MOSCOW — When the game finally ended, the commentator for Soviet television, Nina Eremina, a former player for the women's national team, was too overcome by emotion to describe what she had just seen. She sat before millions of viewers across 11 time zones and 15 republics and cried.
In another time and place, but in an equally improbable Olympic moment, one of Eremina's American counterparts would say, "Do you believe in miracles?"
The Soviet Union's basketball victory over the United States in the championship game of the 1972 Summer Olympics at Munich, Germany, was as astonishing to most fans throughout the world as the U.S. hockey team's semifinal victory over the Soviets would be eight years later in the Winter Games at Lake Placid, N.Y.
And even more dramatic.
With three seconds remaining, three seconds that, 20 years later, would still inspire the winners and infuriate the losers, the Soviets' Ivan Edeshko threw a length-of-the court pass to teammate Alexander Belov, who laid the ball into the basket for the winning points in a 51-50 victory.
It was the United States' first Olympic loss in 63 games, and, for the first time since basketball became an Olympic sport in 1936, the country where the sport originated did not win the gold medal.
The U.S. players returned home from Munich with no medals, having voted to boycott the medal ceremony out of anger over a controversial, perhaps unprecedented decision that added three seconds to the clock, three seconds that enabled the Edeshko-Belov connection to win the game for the Soviets.
U.S. officials protested to the International Amateur Basketball Federation (FIBA), which the following day rejected their claim, as did the International Olympic Committee some months later.
Twenty years later, U.S. players continue to protest. The IOC offered twice within the last 10 years to retrieve the abandoned silver medals from a Swiss bank vault, on the condition that the 12 players unanimously agree to accept them. Both times, the offer was rejected. In a recent Sports Illustrated article, 10 players said they would vote against accepting the offer if it were made today, considering their loss an Olympic injustice.
There is, however, another side to the story in the capital of the former Soviet Union, where the players from that Olympic championship team do not apologize for their victory.
"They were really strong, and, reliving the game thousands of times in my dreams, I can't help but admire them," Alzhan Zharmukhamedov said of the U.S. players, nine of whom eventually played in the NBA. "They shouldn't be that offended, though, for we unquestionably deserved the victory.
"As for the controversial three seconds, they never spoiled my happiness at winning the Olympic gold medal. I won it because I deserved it, same as the rest of us on the team."
But others on the team are resentful, believing that their gold medals have been tarnished by the unusual circumstances leading to the victory. The national sports newspaper, Sovietski Sport, devoted only one sentence to the controversy in its account of the game, but some players were unable to ignore the gnawing feeling they had that night that their triumph would never be acknowledged by the Americans, a foreboding that proved true.
"Even now, 20 years later, I can't help feeling a bittersweet taste because of this controversy," said Edeshko, currently the coach of the Central Army Sports Club team. "That was my only Olympic gold medal, and it is a pity that some people may think it was not deserved."
One of those is former NBA guard and coach Doug Collins, a leading player for the U.S. team in 1972, who pointedly declined an opportunity four years ago to be reintroduced to Edeshko while the Soviet coach was touring with a team in Atlanta.
"The Americans should not be sore at us," Edeshko said. "Let them remember how we played and led absolutely most of the game. We did deserve the victory."
In retrospect, perhaps the victory was not as remarkable as it seemed.
Anticipating their initiation into the Summer Olympics in 1952 at Helsinki, Finland, the Soviets formed their first national basketball team in 1947. Five years later, they were the class of Europe, having won two continental championships, and they finished second at Helsinki, losing the championship game by 11 points to the United States.
The United States did not take the improving Soviets lightly in the finals of the next two Olympics, beating them by 34 points in 1956 at Melbourne, Australia, and by 24 points in 1960 at Rome. But four years later, in the championship game at Tokyo, the Soviets led after the first 10 minutes before losing by 14 points.