Soviet Union’s Olympic robbery of US not forgivable 50 years later

Soviet Union’s Olympic robbery of US not forgivable 50 years later

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. 

The US basketball team reacts as the Gold Medal is awarded to the Soviet Union.
The US basketball team reacts as the Gold Medal is awarded to the Soviet Union.
NCAA Photos via Getty Images

With under 10 seconds to go, the U.S. trail ing 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. 

The US basketball team argues with officials as they make questionable decisions near the end of the game.
The US basketball team argues with officials as they make questionable decisions near the end of the game.
NCAA Photos via Getty Images

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.

Vac’s Whacks

How satisfying do you suppose it was for Aaron Hicks to see that game-tying ball fly over the fence in the ninth inning Thursday night? 

Aaron Hicks crushed a game-tying, three-run homer against the Astros on July 23.
Aaron Hicks crushed a game-tying, three-run homer against the Astros on July 23.

It was 60 years ago Monday that Ed Kranepool, still just 17, signed on with the Mets out of James Monroe High in The Bronx. He played 18 years with the Mets, longer than anyone ever, and still holds team records for games played (1,853), and is third in hits (1,418) and at-bats (5,436). Mostly, he’s been an active team ambassador from Day 1. 

My cousin, Dan Bisaccio, retired last year after working 30 years as a high school science teacher and then for more than a decade in the Education Department at Brown. He has just published a remarkable book, “All Children Smile in the Same Language,” which is a joyful narrative on all that is good and honorable about that profession, written elegantly and lovingly. I can’t recommend it strongly enough. 

Four star-level Manning quarterbacks now, and not one of them opted to play for my alma mater-in-law LSU? How is that possible?

Whack Back at Vac

Dennis Daly: I can’t take watching baserunners wearing oven mitts on the base paths. Can’t they slide with their feet first? 

Vac: Apart from that, doesn’t it seem like the oven mitts cause more of those off-the-base-for-a-second replays? 

Scott Wolinetz: Do you think it’s safe to say Leon Rose is an avid fantasy sports guy? 

Vac: I wonder if he ever talks to the other members of his fantasy football league? 

@knishboy: I may not have been sold after Year 1, but Francisco Lindor is the type of ballplayer you need to win a title — Dykstra, Backman and Mookie-esque! 

Francisco Lindor
Francisco Lindor

@MikeVacc: A few years ago, immediately after I ripped Amed Rosario in a column, he hit about .475 for a month. Now Lindor immediately responds to my chiding with a homer, a double and four RBIs. I think I’m due some kind of weird fee, don’t you? 

Peter Drago: Luis Guillorme is hitting about .330. Eduardo Escobar, while a great clubhouse presence, is hitting about .230. Since Luis is also a better fielder, might it be time to sit Escobar, at least for a little while? If the bases were loaded with two outs, which of these guys would you rather see at bat? 

Vac: Personally I think Guillorme is a classic diminishing-returns player, but until he proves me right on that, this might be something Buck Showalter might want to think about.

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