For Russian Coach, Game Against US Comes Full Circle
ISTANBUL -- On Sept. 9, 1972, David Blatt was a 13-year-old kid living in Framingham, Mass., who bled red, white and blue.
On that day, the U.S. Olympic basketball team suffered a shocking and controversial 51-50 loss to the Soviet Union in the final of the 1972 Olympics in Munich, failing to win the gold medal for the first time. It's something Blatt never will forget.
"I was one of those kids crying when the Americans lost the game in the Olympics, when (Alexander) Belov made the shot at the end,'' Blatt said of the ending in Munich in which the Soviets scored on a third inbound attempt with three seconds left on a length-of-the-court pass to Belov. The American players believe to this day they were cheated and have refused to accept their silver medals.
Flash forward exactly 38 years, and on Sept. 9, 2010 -- which is Thursday -- and the American-born Blatt, who now lives in Israel, will coach the Russians against Team USA in a World Championship quarterfinal at the Sinan Erdem Dome.
"For me, it's kind of closure,'' Blatt said Monday after his Russians beat New Zealand 78-56 to advance in the knockout round to face the Americans, who advanced earlier by routing Angola 121-66. "I'm excited about it. (It's) full circle after growing up in the States and watching the American national team all those years in the Olympics. And here I am coaching against them in the World Championship. It's kind of mind boggling to me. It really is.''
Blatt knows all about that dramatic loss by the Americans. But he didn't realize until being told that Thursday's quarterfinal will be 38 years ago to the day of the epic 1972 game.
"Is that a fact?'' he said. "Wow. Now, you're really putting the pressure on me.''
Suffice to say, when Blatt was growing up in suburban Boston as a huge fan of American basketball, it wasn't one of his goals to eventually be coaching Russia, then part of the Soviet Union and then a great rival during the Cold War.
"That was not in the program, to be honest with you. No,'' said Blatt, 51.
But after graduating from Princeton in 1981, Blatt, who is Jewish, played in Israel. And he has been a highly respected international coach since retiring in 1993, including spending the past six years heading the Russian national team.
Obviously, much has changed since the Soviet Union fell in 1991. Communism is gone and republics have broken away from Russia, including Lithuania, which always had the best basketball players in the Soviet Union.
The Russians haven't made a tremendous impact on the world basketball scene the past two decades. Meanwhile, Team USA has beefed up considerably after NBA players were allowed to compete internationally beginning with 1992 Olympics.
"We're a different team and they're a different team,'' Blatt said of the landscape during the height of the rivalry. "In all honesty, they were playing with amateurs (in 1972), and we're not playing with Belov and (Arvydas) Sabonis and all that group. It's a different ball of wax.''
It was Sabonis, a Lithuanian center, who helped the Soviets to a semifinal win over the Americans in the 1988 Olympics and eventually to the gold medal. That was the last U.S. Olympic team with college players and was the first time the teams had met in the Olympics since 1972.
The 1972 game went down in infamy for the losers. After Doug Collins made two free throws with three seconds left to give the Americans a 50-49 lead, they twice thought they had won the game.
The Soviets inbounded from underneath their own basket and the game clock was soon stopped with one second left when it was argued that the Soviets should have been awarded a timeout. There was a lengthy delay and the Soviets were given the ball back to inbound with three seconds left.
A second inbound pass went awry and the U.S. players, believing they had won, celebrated wildly. But it was ruled the clock had not been properly reset.
On a third inbound pass, a length-court-heave went to Belov. He made a layup at the buzzer to give the Soviets a controversial win that was upheld after a U.S. protest.
"I hate to say it, as an American, but it looks like the Russians were right that the American team was not cheated,'' Blatt said. "Funny things happened. But, in reality, it was fair. It was fair.''
If Russia were still Communist, you would think Blatt would have to say that. But it isn't and besides, Blatt is a good bet to step down as Russian coach following the World Championship.
Blatt said he might resign in order to spend more time with his family during summers in Israel. Blatt, who also has coached in Turkey, Italy and Greece, will be returning as head coach with Maccabi Tel Aviv, a team he led for two seasons early last decade.
For now, Blatt, whose only previous game coached with Russia against Team USA was an exhibition loss before the 2008 Olympics, will try to take down the mighty Americans.
"I guess I'm going to have to bring my A-game, and so are my players to just try to compete because they got it all over us everywhere you look ... all things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia right now,'' said Blatt, using a legendary W.C. Fields quip. "I really don't want to play them. But we're going to, and from my guys I think it's a great, fun thing. I know my guys. I know they will compete.''
While Blatt did steer the Russians to the 2007 European Championship, they didn't do a lot after that. It's considered a surprise Russia has made the World quarterfinals since it is playing without Utah Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko, guard J.R. Holden and former NBA forward Viktor Khryapa, who has been bothered by a foot injury but Blatt said there still is a chance he could play against the Americans.
In the win over New Zealand, the Russians got 18 points from forward Andrey Vorontsevich and 16 from center Timofey Mozgov, who recently signed with the New York Knicks. They also have former NBA forward Sergei Monia.
"I think it will be an interesting game for us,'' Vorontsevich said of facing the Americans. "I think we need to stay together, our players.''
With no current Russian player having even been 10 years old when the Soviet Union fell, Blatt was asked if there's still a big rivalry between the nation and the U.S. in basketball.
"Personally, I don't feel it, and I believe that the people at home in Russia do feel it,'' Blatt said.
One thing is for sure: there was quite a rivalry in 1972, when Blatt was wiping away tears in Massachusetts. The last thing he thought then was he would be coaching Russia against Team USA in a major international competition nearly four decades later.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson