USA-Russia still packs a passionate punch 38 years after controversy
ISTANBUL -- I met
"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
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
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
Anyway, the result was
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
The Americans' excess of passion early in the game was no accident, considering the instant history lesson they had received from coach
That occurred when Russian coach
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
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
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.