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After almost four decades, '72 debacle still informs U.S. outlook


BEIJING -- It was just one moment in the parade of moments that comprise the protocol before any Olympic basketball game -- the exchange of gifts, the hand clasps, the butt-pats dealt out to opponents, teammates, even referees. But in the context of the U.S. men's pursuit of a redemptive gold medal, it was a moment particularly worth taking note of.

Just before tipoff of the U.S. semifinal defeat of Argentina, LeBron James came by NBC's courtside broadcast station, sought out hoops commentator Doug Collins, and delivered a fist bump.

Collins figured valiantly in the only Olympic gold-medal basketball game the U.S. men have ever lost: the 1972 final in Munich against the U.S.S.R. With the U.S. down a point and the game in its final seconds, Collins was clobbered on a drive to the hoop. He stepped to the line and, in two of the most pressured-saturated free throws in history, bottomed out both. The U.S. led 50-49 and appeared to have preserved its unblemished record in Olympic play.

What happened next has been replayed hundreds, even thousands of times. It has been the subject of an HBO documentary and an epic story by Gary Smith in the pages of SI. The Soviets hurled a desperate pass downcourt that misconnected, but officials ruled that a timeout had been called -- so the U.S.S.R. inbounded again. The ensuing inbounds seemed again to be unavailing, but FIBA secretary general R. William Jones materialized to decree that three seconds be restored to the clock one more time. Whereupon Alexander Belov wrestled a long pass away from Jim Forbes and Kevin Joyce, and dropped the winning two through the hoop.

Collins, then a junior at Southern Illinois, and his teammates refused to accept their silver medals, which remain in a vault at FIBA headquarters. Some members of the 1972 team have written into their wills that none of their heirs may collect the medals either.

The atonement that USA Basketball is looking for in Beijing is for failures of its own making, not some whiskered injustice that occurred before the current players were born. Coach Mike Krzyzewski nonetheless had Collins come to Las Vegas to speak to the team during training camp. And Collins' son Chris, an assistant to and former player under Krzyzewski at Duke, has been part of the USA Basketball support staff during this cycle, where he does advance scouting and video editing, and pulls on a yellow pinnie to run dummy offense in practice.

"He wasn't just robbed of the gold medal, but of the chance to be an Olympic hero," Chris told today at practice at Beijing Normal University. "After being knocked practically unconscious, he made two of the greatest pressure free throws ever taken.

"I feel there should be a gold medal in our house, and there isn't," he added.

If the U.S. were to win tomorrow's gold-medal game with Spain, there won't be a formal gold with the name Collins on it, as coaches aren't awarded Olympic medals, much less support staff. But in the aftermath of a U.S. victory, keep an eye on the near sideline, where Doug Collins will sit.

Right after pool play I predicted that the U.S. would beat Spain for the gold, with Argentina taking the bronze.

That's still the way I see it, even down to the final score of the gold-medal game: 95-78.

Here are five things to keep in mind as the game unspools:

• Though they're the defending World Champs, Spain hasn't been in an Olympic final since 1984.

• National team coach Aito Garcia Reneses also coaches 17-year-old Spanish backcourt sensation Ricky Rubio at DKV Joventut Badalona, which may explain why Rubio has gotten so much playing time. That PT has come at the expense of veteran guards such as Juan Carlos Navarro, Raul Lopez and Jose Manuel Calderon. The result: a rotation that seems out of synch, and may have contributed to Spain's pool-play struggles against China and the U.S., and only narrow defeat of Lithuania in the semifinals.

• As thin as Argentina was, Spain has a bench every bit as long as the Americans'. If the Spaniards lose, it won't be because they've lost a war of attrition.

• The 6-5 Rudy Fernandez, a 23-year-old forward who has just signed with the Portland Trail Blazers, is a treat to watch: a slasher on offense and a thief on defense.

• U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski pronounced last night's second quarter against Argentina to be the worst 10 minutes the Redeem Team has played all Olympics. It was a timely and useful stinker of a quarter, one that Coach K is invoking to get his team rededicated to defense in the service of igniting its offense.