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Second-Hand Smoke

Thirty years have done little to cool the still-smoldering U.S.-Soviet Olympic basketball controversy, and American players are still doing a slow burn about the chaotic ending to the gold-medal game in Munich


INDIANAPOLIS — Thirty years later, Ivan Edeshko buries his face in his hands and groans: "Oh no." Not another question about those three seconds.

"All my life was three seconds," he says. "All my life."

The memory should be cause for joy. With three seconds left in the gold-medal basketball game at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games, Edeshko lofted an inbounds pass the length of the court, into the hands of teammate Aleksandr Belov, who scored to give the Soviet Union a stunning victory over the United States.

In that glimmer of a moment, the Americans lost for the first time in Olympic history and the Soviets truly arrived as a basketball power.

But the 51-50 victory still ranks among the most controversial finishes in international sport, with coaches charging onto the court and officials arguing, with the Americans celebrating an apparent victory only to have three seconds put back on the clock, giving Edeshko a chance to throw his pass.

To cloud matters further, the game was played against a tragic backdrop, the murder of 11 Israeli team members by Palestinian terrorists in the Olympic village days earlier. The Cold War played a role too, capitalism versus communism, the basketball arena transformed into political arena.

So the questions Edeshko has faced for three decades have not always been pleasant, the comments not always congratulatory. It is enough to ruin an otherwise pleasant afternoon of sipping beer at a sidewalk cafe in Indianapolis where he was serving as assistant coach of the Russian team at the World Basketball Championship last week.

The way he sees it, there are two versions of what happened: the American version and the truth. If he were back home, he could better respond.

"People ask me questions," he says. "I give them a videotape of the game."

The Letter

Speaking by telephone from his office in Landover, Md., Tom McMillen talks about a packet of newspaper articles he has collected. Munich was far more shocking than the losses suffered last week by the U.S. team at the championship in Indianapolis. All these years later, he says, people are still writing about the injustice.

With three seconds left, McMillen was the American player assigned to cover the inbounds pass, standing eye-to-eye with Edeshko. Exactly how far apart they stood is a matter of contention, but more on that later. For now, suffice to say McMillen is seeking redress.

"I think we have a case," he says. "And I think it's worth exploring."

His feelings might be even stronger than in 1972, his interest piqued by the case of the Canadian pairs skaters who finished second to a Russian duo at the Salt Lake City Olympics last winter.

After that questionable finish, a French judge said she had been "pressured" to vote for the Russians. The International Olympic Committee then agreed to award duplicate gold medals to the Canadians, and McMillen took note of a comment by IOC President Jacques Rogge.

A sailor for the Belgian Olympic team in 1972, Rogge was on hand for the basketball controversy. The skating incident, he said, "was peanuts compared to that."

"If you read between the lines, you know what he is saying," McMillen says. "Our game was worse than what happened to the Canadian skaters."

Having served as a Maryland congressman after his playing days, McMillen decided to take action. He conferred with his former teammates, then wrote a letter to Rogge asking that their game be officially revisited.

To this day, the silver medals awarded to the U.S. remain in a Swiss vault. McMillen and his teammates refused to accept them in 1972 and have likewise declined when the IOC periodically has asked them to reconsider.

"We're not militants or anything," says Ed Ratleff, a guard on the team. "We feel we got the gold taken away from us."

McMillen says, "There are a lot of factors that keep circling around this game."

The Game

Circling like buzzards. Thirty years later, people still pick over the carcass, squabbling over bits and pieces, scrutinizing events that took place even before the Games began.

Top collegians such as Bill Walton and David Thompson had declined to play in Munich, so America's hopes rested on a young squad featuring McMillen and Ratleff, Dwight Jones and Doug Collins, Jim Brewer and Bobby Jones. There was debate over the man chosen as coach, the aging and conservative Hank Iba.

"We had the wrong coach," says Ratleff, an All-American from Long Beach State. "They brought in a bunch of thin, fast guys. You're talking about guys who loved to score, who never passed up shots in college, but he made us slow it down and make all these passes."

Meanwhile, the Soviets brought a veteran team that had been slowly but surely closing the talent gap on the once-untouchable Americans.

In the championship game in Munich, a game in which both teams looked nervous and awkward, the Soviets took control and led by eight points with five minutes left. Only then did Iba loosen the reins.

Don Haskins, an assistant coach, insists this was planned.

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