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On This Date in Sports September 10, 1972: The Munich Screw Job

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The Soviet Union gets three chances to make the final basket to beat Team USA 51-50 in the Gold Medal final at the Munich Olympics. Heading into the game, the Americans were a perfect 63-0 in the Olympic basketball competition, looking for an Eighth Gold medal. The finish remains one of the most controversial moments in the history of the Olympics, as the USA protested by refusing to accept the Silver Medals.

Since basketball was introduced at the 1936 Berlin Games, the United States was the dominant force. Winning the Gold Medal first seven Olympic tournaments easily. However, by 1972 the Soviet Union began to catch up. While the United States continued using amateurs under Olympic rules, the Soviet communist system allowed them to use professionals since all their athletes were members of the Soviet Army. Even among the best colligate players, the 1972 Team USA squad was missing some of the best players as Bill Walton, and Keith Wilkes did not play in the games. Still, they rolled their way into the Gold Medal final and appeared poised to win again.

Led by Sergey Belov and Alexander Belov, the Soviets took control of the game early and led a physical defensive battle 26-21 at the half. The Americans, coached by Hank Iba, turned things around in the second half and appeared to be on the way to a thrilling comeback win as they took a 50-49 lead with three seconds left after Doug Collins hit two clutch free throws. Collins' free throws were made all the more remarkable as he made them after being thrown into the base of the basket by Zurab Sakandelidze, likely, suffering a concussion.  From that moment on, things began to turn sour for Team USA, as it appeared the Russians were going to get as many chances as it took to get the game-winning shot off to steal the Gold Medal.

After Doug Collins made his free throws to give the USA a 50-49 lead, the Soviets frantically called a timeout acknowledged as Sergey Belov reached half court with one second left. An International basketball official came down to the floor and told the referee to put three seconds back on the clock. The Soviets had tried to get a timeout while Collins made his second free throw but was waved off because they were tardy in requesting the stoppage. In addition, the Soviets came onto the floor during play after the inbound and should have been whistled for a technical foul. The clock resets to three seconds despite the U.S. protest. The Soviets made a second inbound and threw up a prayer that was missed as time expired, leading to an American Gold Medal celebration. The referees again decided the inbound was not run properly since the buzzer went off early, and the Soviets were to get a third chance to win the game with three full seconds on the clock. Team USA contemplated walking off the floor in protest under the threat of a forfeit. Stunned, Team USA was forced to defend a third inbound play, this time; the referee did not allow Tom McMillan to defend the inbound play ordering him to back up and enable Ivan Edeshko to complete a full-court pass to Alexander Belov. They easily put the ball in the basket as time expired, giving the Soviet Union a 51-50 win.

The Americans filed an immediate protest following the game, which was rejected by a vote of 3-2, with the three members of Communist Bloc nations rejecting the American's appeal. The Americans refused to participate as they held the medal ceremony, continuing their protest that they were cheated out of the Gold Medal. The bitterness has never healed for several members of the American team as they have written in their wills that no member of their family should accept the Silver Medal.