Miracle on wood humiliating Americans presaged by stolen Levi's

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Members of American basketball team on their bench after losing a close game to the USSR, 51-50, on a layup shot by Aleksander Belov. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

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 US tour, promising 17-year-old forward Alexander Belov was caught stealing 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.

"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. Back home, Alexander met with sports authorities and promised not to transgress again, Sergei says.

"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."

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 US streak of 63 straight Olympic wins and seven gold medals.

Long after the Soviet Union disintegrated, the game lives on in the memory of former citizens as a "miracle on wood," says Robert Edelman, a professor of Russian history at the University of California at San Diego.

The triumph transformed the charismatic Alexander Belov, with his sideburns, aquiline nose and heavy-lidded eyes, into the USSR's biggest basketball celebrity, until smuggling allegations derailed him. Coveted by US talent evaluators such as Red Auerbach, architect of the Boston Celtics' dynasty, he became the first Soviet player ever chosen in the NBA draft, presaging the flood of Europeans into the league.

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 US sports often bemoan: off-court shenanigans, jealous stars, recruiting wars and coaches' coddling.

 
Soviet Union's Alexander Belov hits the winning basket to give the Russians a 51-50 victory over the U.S. in the final Olympic Basketball tournament at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich on Sept. 10, 1972. Photograph: AP Photo

"The 1972 team had very difficult relationships," says Alexander Volkov, forward for the 1988 USSR Olympic team. Some of them were "tough personalities."

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 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.

Almost eight years younger than Sergei, 6-foot-8-inch Alexander Belov grew up in Leningrad, where he starred for Spartak, Central Army's archrival. 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.

From international tours, Alexander brought back rock albums and more exotic souvenirs.

"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.

Spartak Coach Vladimir 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.

Kondrashin's inspired coaching led the Soviet team to victory in Munich. Shrugging off two defenders, Alexander Belov caught a length-of-the-court pass and sank an easy basket as time expired.

The players received bonuses of 3,000 rubles and were given first crack at Russian luxury cars. An American heiress came to Leningrad and asked Alexander Belov to marry her.

"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. "Sergei was the best player for this match," says Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. "He was a little hurt that Alexander Belov was hero."

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. While Belov wanted to enter the NBA, top Communist Party officials wouldn't let him, Chernov and Ovchinnikova say.

In 1975, Auerbach invited Alexander to become a Celtic, Ovchinnikova says. That year, the New Orleans Jazz took a flier on him with the 161st pick. "I thought, I'll get the rights to one of the best basketball players in the world," just in case the Cold War ended, says Bill Bertka, then the Jazz general manager.

Bertka buttonholed Belov in a Greensboro, North Carolina, hotel where the Soviet team was staying on a US tour, and asked if he could join the NBA. Belov responded, "No permission," as Soviet security personnel whisked him away.

In January 1977, as the Spartak team was leaving to play in Italy, customs officials caught Alexander Belov smuggling Russian religious icons out of the USSR. He was kicked off the national team, then reinstated as it prepared for the October 1978 world championships. He began feeling chest pain and was diagnosed with a rare disease, cardiac sarcoma, or cancer of the heart lining.

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.

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. It sponsors an annual tournament in St. Petersburg, where surviving members of the 1972 team are honored, and runs youth competitions.

"We tell the kids about the Olympics and the players," Ovchinnikova says. "We tell the kids about the last three seconds all the time."

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