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USA-Russia still packs a passionate punch 38 years after controversy

ISTANBUL -- I met Boris Stankovic, former secretary general of FIBA and the man who pushed the idea of NBA players being allowed to participate in the Olympics, in the ornate lobby of the Swissotel here Thursday morning. (The Swissotel is Stankovic's quarters for the FIBA World Championship, not mine.)

"You know what today is, right?" he said.

He is Serbian, but he said it in English, since my knowledge of Serbian, or four of the other five languages Stankovic speaks, is suspect.

"It is the day that will live in infamy in American basketball," I said.

Please accept the apologies for the Pearl Harbor reference. My parents were married on Pearl Harbor Day -- the exact Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1941, as a matter of fact, a happenstance that proved to be a metaphor for their marriage, which is a whole other subject -- so I am sensitive to equating mere games with war.

But in American basketball circles, this day is a dark one indeed. For it was on Sept. 9, 1972, that the United States first lost an Olympic basketball game, and lost it in controversial fashion, and lost it to the bitterest of rivals, the Soviet Union, and lost it when the Cold War was still raging, just 12 years after Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on a table at the United Nations.

So that was the backdrop Thursday evening at Sinan Erdem Dome when a young U.S. team, one that wouldn't know Nikita Khrushchev from La Femme Nikita, met a fairly young team of Russians, most of whom are no doubt budding capitalists who think that Marx and Engels were a German comedy team.

The result in 1972 was anything but predictable. Neither was the result on Thursday night in Istanbul.

The Russians (I still want to type the "Soviets") may have looked overmatched physically, but they play sound basketball, ball-faking and pump-faking and passing to spots like they've been attending high school coaching clinics. And had Andrei Kirilenko been around to hold Kevin Durant to fewer than his game-high 33 points ... who knows? (Of course, the Americans can match anyone in the which-stars-aren't-here game.)

Anyway, the result was a far more interesting U.S. victory, by the margin of 89-79, than one might've expected. In the end, though, the Russians will be going home, and the Americans will be going on to the semifinals, where they will meet Lithuania on Saturday.

Part of the reason that the U.S. could never run away and hide was its penchant for being overaggressive on defense in the first half. Time after time the Americans ran out to defend and even double-team the perimeter, only to fall victim to a simple ball fake that led to a drive or a drive-and-kick for an open three-pointer.

"We were trying for the home run on defense in the first half," said Andre Iguodala, whose consistent play has been one of the surprises for the U.S. team. "We were taking too many chances, particularly in the passing lanes, and when we missed, that created a lot of 5-on-4 opportunities for them."

The Americans' excess of passion early in the game was no accident, considering the instant history lesson they had received from coach Mike Krzyzewski and various media types in the days preceding the game.

That occurred when Russian coach David Blatt, who played point guard for Pete Carril at Princeton in the late '70s, committed what is considered a passport-losing offense in American hoops circles: He concluded that the Soviets' 1972 victory was deserved and said so publicly. I take him at his word -- as wrong as his opinion is -- but perhaps he was just affecting a bold pregame stance. And this is a bold man, evidenced by the fact that he and his assistants adorn themselves on the bench in worn-looking jeans to go with their drab blue shirts. They looked like they were going to a hoedown.

Coach K, meanwhile, far from Tobacco Road and perhaps spoiling for the kind of fight he can find easily from November to April, took umbrage at Blatt's opinion. He first dismissed Blatt's opinion by saying, "He's a Russian" (actually Blatt has dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship), then added a sharper comment: "It'll [the loss] be a negative from the way the U.S. looks at it forever, and should be. And it'll be in some ways a positive for those who believe in fairy tales."

No matter how leftist your politics might be, the idea that the U.S. did not get screwed in '72 is ridiculous. There is not requisite space to rehash the whole thing here, but the Soviets were handed the game because of a perfect storm of incompetent refereeing and incompetent game management (neither was unusual back then, by the way) combined with quite canny political maneuvering.

Briefly: Two free throws by Doug Collins (whose son, Chris, is in Istanbul, serving as one of Coach K's assistant assistants) gave the U.S. a 50-49 lead with three seconds left. (And, as Larry King might say, if you look up the phrase "clutch shooting" in the dictionary, you will see Collins' foul shots.) After game officials gave the Soviets three opportunities to erase the U.S. lead, all because of a timeout call that was either made or not made and remains a point of contention 38 years later, the Soviets finally succeeded. The U.S. protested the result to the then-reigning world hoops organization. But the International Basketball Federation returned a 3-2 verdict against the appeal, thus upholding the Soviets' 51-50 victory. The three pro-Soviet votes were cast by delegates from Communist bloc countries. I'm not saying that at that time and in that environment, three Western nations wouldn't have cast an automatic vote against a Communist country. I'm just saying that that game was positively cloaked in political overtones, and in that instance the Americans got hosed.

On Thursday night in Istanbul, all that history wasn't nearly as important as Durant's offense, the spark provided by his Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook and the more disciplined defense the U.S. played as the game went on. And it was all sweetness and light after the game with Coach K proclaiming Coach Blatt as a basketball genius and Coach Blatt proclaiming Coach K as a basketball genius.

But the passion was there during an extremely chippy first half when a couple of near-flagrant fouls were committed by both teams, and in truth I'm glad to see a little nation-vs.-nation imbroglio break out. It's usually what's missing from history-resistant America in these international competitions. Serbia and Turkey are scheduled to tangle in Saturday's other semi and -- trust me -- the former remembers that it was under the thumb of the latter for several centuries before it was granted autonomy in 1830.

These days there are more worthy basketball-playing nations to rival the U.S. -- Spain, an upset loser in these Worlds, to name the prominent one -- but Russia is still the easiest sell, given both basketball and geopolitical history. That's why Thursday was an entirely enjoyable spectacle.

But this bit of history is now history, for what looms ahead for this young American squad is the possibility of a battle against the home country in the finals. A U.S.-Turkey showdown doesn't have much in the way of history going for it. But if it happens, the Americans better wear a bit of a Cold War chip on their collective shoulder because Sinan Erdem Dome is going to feel like a mighty cold place.

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