Miracle on Wood Humiliating U.S. Presaged by Levi’s Theft
It was more than a routine case of teenage shoplifting.
When the Soviet Union’s national basketball team visited Phoenix in June 1969 on a U.S. tour, promising 17-year-old forward Alexander Belov was caught stealing a pair or two of Levi’s jeans.
In the Soviet Union, where the government-controlled economy rendered Western consumer goods either unavailable or unaffordable, Levi’s commanded huge black-market prices.
Because the Soviets had come to play against the rookies of the National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Suns, police contacted Jerry Colangelo, the Suns’ general manager. He persuaded them not to press charges against Belov. The Arizona Republic newspaper downplayed the theft as an “unfortunate” misunderstanding attributable to Belov’s inability to speak English.
“I recall trying to squash it because we didn’t need an international incident,” says Colangelo, 72, who is now chairman of USA Basketball, spearheading the American quest for a gold medal at the London Olympics. “So he was given a pass. It could have been a big deal. We were able to keep a lid on it.”
Soviet officials gladly cooperated. The secret service -- the KGB -- helped hush up Alexander Belov’s arrest, teammate Sergei Belov says. A KGB agent traveled with the team. Back home, Alexander met with sports authorities and promised not to transgress again, Sergei says.
Off the Hook
“Any other player, it would have meant the end of his career,” says Sergei Belov, 68. “Unfortunately, the coaches let him get away with it because of his sporting achievements.”
Thus reprieved, Alexander Belov scored the decisive basket in the still-disputed 1972 Olympic championship game in Munich. After a questionable ruling put more time back on the clock, handing the Soviets two extra chances, his last-second layup gave them a 51-50 victory that ended the U.S. streak of 63 straight Olympic wins and seven gold medals. It remains the most famous -- and, to Americans, notorious -- upset in international basketball history.
At an Olympics devastated by the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, the championship was a propaganda victory for the Soviet Union that vindicated its communist system and its focus on identifying and developing Olympic athletes. After settling for four silvers and a bronze in the past five Olympic tournaments, the USSR had beaten the U.S., basketball’s birthplace, at its own game.
“There was a great political context,” says Russian billionaire and Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. “We saw a bit of a Cold War confrontation, two nuclear superpowers fighting it out on the basketball courts.”
The Munich Olympics were a high-water mark for the Soviet sports program. The USSR won 50 gold medals, compared with 29 in 1968, and made incursions into American strongholds such as basketball and sprints. Valeri Borzov won the men’s 100-meter dash, in which the U.S. had garnered seven of the previous eight gold medals.
Long after the Soviet Union disintegrated, the game lives on in the memory of former citizens as a point of pride and nostalgia for bygone glory.
If Americans remember their hockey team’s 1980 championship as the “miracle on ice,” the USSR’s basketball gold eight years earlier is regarded in the former Soviet Union as a “miracle on wood,” says Robert Edelman, a professor of Russian history at the University of California at San Diego and author of a book about Soviet spectator sports. The players “are still dining out on it, even to this day.”
The triumph also transformed the charismatic Alexander Belov, with his sideburns, aquiline nose and heavy-lidded eyes, into the USSR’s biggest basketball celebrity -- until smuggling allegations eventually derailed him. Coveted by U.S. talent evaluators such as Red Auerbach, architect of the Boston Celtics’ dynasty, he became the first Soviet player ever chosen in the National Basketball Association draft, presaging the flood of Europeans into the league.
Belov’s turbulent career undercuts a stereotypical view, which prevailed in the U.S. during the Cold War and lingers today, of Soviet athletes as faceless grinds who subordinated their individuality to the communist system.
While Frank Gifford, announcing the Munich game for ABC-TV, described the Soviet team as a “machine,” “machine-like” and “well-disciplined,” the squad grappled with some of the same problems that fans of U.S. sports often bemoan: off-court shenanigans, jealous stars, recruiting wars and coaches’ coddling.
“The 1972 team had very difficult relationships,” says Alexander Volkov, forward for the 1988 USSR Olympic team, who played with several members of the prior squad in Soviet leagues. Some of them were “tough personalities.”
The rules of basketball were first published in Russian in 1906, 15 years after James Naismith invented the sport in Springfield, Massachusetts. Different Soviet republics developed their own styles, journalist Anatoly Pinchuk wrote in a 1977 essay. Russians specialized in tight defense; the Baltic Republics in preparation and discipline; and the Georgians in up-tempo, improvised offense. The 1972 team drew players from all three regions, enabling it to adapt to a variety of opponents and situations.
Starting in 1958, the U.S. and Soviet national teams toured each other’s countries. “We learnt from the Americans, and there were probably never such diligent students,” Pinchuk wrote.
“Every other year, we were in America, playing eight games,” says the 67-year-old Paulauskas. “I was always considering America the basketball motherland.”
The players on the 1972 team came from diverse backgrounds and today would have represented six different countries: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Paulauskas’s homeland, Lithuania.
Its standouts, Sergei and Alexander Belov, had little in common beyond their surnames.
“They were never friends,” says Ivan Roshin, the best man at Alexander’s wedding. While Sergei was introverted, Alexander “was open and happy. They never clicked.”
A 6-foot-3-inch guard named the best player in European history by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) in 1991, Sergei Belov learned the game as a schoolboy in Siberia. His family --his father was a forest manager, his mother a schoolteacher --didn’t own a television until 1960, when he was 16. He studied electronics in Moscow, where he joined Central Army Sports Club, the dominant Soviet team.
While as a teenager he idolized American stars such as Jerry West, Sergei only glimpsed them on occasional newsreels in movie theaters, he says. “I had to follow my own path,” he says. “When I saw the Americans play for the first time in 1963, I saw my ideas coincided” with theirs.
Almost eight years younger than Sergei, Alexander Belov grew up in cosmopolitan Leningrad, where he starred for Spartak, Central Army’s archrival. Alexander played taller than his 6- foot-8-inch height. With long arms and leaping ability, he excelled at rebounding and blocking shots.
“He was a prototype power forward,” similar to NBA Hall of Famers Dave DeBusschere and Dave Cowens, Colangelo says.
Alexander enjoyed Western popular music, especially Tom Jones, Roshin says. From international tours, he brought back rock albums and more exotic souvenirs.
“I know he smuggled a live monkey from Peru in 1973,” says his widow, Alexandra Ovchinnikova. He gave the monkey to a zoo, she says.
“It’s hard to be wise in your 20s, and he wasn’t,” says Sergei Belov.
Five members of the 1972 Olympic team, including Sergei Belov, played much of their careers for Central Army, perennially the Soviet champion. All of the club’s players and coaches held ranks in the Soviet Army, and new players were required to join the Army.
Central Army’s head coach Alexander Gomelsky, a colonel, benefited in recruiting from the Soviet Union’s compulsory military service. He had first dibs on top players already serving in the Army, and could keep other prospects away from competing clubs by arranging for their induction. While Central Army Sports Club retains its name today, it has no Army affiliation, and features American, Lithuanian and Serbian players.
“I didn’t want to go” to Central Army, says Alzhan Zharmukhamedov, a 6-foot-10-inch center from Uzbekistan who played for the club from 1969-1979. Interviewed in the glass- roofed winter garden of a Moscow school where he teaches basketball, the lean, gray-haired 67-year-old wore a red Central Army T-shirt.
“I also didn’t want to go to the Army and was hiding away from the police officers,” says Zharmukhamedov, who scored four points in the Munich gold-medal game. “Once they came to the gym, and told me they are taking me to the Army. I went to the locker room to change my clothes, opened the window and rushed to my home. Then I took a flight to Alma-Ata where I was hiding for 10 days till the issue was solved.” In the end, Zharmukhamedov joined the Central Army team. He was given an Army officer’s rank, with few duties.
One top player eluded Central Army. Alexander Belov, who would score the winning basket in Munich, remained loyal to Gomelsky’s nemesis, Spartak Coach Vladimir Kondrashin. Like the two Belovs, their coaches were temperamental opposites. Their enmity shaped the Soviet basketball scene for decades.
The well-educated Gomelsky was voluble in person and print, and wrote many texts on basketball. Kondrashin had a hardscrabble upbringing and didn’t go to college. He revealed little at press conferences and regarded Gomelsky as a self- promoter, says Alex Orlov, 74, a sportswriter who covered Spartak. Kondrashin cared little for politics and at Munich would be the only Soviet head coach in any sport who did not belong to the Communist Party, Orlov says.
“For me, Kondrashin was really like a genius,” says longtime Russian referee Mikhail Davydov, 64. “He got something from the gods. He made substitutions at the right moments with the right players. He felt the game unbelievably.”
Kondrashin also impressed Hall of Fame coach Bobby Knight, who led Indiana University to three NCAA championships and the U.S. to Olympic gold in 1984.
“I never cared for Gomelsky,” he wrote in “Knight: My Story” (2003). Kondrashin “was a guy I really liked -- he was a hell of a coach and a really good person.”
Kondrashin was prospecting for Spartak’s junior program at a Leningrad school one day when he noticed a tall youngster who had been kicked out of class and was roaming the hallway. Kondrashin chased him down the corridor and asked how old he was. “Nine,” said Alexander Belov, and Kondrashin encouraged him to try out for basketball.
Wounded in World War II, Alexander’s father remained an invalid and died in 1968. Kondrashin became the younger Belov’s substitute father. “For a long time, Alexander was living at Kondrashin’s house,” Ovchinnikova says. “His father was very ill and his mother didn’t want him to see it.”
Drills honed Alexander’s talent. “He could really get up in the air,” says Phil Argento, 65, who played against the Soviet team on its 1969 and 1971 U.S. tours. “I asked him how he developed his jumping. He said, ‘One-leg hops.’ He could jump on top of a table on one leg.”
In one training session, Alexander cleared a high-jump bar set at two meters, or 6-foot-7-inches, Roshin says.
Soon Central Army was pursuing the Spartak prodigy. Gomelsky expected to nab Alexander when he graduated from high school and had to join the Army, Roshin says. By gaining his diploma early and entering an institute with a Navy affiliation, Alexander was able to stay with Spartak and Kondrashin.
“Gomelsky was always trying to recruit him,” Roshin says. “‘I will take you to Europe immediately. I will get you an apartment.’”
Gomelsky was coaching the national team when Alexander joined it in 1969. It was a professional squad in all but name. Sergei Belov was paid 300 rubles a month -- about twice the average Soviet industrial worker’s salary -- plus a 1,500-ruble bonus for winning the 1967 world championship, he says.
Players also received a meager expense allowance on foreign tours. They retained amateur status for the Olympics and world championships under the pretense that they were being compensated for military duties and other jobs. The Olympics were closed to NBA professionals until a 1989 FIBA vote opened competition to all players.
The Soviets trounced one U.S. team after another on the 1969 tour, showing that Americans couldn’t take Olympic gold for granted. On their way to a 90-71 loss in Las Vegas, a squad of NBA hopefuls resorted to thuggery, slugging two Soviet players in the mouth. Despite his shoplifting arrest, Alexander Belov scored six points in Phoenix as the Soviets nipped the Suns’ rookies, 65-64.
In the 1970 world championships, the Soviets finished a disappointing third, which cost them their usual bonus -- and Gomelsky his job as national coach. The loquacious Gomelsky was replaced by his longtime foe, Kondrashin, the Spartak coach and mentor of Alexander Belov.
The Soviets bounced back by winning the 1970 World University Games, where they handed the U.S. its first-ever defeat in that competition, a promising sign for Munich. Then they won all but one game on a U.S. tour in 1971.
“By 1972, we were a very seasoned team,” Sergei Belov says. “We understood this was one of the last chances for many of us. Tournaments in 1970 and 1971 let us think we were ready to win.”
Dmitry Prokhorov, who handled international relations for the Soviet sports committee and attended the Munich game, was expecting a gold medal, says his son, Mikhail, the Russian billionaire. “He said, ‘We will win for sure,’” says Prokhorov, 47.
Others were more cautious. Authorities told the team that second place would be acceptable, says Paulauskas. “Anytime we were leaving for an official tournament, a task was set for players,” he says. “Our goal was to get to the final.”
At Munich, the Soviet team breezed through the preliminary round. Then the killing of the Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists made wins and losses seem unimportant. One victim, wrestler Mark Slavin, had emigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel only three months before.
‘What a Fate’
“I thought, ‘Oh God, what a fate,’” says Zharmukhamedov, who had trained with Slavin. “To leave the USSR for Israel and be killed for that in Munich.”
Still, unlike many of the U.S. players, the Soviets agreed with International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage’s decree that the games go on. “We were preparing for four years,” Paulauskas says.
Soviet players and coaches attended the U.S. team’s games, searching for a weakness. Noticing that Brazil’s fast tempo bothered the Americans, Kondrashin resolved to adopt a similar style.
Celebrities, politicians, athletes and aficionados crowded Rudi-Sedlmayer-Halle arena for the epic matchup, which began at 11:45 p.m. local time to accommodate American television. Wearing blue warm-up suits lettered with “CCCP” -- the Russian acronym for Union of Soviet Socialist Republics -- Soviet athletes in other Olympic sports cheered for their compatriots.
Before the game, the team captains, Paulauskas and Kenny Davis, exchanged their national Olympic banners as gifts. Adding speed to his lineup, Kondrashin benched Paulauskas and started two little-used Georgians, Zurab Sakandelidze and Mikheil Korkiya, who epitomized that republic’s helter-skelter style.
The strategy surprised the U.S., which expected the usual deliberate Soviet offense. After Alexander Belov out-jumped U.S. center Dwight Jones at the tipoff, Sakandelidze pushed the pace and scored six points as the Soviets gained an early lead. Sergei Belov kept them ahead with pinpoint shooting.
The Soviets stifled the U.S. offense. “The Russian players know the American plays as well as the American kids” do, Hall of Fame center Bill Russell said in color commentary for ABC.
With the gold medal seemingly in their grasp, the Soviets self-destructed.
“We would have finished the game calmly if not for the three mistakes our ‘heroes’ of the game made,” Zharmukhamedov says.
Sergei Belov lost the ball out of bounds, Ivan Edeshko committed an offensive foul, and then Alexander Belov made a disastrous gaffe.
After U.S. forward Tom McMillen blocked his shot, Alexander Belov retrieved the ball near the base line with eight seconds left in the game and the Soviets clinging to a one-point lead. He could have passed to an open Sergei Belov, waiting 13 feet away. Instead, he tried a longer throw to Sakandelidze, which U.S. guard Doug Collins intercepted. Sprinting for a layup, Collins was leveled by Sakandelidze and sank both foul shots, giving the U.S. a 50-49 lead with three seconds remaining.
“At that moment I loathed” Alexander Belov, Sergei told Pinchuk. “I personally tried to turn away from him.”
As Soviet coaches clamored unsuccessfully for a timeout, the clock ticked down to one second, with Sergei Belov unable to advance the ball beyond midcourt. The U.S. was about to collect gold again, and Alexander Belov, who had made only two of 11 field goals and committed the critical turnover, would be the goat.
Then the most powerful figure in European basketball, FIBA Secretary General R. William Jones, emerged from the crowd. Jones, half British and half Italian, had openly rooted for the Soviets against the U.S. in the 1952 Olympics and believed that the growth of basketball worldwide required an American defeat. Now he ordered the clock reset to three seconds -- the time left when Collins made his shots.
“What are you worrying about? There’s plenty of time,” Kondrashin told his team. He replaced Zharmukhamedov with Edeshko, a Belarussian who had thrown a last-second pass for Central Army to Sergei Belov for the winning basket against Spartak in the 1970-1971 Soviet championships.
The day before the game, two American women distributing religious booklets had approached Edeshko and asked if he believed in God, he says in an interview in his log home on a one-acre estate west of Moscow. He said no, and asked if they would prefer him to remain an atheist and the U.S. to win, or for him to believe and the U.S. to lose. They said they would prefer defeat if it would save his soul.
That scenario was about to unfold -- and make him a believer. After more clock confusion nullified another futile Soviet attempt, Edeshko shot-putted what would become known in Russian lore as “the golden pass” to Alexander Belov. Shrugging off two defenders, Belov caught the length-of-the- court pass and sank an easy basket as time expired. He raised his arms and sprinted to the other end of the court, where the Soviet players piled on top of him.
“I only remember that Sergei Belov and I sat on the bench and cried and that Kondrashin kept everyone away from us,” Alexander Belov told Pinchuk.
“It was the culmination of my career, my life,” says Sergei Belov. “Our assistant coach, Sergei Bashkin, came towards me and hugged me. His suit was all wet from my sweat.”
Afterward, Kondrashin chided Alexander for his errant pass. “I regretted that we had made a mess of such a game,” the coach told Pinchuk. “I wanted to win without those three seconds.”
The Soviet players waited for hours as the U.S., backed by the officiating crew, protested the outcome. When a panel chaired by Jones’s closest friend rejected the appeal, the U.S. players refused their silver medals.
Nothing tainted the victory in the eyes of the Soviet government and people. “The popularity of basketball went through the roof after that,” says Ovchinnikova, who played on the Soviet women’s team. “All boys and girls wanted to play basketball.”
The players received bonuses of 3,000 rubles and were given first crack at coveted Russian luxury cars such as the Zhiguli and the Volga that were available to ordinary Russians after a long wait. Driving home from a workout, Zharmukhamedov crashed his new Volga into a truck. “A policeman appeared and asked for my documents,” he says. “Then he recognized me and said, ‘Zharmukhamedov you’ve got to be careful. Who will replace you at the team if something happens?’”
Alexander Belov was lionized. When he went to the theater, the actors followed him into the street, Roshin says. An American heiress came to Leningrad and asked him to marry her, Ovchinnikova says.
“He was allowed to date her, but not too close,” says Ovchinnikova, who married Alexander in 1977. “There was always an agent following them.”
Such adulation chagrined Sergei Belov, whose game-high 20 points were largely forgotten.
“Sometimes history is not fair,” says Prokhorov, who sponsored Central Army through his companies from 1996 to 2007. “Sergei was the best player for this match. He was a little hurt that Alexander Belov was hero.”
Like the Soviet public, NBA recruiters had eyes mainly for Alexander. Soon after the Olympics, Alexander Belov became the first Soviet player ever offered an NBA contract, says Sergey Chernov, former president of the Russian Basketball Federation.
Chernov doesn’t recall which team made the “very high” bid, which would have enriched the Soviet sports committee rather than Belov. While Belov wanted to enter the NBA, top Communist Party officials wouldn’t let him, Chernov and Ovchinnikova say.
Auerbach wrote to Spartak in 1975, inviting Alexander to become a Celtic, Ovchinnikova says. That year, the New Orleans Jazz took a flier on him with the 161st pick.
Bill Bertka, then the Jazz general manager, had seen Alexander Belov play in the 1972 Olympics on television, and his contacts in Italy said Alexander was the best big man in Europe. “I thought, I’ll get the rights to one of the best basketball players in the world,” just in case the Cold War ended, Bertka says.
When Bertka announced the pick on a conference call, some of his counterparts at other NBA teams didn’t recognize Alexander’s name, and asked what college he played for.
“Alexander Belov from Russia,” Bertka replied. Elgin Baylor, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Hall of Famer who coached the Jazz and was sitting next to him, “almost fell off his chair laughing,” Bertka says.
Bertka tried reaching Alexander through FIBA, and also met with a Soviet diplomat, to no avail. At last he buttonholed Belov in the lobby of a Greensboro, North Carolina, hotel where the Soviet national team was staying on a U.S. tour, and asked if he could join the NBA. Belov barely had time to respond, “No permission,” before Soviet security personnel whisked him away.
Bertka was ahead of his time. Georgi Glouchkov, a Bulgarian forward for the Phoenix Suns, became the NBA’s first Eastern- bloc player in 1985. Four years later, Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalizing regime let Soviet standouts Alexander Volkov and Sarunas Marciulionis go.
Alexander Belov’s heyday was short-lived. In January 1977, as he and his Spartak teammates were leaving to play in Italy, customs officials in Moscow caught him smuggling Russian religious icons out of the USSR.
He was kicked off the national team, stripped of his salary and “master of sports” title awarded for his Olympic achievement, and forbidden to travel abroad.
Soviet officials offered to forgive him if he agreed to play for Central Army, Ovchinnikova says. Loyal to Spartak, Alexander refused.
“He was depressed and drinking more than usual,” Roshin says. “There was so much pressure on him. People were calling him a falling star. He was coming to training but not training.”
Belov was reinstated as the national team began preparing for the October 1978 world championships. Soon he began feeling chest pain, which steadily worsened. Hospitalized in June 1978, he used to slip out of his room, jump a fence and meet Roshin by the Neva River, where they could talk freely. Then he became too weak. In August, he was diagnosed with a rare disease, cardiac sarcoma, or cancer of the heart lining.
At one of their last encounters, Alexander gave Roshin a sealed letter, to be opened after his death. In it, he asked Roshin to bury him next to his father, and to give his Olympic gold medal to Kondrashin.
He died at the age of 26 on Oct. 3, 1978, while the Soviet national team was competing in the world championships in the Philippines. The players wore mourning stripes on their uniforms, Edeshko says. “He was training with us for a month,” Edeshko says. “He went to see the doctors and we never saw him again.”
Alexander “made his condition worse” through excessive drinking, Sergei Belov says. “He became world-famous in his 20s, and that ruined him. Fame killed him.”
Kondrashin turned his office into a shrine to Alexander, with photos, medals and letters of condolence. On the September anniversary of the Munich victory, “I recall Belov more than the game itself,” he told an interviewer in 1989. “I am more sad than happy on that day.”
Hall of Fame
His adversary, the talkative Gomelsky, guided the Soviet team to an Olympic championship in 1988. “He had everything except a gold medal, and this was his last chance to equal Kondrashin,” Volkov says. “We felt we had the ability to bring him a gold.”
Gomelsky achieved one honor that escaped Kondrashin. While Gomelsky entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1995, Kondrashin was never elected to it -- a slight that Orlov regards as America’s retaliation for Munich. Still, U.S. resentment didn’t stop Sergei Belov from being the only player from either team in the gold-medal game to be inducted into the Hall.
Kondrashin died in 1999 and was buried near his protege, Alexander Belov. In 2002, the widows of the two men and a cousin of Belov’s created a foundation to keep their memory alive. It sponsors an annual tournament in St. Petersburg, where the surviving members of the 1972 team are honored, and runs youth competitions.
“After the game, we tell the kids about the Olympics and the players,” Ovchinnikova says. “We tell the kids about the last three seconds all the time.”
Edeshko’s memoir, “Three Seconds. And More,” was published last year in Russia. Distributed with it was a 12- minute documentary he produced about the gold medal game. The video ends with a song, accompanied by guitar, with the refrain:
“Three seconds till the victory, three seconds till the dream. If the story were told today -- we wouldn’t believe it ourselves. We are all different now, me, you and them. We all came down from the peak we’ve conquered, but we’ve taken our achievements with us.”
(To read Part 1 in this three-part series, click here.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Kaufman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bloomberg moderates all comments. Comments that are abusive or off-topic will not be posted to the site. Excessively long comments may be moderated as well. Bloomberg cannot facilitate requests to remove comments or explain individual moderation decisions.