Friday night, he said their meeting was professional, that he never once told Belov he felt the United States won that game and should have been awarded the gold medals.

“We spoke through an interpreter the entire time,” Collins remembered. “He literally answered every question in Russian. But after we were finished, he looked at me and, in perfect English, he said, ‘Tell your son [Chris] good luck at Duke this year.’ ”

“I said, ‘You sucker, you got me again.’ ”

For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

 
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