MUNICH, West Germany - It's one of the truly infamous endings in sports history, a result that remains just as controversial today as the day it happened. It's a result that caused nationwide bitterness, a gold medal game that got decided, at least partially, based on political ties. And the losing team still hasn't accepted the result, or the associated medals, and likely never will.
First, the parts that aren't confusing. Entering the 1972 gold medal game in men's basketball, the United States had not lost an Olympic basketball match. Ever. They were 71-0 going into the heavily anticipated matchup with the Soviet Union. However, the U.S. was trailing, 49-48, near the end of the game. Doug Collins, future NBA player and coach, stole a Soviet inbounds pass near midcourt and drove to the basket, getting fouled hard. He was given two free-throws with three seconds left. Collins made the first free throw to tie the game at 49.
That's when things started to get interesting.
Just as Collins was about to take the second free throw, the horn at the scorers' table sounded. Despite the sudden interruption, plus one of the officials running over there, Collins made the second free throw to give the U.S. a 50-49 lead. Under international rules at the time, the ball became live the second the ball went through the net, so the clock started and the Soviets scrambled to get the ball inbounds. However, a Soviet assistant charged off the bench to the scorers' table, saying the USSR had called a time out before the first free throw (which was the reason for the stray horn sounding). The referees stopped play to discuss.
The controversy started there. It's very possible that the USSR called a timeout, which if granted, should have come before Collins' second free-throw attempt. If so, either the referees missed the time out or the scorers' table did. It's believed that the late horn came because the scorers' table realized too late what the USSR was trying to do. However, the Soviet assistant should not have been allowed to run onto the court to call a time out. Only a head coach can call time out in the international game, and leaving the bench should have been cause for a technical foul.
The head referee eventually decided to not award the Soviets with the time out - a moot point, since the lenghty delay gave them time to draw up a play anyway - and restart the game with the Soviets attempting an inbounds pass with one second left, which is what the clock showed when the arguments began. However, he was overruled by the secretary-general of FIBA - who did not have the authority to make such a decision - and play was resumed with three seconds left.
So OK, fine. The game restarted with the Soviets trying for an inbounds pass that would lead to the winning basket. They were handed the ball and instructed to continue the game. Meanwhile, there was still chaos at the scorers' table, as the clock inexplicably showed 50 seconds. Just as the Soviet inbounds pass left the passer's hand, the horn sounded again. As the ball was tipped off the backboard and harmlessly away, many thought that, plus the horn, meant the game was over. But the horn had been designed to inform the referees that the scorers' table wasn't ready for the restart.
The Soviets were then given a third chance to inbound the ball. The Americans were furious, temporarily considering walking off the court and declaring the game over. Fearing a possible forfeit ruling, they stayed on the court for the USSR's third attempt.
Before this one, the Americans sent 6'11" center Tom McMillen to guard the inbound passer. Just before giving the ball to the Soviet player, a referee gestured to McMillen. He interpreted the gesture as a command to back up to give the passer room. Though this was not in the international rulebook, McMillen complied anyway, not wanting to risk any kind of repercussions against the Americans. Later, the officials claimed that he was not being instructed to back up. Whatever the case, he was a few feet back, and as such not in position to defend the pass.
The USSR's Ivan Edeshko inbounded the ball with an overhand pass the length of the floor. Here, television replays are conflicted as to whether he had illegally stepped on the line - American cameras showed his toe on the line, while Soviet cameras, using higher definition, seemed to show that he had not stepped on it. Either way, nothing was called. Two Americans and a Russian jumped for the ball; the two Americans fell while the Russian, Aleksandr Belov, came down with the ball. After a pump fake, Belov laid the ball in to give the USSR an apparent victory.
After the game, the Americans argued again, saying there's no chance the entire play could have taken less than 3 seconds. The referee refused to sign the official scoresheet as an act of protest. The Americans immediately filed an official protest of the result, which was heard by FIBA's jury of appeal. By a 3-2 vote - entirely along political lines - the protest was denied. The Russians were declared the gold medalists.
The Americans have never accepted the result of the game. The team refused to accept their silver medals, and have not done so to this day. The International Olympic Committee has declared that the U.S. is free to accept their medals if every member of the team votes to accept it. It seems highly unlikely that will ever happen.
The IOC instituted several changes in the wake of the USSR-USA game, including rules regulating time outs and official control of the games. The changes have come far too late for the USA, who still believe they were wrongly denied their gold medals.