Forty years have passed since the 1972 Summer Games. Four decades for the bizarre end to the men’s basketball gold medal match to become a bigger part of Olympic history.
The basic narrative is well-known at this point. Team USA entered the game 63–0 in Olympic play and had taken a 50–49 lead over the USSR on two free throws with three seconds remaining by then-Illinois State star Doug Collins, now the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers and the color analyst for these Olympics.
The Soviet team was then given three separate opportunities to inbound the ball after the first two attempts that resulted in missed baskets were overruled by the referees due to confusion with a Russian timeout and the game clock.
On the third inbounds attempt, Soviet forward Alexander Belov outjumped Kevin Joyce and Jim Forbes for a full-court pass before making an uncontested, game-winning layup with no time remaining.
The story of what led Belov to that moment was equally strange but much more unknown; for had it not been for the generosity of a young NBA general manager three years earlier, Belov would have never caught that pass.
Jerry Colangelo’s tenure with the Phoenix Suns was marked by a no-nonsense attitude with players.
When Dennis Johnson was being labeled as a “cancer” and “malcontent” during his final year with the team, in 1983, Colangelo dealt him to the Celtics. Star point guard Jason Kidd was arrested on a domestic abuse charge in January 2001, and Colangelo traded him to the Nets five months later.
But in June 1969, Colangelo was 29 years old — just seven years removed from being captain of the basketball team at Illinois — and entering his second season as the expansion Suns’ GM. He apparently had yet to develop his “toe the line” mentality with players.
That summer, a 17-year-old Belov was touring the U.S. with the Soviet national team. One of their stops was in Phoenix to play the Suns’ rookies. During that trip, Belov was caught stealing two pairs of Levi’s. (Like all Western consumer goods, they commanded huge black-market prices in the USSR at the time.)
The Soviet career of Belov, who had a history of being a troublemaker, could have been over. But Colangelo persuaded the police not to press charges.
“I recall trying to squash it because we didn’t need an international incident,” Colangelo recently told Bloomberg’s Daniel Golden and Stephan Kravchenko. “So he was given a pass. It could have been a big deal. We were able to keep a lid on it.”
Belov was a Soviet hero after his gold medal-winning layup in ’72 that completed his eight-point, eight-rebound performance. While Belov nearly threw the game away with a pass that was intercepted by Collins with eight seconds left and the USSR up by one, the Soviet Union clearly would not have won without his efforts.
But it only lasted four years. In January 1977 he was kicked off the national team after Moscow customs officials caught him smuggling Russian religious icons out of the USSR while with his club team, Spartak Leningrad.
He was dead less than two years later, reportedly succumbing to cardiac sarcoma (cancer of the heart lining) in October 1978. Those close to Belov believe his demise was expedited by his heavy drinking after January ’77. Others believe he was murdered for the shady dealings he had gotten himself into.
Meanwhile Colangelo, the man who pardoned Belov for his 1969 Phoenix shoplifting, is now 72 and the director of USA Basketball. A team he constructed is poised to win a second consecutive Olympic gold medal after demolishing Nigeria on Thursday, 156-73.
Consider it Colangelo’s way of paying back Team USA for unwittingly paving the way for their historic upset loss nearly 40 years ago.