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Who remembers this game in
Soviet Union’s Olympic robbery of US still not forgivable five decades later
By Mike Vaccaro (taken from a longer article in NY Post)

1972

Basketball sits in repose for the moment, so it is a good time to recognize that this summer of 2022, our grand American sport will celebrate two important anniversaries — one perhaps the darkest moment in its history (at least as far as the U.S. is concerned); one a crowning moment of triumph. The most recent was the 1992 Dream Team, which essentially opened the world up to the United States’ greatness and, in so doing, allowed the sport to become more global than ever before. And so it remains.

In many ways, that was the culmination of a movement that began with the first of these anniversaries: 1972, Munich. This Sept. 9, it will be 50 years since the Soviet Union defeated the United States, 51-50, in the most controversial game ever contested. The U.S. was 63-0 in Olympic competition heading into that game, and for much of it — even the players will admit — they were grossly outplayed by the Russians.

Some of that was a byproduct of coach Henry Iba’s stubborn, old-school style. Some of it was no doubt the hubris of recognizing, just by watching the layup lines, that this U.S. team, like all the ones back to 1936 that had preceded it, was easily 20-25 points better on paper than their foe.

Still, despite that, the U.S. was on the brink of surviving. One of the true travesties of what followed is that Doug Collins — later an NBA All-Star, a fine coach and a high-profile broadcaster, then an All-American at Illinois State — made the two most pressure-packed free throws in the game’s history … and saw that feat reduced to a footnote.
With under 10 seconds to go, the U.S. trailing 49-48, Collins stole an ill-advised pass from the USSR’s Alexander Belov — remember that name — and was body-checked into a stanchion as he drove for a layup with three seconds left by Zurab Sakendelidze. Collins made the first. As he started to shoot the second the horn from the scorer’s table blared — talk about harbingers — but, unfazed, Collins made the second shot, too. This should be one of the most celebrated moments in basketball history.

Instead, what we remember is what happened next: not one, not two, but three inbounds plays for the Russians. The first two were inexplicably waved off by the scorer’s table horn. On the third, Ivan Edeshko launched a desperate full-court heave. Belov and Americans Kevin Joyce and Jim Forbes rose for the ball; when they landed, Joyce’s momentum carried him out of bounds and Forbes fell. Belov had a wide-open layup, and the Soviets had the gold. The U.S., rather famously, refused to accept their silver.

I’ve written close to 10,000 columns in my career. I’ve wanted to take only a handful back. One was a column I wrote for The Post in 2012, the 40th anniversary of that game.

I wrote this: “It’s time for them to take the final, higher ground here. They are not the first team to ever lose a game, or a championship, by a terrible decision. Outside the ex-Soviet players, few believe they weren’t wronged here. Maybe that’s not as good as having an actual gold medal, and there should be empathy for the fact that they never will have it. But they should be the bigger men now, 40 years later. Alter the will. End the boycott. Call the IOC. And accept the silver medals.”

How else to say this? I was wrong.
Over time, a good half-dozen of the players on that team read the column and reached out. They weren’t angry as much as they were eager to explain. And the truth is, their rationale was on point.

“If it was a bad referee’s call, that’s one thing,” said Joyce, who’d been a high school star at Archbishop Molloy. “This was an institutional thing. We weren’t going to be allowed to leave that court as winners. And the people in charge made sure of it.”

So the silver medals remain locked away, and the U.S. team swears there they will stay forever. Fifty years later — and 10 after that column — I understand. Some slights are forgivable. Some are not. Even 50 years after the fact.
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