Geopolitics 40 Years Ago: USSR 'Beat' US in B-Ball

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 7/30/2012 09:21:00 AM
Bloomberg has not one but two features recounting the famous basketball match in which the Soviet team famously beat the US team at the 1972 Munich Olympics by a single point forty years ago--albeit with a lot of controversy. Alike Pacquiao versus Bradley, the result is eminently contestable. In the Olympic finals, the Soviet team was granted dubious time extensions until they finally managed to go up 51-50. While they were in control for most of the game, a late US comeback put the Americans ahead by a single point with three seconds remaining after Doug Collins sunk both his free throws. The Americans began celebrating...prematurely, as it turned out.

That was until the FIBA co-founder William Jones--perhaps not a Communist sympathizer but a Soviet sympathizer, no less--asked for time to be added to the game clock. The rest is history:
Then the most powerful figure in European basketball, FIBA Secretary General R. William Jones, emerged from the crowd. Jones, half British and half Italian, had openly rooted for the Soviets against the U.S. in the 1952 Olympics and believed that the growth of basketball worldwide required an American defeat. Now he ordered the clock reset to three seconds -- the time left when Collins made his shots...

After more clock confusion nullified another futile Soviet attempt, Edeshko shot-putted what would become known in Russian lore as “the golden pass” to Alexander Belov. Shrugging off two defenders, Belov caught the length-of-the- court pass and sank an easy basket as time expired. He raised his arms and sprinted to the other end of the court, where the Soviet players piled on top of him. 
Quibble with Jones' bias and methods, but he was ultimately proven right that having a famous victory by a non-American team would increase the sport's global popularity:
“He was always hoping that someone would beat the United States and level the playing field,” says Fox, 67. In that mission, Jones succeeded. The Soviet victory punctured the invincibility of the U.S., where James Naismith invented basketball in 1891. Today it’s the second most popular team sport behind soccer, with more than 500 million competitive and recreational participants.

In 1972, the National Basketball Association was entirely stocked with Americans. Alexander Belov, who scored the winning basket in Munich, became the first Russian drafted by the NBA in 1975. Today, the NBA has 78 foreign-born players from 39 countries and territories. Among them is Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki, who in 2007 became the first European named the league’s most valuable player. The 11 countries besides the U.S. that will compete in London boast 26 current or former NBA players.
“Nobody looked at European basketball until ’72,” says Bill Bertka, 84, scouting director for the Los Angeles Lakers. “When the Russians beat us, people started paying attention.”
And, of course, don't forget the geopolitics of it all when the Soviet Union was still more feared than pitied:
“There was a great political context,” says Russian billionaire and Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. “We saw a bit of a Cold War confrontation, two nuclear superpowers fighting it out on the basketball courts.”

The Munich Olympics were a high-water mark for the Soviet sports program. The USSR won 50 gold medals, compared with 29 in 1968, and made incursions into American strongholds such as basketball and sprints. Valeri Borzov won the men’s 100-meter dash, in which the U.S. had garnered seven of the previous eight gold medals. Long after the Soviet Union disintegrated, the game lives on in the memory of former citizens as a point of pride and nostalgia for bygone glory.
Reliving the geopolitics of the time, the head of a supposedly godless state became a believer, while Nixon and Kissinger fumed:
That afternoon in the Executive Office Building, Nixon and staffers discussed how to respond. When the president complained that “we got screwed,” they warned him against acting like a sore loser. While “everybody here believes we got screwed,” an unidentified aide said, “You’re better off not to be on record as complaining about the officiating.”

That same day, Brezhnev and Kissinger talked in the Kremlin. Kissinger had just arrived from Munich, where he’d met with West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. “We are hoping to finalize” plans for a conference on European security, Brezhnev told him. “You will defeat us in the last three seconds,” replied Kissinger, according to a declassified White House transcript...

“I now know that there is a God above,” Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev needled U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger in Moscow.