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Soviet Coach Marks the Anniversary of Olympic Triumph With Sadness

September 24, 1989|ROB GLOSTER | Associated Press

LENINGRAD, U.S.S.R. — Vladimir Petrovich Kondrashin relives the remarkable triumph of his 1972 Olympic basketball team each September. He celebrates in sadness.

The aging coach looks at the gold medal in his apartment, then at the small bust of the man to whom it belonged -- Alexander Belov, who scored the winning basket against the United States in one of the most controversial games in sports history.

When Belov died of cancer in 1978, he willed his gold medal to Kondrashin since coaches do not receive Olympic medals.

"On the anniversary I recall Belov more than the game itself," Kondrashin said through a translator. "I am more sad than happy on that day."

Kondrashin usually meets with some of his former players each Sept. 10 to mark the anniversary of the game at the Munich Olympics, the first defeat in U.S. Olympic basketball history.

This year most of those players, who now are coaches, were traveling with their teams. So Kondrashin celebrated alone with his memories of Belov.

"I have a photo of Belov in my car and I keep his medals," Kondrashin said. "But better that Belov be alive and he can keep his medals."

Belov is omnipresent in the coach's small office in a deserted gym on the outskirts of Leningrad. Pictures and medals surround a letter of condolence in Russian cyrillic from International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch, who was the Spanish Ambassador to the Soviet Union at the time of Belov's death.

Kondrashin said he remembers "practically everything about the game, though 17 years have passed." He jumped up from his chair to show how he diagrammed the winning play, which few American sports fans can forget.

The United States entered the game with a record of 62-0 in Olympic basketball and an outstanding team that included Doug Collins and Tom McMillen.

The Soviets jumped out to an early lead and still had an eight-point margin with 6:07 left in the game. The Americans whittled the margin to one point with 34 seconds remaining, yet the Soviets had the ball and a chance to run out the clock.

But Belov went up for a shot with less than 10 seconds remaining and missed. He grabbed the rebound, but passed it right to Collins as he was falling out of bounds. Collins, the Illinois State player who went on to NBA stardom and a recent three-year stint as Chicago Bulls coach, went the length of the court and was fouled.

Collins made both free throws to give the United States a 50-49 lead. Then came the most infamous three seconds in basketball.

The Soviets tried to pass the ball in, but it was deflected out of bounds. The crowd rushed onto the court, but one second remained on the clock. Again the Soviets inbounded, failing to get off a shot before the horn sounded.

But R. William Jones of Britain, secretary-general of the International Amateur Basketball Federation, rushed down from the stands and ordered three seconds be put back on the clock, saying it had not been properly reset after the first inbounds play.

Ivan Yedeshko, who had come off the bench just to throw the inbounds pass, took a step away from the long arms of the 6-foot-11 McMillen and shot-putted the ball the length of the court to elov, who fought off two U.S. defenders and scored as the horn again sounded.

"Yedeshko had played handball for a long time, so he could make the pass better than anyone," Kondrashin explained. "He had the strongest hands."

Kondrashin said he hoped Belov would get fouled on the play and make one of his two free throws to send the game into overtime. But he never had any doubt about who would take the last shot.

"I knew him from childhood, so I was sure of him. Still now I would choose Belov," said Kondrashin, gesticulating gently with his right hand.

A world away from Kondrashin, another man vividly remembers those last three seconds.

Henry Iba, the losing U.S. coach, lives with his memories of 1972 in his house in Stillwater, Okla.

"We never did lose the ball game," he said in a telephone interview. "I don't think there was cheating. I think it was just handled bad. They just wanted to handle it right and they didn't know what they were doing."

The ending outraged many Americans, who saw the loss as the fitting end to an Olympics marred by the massacre of Israeli competitors. It became a rallying point for U.S. teams for the next few Olympics.

The U.S. team, which filed an unsuccessful protest after the game, refused to accept its silver medals. The IOC said it does not know what happened to the medals.

"The American team was not disqualified. It earned silver medals and that is all," said Karel Wendl, the IOC's research chief in Lausanne, Switzerland. "The medals should be here but they are not. If the Americans ask us to send them the medals, then we will have to make new ones."

Jones was haunted by those final seconds for years. He told Ed Steitz of the NCAA in 1978 that he was shocked at the result.

"He indicated that never did he think the Soviets would be able to score," Steitz said. "He said if he had to do it all over again, maybe things would have been different. But he went to his grave never publicly admitting he made a mistake."

Kondrashin, whose salt-and-pepper hair and worn Adidas jogging suit make him indistinguishable from the average Soviet man on the street, remembers the victory as his greatest accomplishment. But he said the controversy took away some of the thrill.

And now he thinks about Belov when the game is mentioned, and about his desire to teach Soviet youngsters about one of their nation's sports heroes.

"The small children who are going in for sports aren't very interested. They don't want to listen to stories, they want to do their own things," Kondrashin said. "Unfortunately, more people remember Belov in America than they do here."

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