Changing the Game

Three Stunning Upsets in Olympic Basketball History



1972- Munich Germany

Soviet Union 51-United Sates 50



The 1972 Olympic Games were viewed with horror and revulsion in the West. On September 5, 1972, eight Palestinian terrorists seized eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team. Two of the hostages were killed. During a rescue attempt by German forces, all of the remaining hostages and five of the terrorists were killed.


The IOC, deciding that the Games should go on, held a memorial service and the opening of the Games was delayed for one day. Although there were great moments in these Games for the US, such as Mark Spitz winning a phenomenal seven gold medals in swimming, the Games will always be remembered also for  what happened on September 9, 1972.


The world was in the midst of the Cold War between Soviet Communism and US Capitalism. International and military tensions were high. Against this backdrop, the USA and Soviet basketball teams squared off in the gold medal game in Munich. The US had never lost a game in the Olympics, dating back to 1936. The US had won 63 straight games against no defeats.


From the Official website of the USA Olympic Basketball Team: 


In the most controversial game in international basketball history, the U.S. lost its first ever Olympic contest, ended a 63-game Olympic winning streak and a string of seven consecutive Olympic gold medals.


Coach Henry Iba's U.S. squad breezed through its opening games. Thomas Henderson and Dwight Jones scored 16 and 15 points, respectively, in a 66-35 opening win over Czechoslovakia, and Ed Ratleff tallied 18 points in a U.S. 81-55 romp over Australia. Cuba fell 67-48 as Dwight Jones led the Americans with 18 points, and the U.S. struggled with Brazil before finally settling for a 61-54 win. Egypt was swamped 96-31, as Mike Bantom scored 17, Spain fell 72-56, and the U.S. drilled Japan 99-33 as seven U.S. players scored in double digits. James Forbes' 14 points and another 10 from Henderson powered the USA past Italy 68-38 in the semifinals setting the stage for the now infamous USA-USSR Olympic final.


Featuring a pair of 8-0 teams, the USA-USSR final was as expected, a hotly contested ball game. The USSR took a 7-0 lead and by half was in possession of a 26-21 lead. With 12:18 to play and the Soviets holding a 38-34 lead, the USA's 6'8" Dwight Jones, the USA's top scorer and rebounder, and Soviet reserve Dvorni Edeshko were ejected from the game after a loose ball scuffle. On the ensuing jump ball, 6'9" Jim Brewer suffered a concussion after being knocked to the floor. The U.S. continued to lag behind in the second half, but narrowed the gap to one point, 49-48 on Jim Forbes' jumper with 40 seconds remaining. The Soviet's worked the clock down to 10 seconds but Tom McMillen blocked Aleksander Belov's shot and Doug Collins intercepted his pass as he attempted to pass it back out to center court. Collins drove to the basket and was undercut as he attempted a layup with three seconds left. Awarded two free throws, a groggy Collins sank both free throws to put the USA ahead 50-49 with three-seconds left despite the horn going off in the middle of his second attempt.


From there, confusion reigned. Immediately following Collins' free throws, the Soviets inbounded the ball and failed to score. But one official had whistled play to stop with one second remaining after hearing the earlier horn and seeing a disturbance near the scorers table. The Soviets argued that they had requested a timeout before Collins' foul shots. The referees ordered the clock reset to three seconds and the game's final seconds replayed. However, the clock was in the process of being reset when the referees put the ball in play. A length of the court Soviet pass missed its mark, the horn sounded and the U.S. again began celebrating.


However, R. William Jones, Secretary General of FIBA, stepped in and ordered the clock again reset to 0:03 and the game replayed from that point. This time, the Soviet's Aleksander Belov and the USA's Kevin Joyce and Jim Forbes went up for the pass, Belov caught the long pass from Ivan Edeshko at the foul line sending the two Americans sprawling, Belov then drove to the basket for the layup and the winning points. (video) Post-game, the U.S. filed a protest and FIBA officials met to discuss the protest. The U.S. protest was denied and the Soviets were awarded the gold medals. The U.S. team voted unanimously to refuse their silver medals.


The game is still viewed controversially in the US to this day. The Cold War has passed into the annals of time. European basketball has come of age. Players from the former Soviet Union abound in the NBA. But, the first loss was stinging and it was followed by a loss to the Soviets in 1988. The Barcelona games of 1992 would bring the era of the Dream Team. US dominance would never be felt more thoroughly than with the arrival of the pros. No longer would the US team be comprised of college kids facing aged professionals like 1972. But, the leveling of the competition had begun. In spite of the controversy in Munich, there now was now a glimmer of competitive hope for the rest of the world.



U.S. Cagers Decline Silver Medal
Basketball Win "Given" To Russia


MUNICH (UPI)-The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Sunday upheld the Soviet Union's tumultuous 51-50 victory over the United States in the Olympic.' gold medal game, but the official scorekeeper stood up in front of his colleagues and said the wrong team won.

The Americans said they would protest the decision to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and announced they would not accept the silver medal.

Ferenc Hepp of Hungary, chairman of the five-man committee which reached the decision, attempted during a long, loud news conference in a stifling room of the Olympic basketball hall to explain why the Russians were awarded the victory.

The Americans were not the only ones displeased with Hepp's reasoning.

"Under FIBA rules," said Hans Tenschert of West Germany, the game's scorekeeper, "the United Slates won."

Hepp's explanation picked up from the moment Doug Collins hit two free throws with three seconds remaining to put the United States in front for the first time in the game, 50-49.

From there, according to Hepp:

-The ball was played in by a Russian player with three seconds to go, but Renato Righetto of Brazil, one of the two officials in the game, "saw a disturbance on the sideline which made the normal flow of the game impossible." The whistle was blown and play was stopped with one second showing on the clock.

-Righetto came to the scoring table to determine how much time should be on the clock. Righelto was of the opinion when he arrived at the scoring table that only one second should be left, but that, "after consultation with the timekeeper, scorekeeper and FIBA officials, "it was decided three seconds should remain,

-Play then resumed, but for some reason the clock had not been put back to three seconds and after one second the horn sounded to end the game.

-Because the clock had not been properly returned to three seconds, play was allowed to begin again with the three seconds left. This time the Soviet Union scored on a long pass and a layup by Aleksander

The controversy stems from two things- what was the disturbance on the sidelines which caused Righetto to stop the play in the first place, and who specifically on the scoring table ordered the clock be put back to three seconds.

The Americans had the answer for one of the controversies and Tenschert had an answer for the other.

"They were jumping up on the floor. Why should an American team be penalized for the actions of the Russians?"

"The referee has a right to stop the action when he sees a disturbance," said Hepp,


1972 USA RESULTS (8-1)

USA 66 Czechoslovakia 35

USA 81 Australia 55

USA 67 Cuba 48

USA 61 Brazil 54

USA 96 Egypt 31

USA 72 Spain 56

USA 99 Japan 33

USA 68 Italy 38

USSR 51 USA 50



2004- Athens, Greece

Puerto Rico 92-United States 73


There are now two distinct eras in Olympic basketball history: pre-Dream Team and post-Dream Team. In the 1992 games in Barcelona, American professional basketball players were allowed to compete for the first time in the history of the games. To no one’s surprise, they dominated the field, led by immortals like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Although European teams showed moments of greatness, the games were really not competitive. The US team merely had to “turn it on” for short stretches if a challenge was realistically issued. They were undefeated at 8-0.


In two subsequent Olympics, the US posted perfect 8-0 records in winning the gold medal to run their victory string to 25 straight victories dating back to 1988, with only two losses since 1936 in Berlin. They had not been seriously tested in 1996, but struggled against Lithuania in two games at Sydney in 2000. Clearly, the level of competition in the European market was improving, but not the rest of the world.


That all changed on one momentous night in 2004. The team that issued the challenge was not from Europe, but from America’s own backyard. On August 15, 2004. Puerto Rico, led by Carlos Arroyo of the Utah Jazz, the stunned the US with a totally dominating performance in winning in a 92-73 blowout. The dream that had been the America “Dream Team” died in one stunning evening.


U.S. Men's Basketball Falls Flat on World Stage

By David DuPree, USA TODAY

August 15, 2004


ATHENS- There are no plausible excuses this time. It wasn't the 2002 World Championships, when an NBA "C" team lost games to Argentina, Serbia and Montenegro and Spain and finished in sixth place. It wasn't a meaningless exhibition game like the one the USA lost by 17 points to Italy 13 days ago.


This is the Olympics, and the U.S. men's basketball team was rocked, shocked, humiliated and exposed on sports biggest stage Sunday as Puerto Rico, a Commonwealth of 4 million residents, pulled off the upset of all Olympic upsets with a 92-73 drubbing of the Americans.


It was never a contest.


"They played as a team," U.S. coach Larry Brown said of Puerto Rico. "They played so much harder and so much better than we did that the result isn't a surprise at all. I don't know what we can take from this. The only thing we can do is find out what we're made of. It's a chance for us to come together and see if we really are a team."


The gold medal is still a possibility. If the USA wins the remaining four games in its group against Greece, Lithuania, Australia and Angola, it can finish no worse than third in the group and could still finish first in the group. The top four teams in each of the two six-team groups make it to the medal round when the competition becomes a single-elimination tournament.


The next game is Tuesday against Greece (3 p.m. ET, USA).


"We didn't play our best game, and we have a lot to learn, but there is still a lot of basketball to play here," guard Dwyane Wade said.


All of the weaknesses of his young team were exposed- poor shooting, lackadaisical attitude, horrific shot selection and reckless overall play. The USA had twice as many turnovers as assists, shot 35% from the field and was only 3-for-24 from three-point range.


When the game called for poise, the USA panicked.


"It was disappointing, but it's not the end of the world," said Allen Iverson, who had 15 points. "We have to stop shooting so much from the three-point perimeter and try to get the ball inside where we can dominate. I'm optimistic that we will learn from this loss, and our next effort will be much better."


Center Tim Duncan, the most dominant player on the floor, took only 10 shots but tied Iverson for the team lead with 15 points.


This was the first loss in men's Olympic competition since NBA players began participating in 1992, and only the third loss in Olympic history. The other two losses: the infamous 51-50 setback against Russia in the gold medal game of the 1972 Munich Games, and an 82-76 loss to the Soviet Union in the semifinals of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.


The USA made a brief run in the fourth quarter, cutting a 22-point deficit to eight points, but Puerto Rico, behind point guard Carlos Arroyo of the Utah Jazz, one of only two players on Puerto Rico's team who plays in the NBA, weathered the storm and won going away.


Arroyo was the best player on the floor, scoring a game high 24 points and doing whatever he pleased. (video) "My role is to control the tempo and control the game," he said. "We did all of the right things tonight."


The USA's defeat will send shockwaves to the rest of the world. The only excuse for this performance is the obvious one- this team just isn't that good. If the USA is ever going to dominate world competition again, it will have to send its very best players. It tried to this time, but for various reasons all of the NBA's top players, except for Duncan and Iverson, chose not to play. Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal and Ben Wallace all cited fatigue; Kevin Garnett, Vince Carter and Ray Allen are getting married; Kobe Bryant's trial for sexual assault is slated to begin this month; Jason Kidd, Karl Malone and Elton Brand are injured; and Mike Bibby and Tracy McGrady cited security concerns.


As a result, there are no pure shooters, only one true point guard and it's not a particularly good passing team overall. All of those weaknesses haunted them Sunday.


"Our inability to make shots was our downfall," said Cleveland Cavaliers coach Paul Silas. "The way I looked at it, you get down 22 at half, you have to play perfect basketball to win. The problem that I see is nobody fears this team. If you get your confidence level up, it gives you a legitimate shot."


The closest call was in 2000 was n 85-83 victory against Lithuania in the semifinals. The USA was 24-0 with NBA players.


This same team had easily defeated Puerto Rico by 25 points in an exhibition game in Jacksonville on July 31. Puerto Rico, which was 0-5 against the USA in Olympic competition and lost the games by an average margin of 20.2 points, was the best team on the court Sunday.


"We couldn't stop their offense, and we couldn't control their fast break," Iverson said. "Plus, we couldn't hit our normal shots. This result is a setback, but we have to put it behind us, concentrate and avoid silly mistakes if we want to compete for the gold medal."


Toronto Raptors coach Sam Mitchell said fans shouldn't expect the Garnetts, O'Neals and Bryants to participate every time. "Maybe they should go back to college kids and have a national team that travels in the summer and plays games," he said. "You can't just walk up and put a team together in two weeks and beat a team that's been playing together for years."


Brown, whose mantra has been "Play the game the right way," saw his team do everything the wrong way Sunday. "We weren't playing as a team like we should have," Wade said. "We've been careless with the ball a lot and tonight it came back to bite us."



Rare Setback for USA  


The loss to Puerto Rico was only the third defeat in Olympic history for a U.S. men's hoops team, which is 109-3 overall.


The defeats:

 1972 : USSR 51, U.S. 50*

 1988: USSR 82, U.S. 76#

 2004: Puerto Rico 92, U.S. 73

* Gold medal game

# Semifinal


USA vs. Puerto Rico:

 1964: USA 62-42

 1968: USA 61-56

 1976: USA 95-94

 1988: USA 94-57

 1992: USA 115-77

 2004: Puerto Rico 92-73 


The US now finds themselves in the position of revamping the expectations and training of the Olympic team. They must now compete in a developing international team atmosphere. What made this outcome inevitable eventually was of the NBA’s own making. The NBA has been the driving force in the development of basketball in the United States since 1950. The marketing and player development of the League to the rest of the world and the inclusion of foreign players in the draft process has steadily improved the talent level and competition. The victory of Puerto Rico, while serving as a wakeup call to the US international basketball effort, can be viewed a a positive development. It proves that the development of the American game of basketball throughout the world has worked. There will be no more Dream Teams, but there will be dream match-ups in future Olympic games.



2004- Athens, Greece

China 67-Serbia Montenegro 66


In May of 2004, Del Harris became the first foreign coach of the Chinese basketball team. With him he brought dreams of greatness and an America ability to dream the impossible. But Harris and his Chinese team, led by Yao Ming, had a daunting task before them in the 2004 Olympic Games against defending world champ, Serbia and Montenegro.


The Chinese are practical and less romantic than Westerners. The Chinese populous held out little hope for beating the two-time defending world champion. China had lost three preliminary group matches by 25-plus points. The chances of qualifying for the medal round in Athens were all but over with the Serbians standing in their way.


But, Harris, assistant coach for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, had not given up hope. "We are not going to give up our game against Serbia," said Harris after China's 89-52 loss to Italy in the previous game. "They might beat us forty, but we might beat them, who knows,"


Yao would be Harris’ only hope for the upset, it seemed. He had become very angry earlier in the games, going public with his criticisms of his Chinese teammates as soft and uninspired. He had drawn criticism from the national press in China as insensitive.


To understand the magnitude of this game in the history of the development of international basketball, one needs to understand the popularity of basketball in China and the NBA’s tremendous investment in marketing the game there. View Chinese commercial about basketball, "Watching the game without beer and with beer".


NBA games have been televised in China since 1991 and Chinese national TV broadcasts two NBA games a week. Fans in Shanghai can see as many as six a week. NBA exhibition games are being played in China each year and NBA stars visit regularly, viewed in China as mega-superstars. And, the NBA's appeal in China has been boosted by national pride with the coming of Yao Ming. "People in China are learning about life in the U.S. through Yao," NBA Commissioner Stern said. "And people in the U.S. are learning about China through Yao Ming."


No sports league has done as well as the NBA in exporting itself to China. In so doing, the NBA has changed its focus from a US urban game to a global market. For the 2006 NBA All-Star Game, China's national television provider, CCTV, sent crews to provide coverage. This is national television, viewed in every home across China, not on a cable network like in the US. And, the Chinese telecasted all the related events of All-Star weekend, events like the Rookie Challenge and Slam Dunk contest. In short, the NBA generates about $3 billion a year in revenues, about 20 percent of it from overseas. China is the league's biggest market outside of the U.S.


So, the stage was set at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens for a Chinese basketball breakthrough preceding the Beijing Olympics in 2008. With a win, China would secure a quarterfinal berth for only the second time in that nation’s Olympic history.


From the Xinhua News


August 23, 2004


ATHENS, Aug. 23 (Xinhuanet)- China advanced into the quarterfinals of the men's basketball tournament at the Athens Olympic Games with an amazing 67-66 upset over world champion Serbia & Montenegro.


China, who collected seven points with two wins and three losses, moved on with Spain, Italy and Argentina from group A of the preliminary round. Serbia and New Zealand were eliminated with one win and four losses each.


In group B, Lithuania finished first with the maximum five wins with Greece, Puerto Rico and the United States advancing as well. Australia and Angola were eliminated from this group.


Yao calmly buried four free-throws down the stretch, including a go-ahead one, to help China win the do-or-die match.


Serbia, then Yugoslavia, slashed China 128-61 in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, where China took unprecedented eighth place.


The Houston Rockets center scored 27 points and pulled down 13 rebounds to storm China into the quarterfinals for the second time in China's basketball history.


"The Olympics is the place to create miracle. Today we made the miracle by beating the world champions," said China's point guard Liu Wei.


Zelimir Obradovic, head coach of the Serbia team, apparently could not accept the results and kept his head down for the whole post-game news conference.


"This is a big shock to me. This is the hardest moment in my career," Obradovic said.


China led only once after the first quarter until Yao drilled in his third free-throws in a row to make it 64-63 with 28 seconds to go (view).


Du Feng made another two free-throws of his 12 points to give China a commanding 67-63 lead with just three seconds left in game. Milos Vujanic scored a consolation 3-pointer on the buzzer. Predrag Drobnjak led Serbia with 17 points and Dejan Tomasevichad nine points and 11 rebounds.


"The meaning of the game is not just triumph. It is a precious treasure to China's basketball and the young generations," Yao said. "I'd like to thank coach (Del) Harris for his contribution to China."   


Harris added, "I've never coached a group of players that I have more respect for to the way they worked and the way they are as human beings as this group of young men. This is the best win I've ever had."


Although the game may appear to be of limited importance on the international and historical scale, it represented a tremendous step forward in Asian basketball advancement and will probably always be looked back on as a historically defining moment.


Final Group Standing- 2004


Group A:

Spain  5-0

Italy 3-2

Argentina 3-2

China 2-3

New Zealand 1-4

Serbia and Montenegro 1-4


Group B:

Lithuania 5-0

Greece 3-2

Puerto Rico 3-2

United States 3-2

Australia 1-4

Angola 0-5


Top four finishers from each group advance to quarterfinals.