The Munich Olympics are mainly remembered for the brutal terror attack that took the lives of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team. But in the shadow of that tragedy, Munich saw another historic incident — although this one happened on the court, during the basketball final between the United States and the Soviet Union.
As often happens with basketball games, the nail-biting action didn’t come until the game’s final minute. The American team, which had won the gold in every final since basketball first became a permanent Olympic sport in 1936, was comprised of amateurs — as was the national rule until 1988. The Soviet team had professional players.
The U.S. trailed the Soviets until the last three seconds, when Doug Collins’ free throws gave the U.S. its first lead. But after the U.S.S.R. team inbounded the ball, referees stopped the game with one second left and reset clock to 3 seconds — claiming the Soviets had tried to call a time out in between the free throws that officials had not noticed.
Those three seconds passed without a Soviet score, and the Americans celebrated what they assumed was a victory — until the team was called back onto the court because the clock hadn’t been reset properly. With yet another chance to win, the U.S.S.R.’s Alexander Belov took a full-court pass to the hoop, earning his team the gold.
Enraged and insulted, the U.S. team filed a protest and refused to accept its silver medals, which remain unclaimed.
“It was sort of like being on top of the Sears tower in Chicago celebrating and then being thrown off and falling 100 floors to the ground,” Collins told ESPN in 2004. “That’s the kind of emptiness and sick feeling I felt.”