The Most Controversial Three Seconds Ever Played on the Court: HSM #4

It is most every athlete’s vision to compete in the Olympics.  It generally starts as a childhood dream then over the years it transpires into the actual event.   Some of the greatest moments in sports history have also accompanied the Olympics like the first ever-perfect 10 scored in Women’s Gymnastics by the Romanian Nadia Comăneci in the 1980 Olympics, or the more recent record by USA swimmer Michael Phelps winning 11 gold medals the most ever by any athlete, but one of the most controversial sports moments to date was the 1972 Olympic gold medal basketball game where the USSR defeated the United States for the Gold.

The media coverage for this game was unprecedented due to many factors.  The Opening Ceremonies where delayed one day due to the Munich Massacre which had had occurred where 11 Israeli athletes where taken hostage and later killed for political reasons.  Mark Spitz set the world record for most medals ever won by an athlete which was 7 in a single Olympics and on September 10th 1972 we had the final three seconds of the U.S. vs. U.S.S.R gold medal basketball game which has been called the most controversial international basketball game ever played.

The U.S. Team was boasting a 63-0 record never losing a game and also came into the final game with the fact they have never lost gold medal in basketball since 1936.  The game was tied 49-49 and the US scored in making it a 50-49 victory.   If the win had been that decisive there would have been no controversy.   But that was not how it went down.

In every media case studied the facts remained the same during the last ten seconds of the game:

  • A Russian player had the ball with three seconds to go, but one of the officials saw something on the sideline and blew his whistle and play was stopped with one second showing on the clock.
  • The official then came to the scoring table to determine how much time should be on the clock. In his opinion only one second should be left but after consultation with the timekeeper, scorekeeper and FIBA officials, it was decided three seconds should remain.
  • Play then resumed, but for some reason the clock had not been put back to three seconds it was supposed to and after one second the horn sounded to end the game.
  • Because the clock had not been properly returned to three seconds, play was allowed to begin again with the three seconds left. This time the Soviet Union scored on a long pass and a layup by Soviet Aleksander Belov.  And they won the gold defeating the U.S. 51-50.

The controversy began from two simple questions: 1) What was the disturbance on the sidelines, which caused the Official to stop the play in the first place?  2) Who specifically on the scoring table ordered the clock be put back to three seconds?

The Media tied this to the political Cold War between the U.S.S.R.’s Communism and the U.S.’s Capitalism.   In the end the media frenzy noted all the same endings.  The Official timekeeper claimed that the U.S. team won the gold but after an unsuccessful appeals vote of 3-2 the Soviets kept the gold.

This story was covered worldwide because the U.S. was knocked off of their throne by the Soviets but in the world of media the controversy still exists today.  The Cold War is has long been over between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. but to this day in defiance of their loss the U.S. basketball team made a very strong statement after the game.

Mike Bantom the current NBA Senior VP of Player Development was a forward on that U.S. team and was quoted in the Guardian U.K. as saying,  “If we had gotten beat, I would be proud to display my silver medal. But, we didn’t get beat, we got cheated.”

In 2004 ESPN recounted the game and over thirty years later it still stirs those that where part of that night in Munich.  The Soviets still claim the Americans where sore losers.  Ivan Edeshko, the soviet player who threw the game-winning pass noted. “It was the cold war.  Americans, out of their own natural pride and love of country, didn’t want to lose and admit loss. They didn’t want to lose in anything, especially basketball.”

“Everything progressed according to strictly Cold War politics,” said Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith. “There were three Communist Bloc judges. It’s a three to two vote. America loses. The Soviet Union wins the gold medal, and at that point the American players are facing a stark reality. Do they accept the silver medal?”

“They had to reset the clock, so they (the Soviets) got a third chance,” said L.A Times writer Randy Harvey. “The Americans thought that at every turn they had been cheated when, in fact, they probably hadn’t been. But they’ll never acknowledge that.”

The facts still remain the Gold went to the Soviets and they refused to accept the Silver Medal and they still await their retrieval in a safe in Lusanne, Switzerland.

“We felt like they just did something to us that was illegal and we didn’t know any other way to protest than to say that you’re not about to get us to show up to take that silver medal,” said team captain Kenny Davis expressing the team’s ultimate response.  Davis also stated in his Will no one from his family is ever allowed to touch or receive the medal his team refused.

They did not have all the advances of instant replay, hundreds of cameras at each game filming every action every second on the court, and the Instant worldwide media attention that the media gives us today.  I am sure if that same game was replayed in any NBA Arena today with all eyes watching their would have been a different outcome.  The other major impact the game had was the players with their committee stuck together and did not accept the medals based on their true feelings of the outcome and still stick to those feelings to this day.


50 stunning Olympic moments: No1 – USA v USSR, basketball final, 1972 | Sean Ingle | Sport | . (2011, November 11). Latest US news, world news, sport and comment from the Guardian | | The Guardian . Retrieved March 18, 2012, from

Silver, A. (2010, June 13). U.S.A. vs. U.S.S.R., 1972 | Top 10 Blown Calls | Keeping Score | Keeping Score | Where sports is on the mind | Retrieved March 18, 2012, from

Saraceno, F. (2004, August 6). ESPN Classic – Classic 1972 USA vs. USSR Basketball game . ESPN: The Worldwide Leader In Sports. Retrieved March 18, 2012, from



About leroyrooks

I was born and raised in Central Florida and have lived here pretty much all my life. I have been always involved in the leadership of major community events and love the profession of Public Relations. Some of the key components of PR I love are branding, social media innovation, event management and community relations.

Posted on March 19, 2012, in FSO - SMMBS. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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