Published November 20, 2014
David Blatt was a teenager in Massachusetts in 1972, and remembers crying after the Soviet Union's controversial victory over the United States for the Olympic gold medal.
Blatt now thinks the Americans were wrong, that they weren't cheated.
That's not all that's changed for Blatt when it comes to basketball and his homeland.
The Kentucky native now coaches Russia, which will meet the U.S. on Thursday for a spot in the semifinals of the world championship.
"It's kind of mind boggling for me," Blatt said. "I hope my guys are less confused and they'll get out there and play. I just don't want to mess it up too bad."
Russia advanced to the quarterfinals with a superb defensive performance in a 78-56 victory over New Zealand on Monday. Hours earlier at the Sinan Erdem Dome, the Americans crushed Angola 121-66 in their best effort of the tournament.
The U.S. made 18 3-pointers and had 30 assists against just five turnovers.
"If we play like that, I don't think really anybody could beat us," guard Eric Gordon said.
Blatt played at Princeton, and its offensive principles show in Russia's deliberate pace. But Blatt doesn't sound convinced that anything can be done to slow the U.S. speedsters.
"We obviously lack certain things that they're going to attack and they're going to try to take advantage of, and all things considered I'd rather be in Philadelphia right now," Blatt said. "I really don't want to play them, but we're going to, and for my guys it's a great, fun thing, and I know my guys will compete. I just don't know that we have enough to play against that group."
The game comes 38 years to the day after the Soviet Union's 51-50 victory in the gold-medal game in Munich. The Americans took a one-point lead on Doug Collins' free throws with 3 seconds left, and seemed to have won when the Soviets inbounded and didn't score.
But the Soviets claimed they'd called timeout, and an official had whistled for play to stop when he saw a disturbance near the scorer's table. Time was put back on the clock, and again the Americans celebrated as the Soviets failed to score after inbounding.
More confusion followed because the clock was still being reset when the ball was put in play. Given a third chance when FIBA's secretary general ordered the final 3 seconds replayed, the Soviets won when Aleksander Belov caught a long pass over two U.S. players and scored.
Their 63-game Olympic winning streak snapped when basketball's governing body denied their protest, the Americans voted unanimously to refuse their silver medals, which remain locked away.
"There's a wonderful film about that, and I hate to say it as an American, but it looks like the Russians were right. The American team was not cheated," Blatt said. "Funny things happened, but in reality it was fair."
Blatt had already become a successful coach throughout Europe when the Russian Basketball Federation hired him in 2006, the first foreigner to coach the national team. Blatt led the Russians to the 2007 European championship in Madrid, where they upset reigning world champion Spain in the final.
With Utah Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko, Russia's top player, and other veterans no longer playing, the Russians are a young team that relies on defense. They improved to 5-1 with the victory over New Zealand, with Timofey Mozgov, a center who recently signed with the New York Knicks, scoring 16 points.
Blatt is unsure if he will return as Russia's coach, but said he hasn't thought about what an upset of the Americans could do for his career.
"My mind tends to wander to things that are somewhat realistic. I don't know how realistic that is," he said.
"I would like to see us come play well, though. I don't want to see us come out and just give in to that onslaught that they're going to prepare for us, and it's not going to be easy. We've just got to do a whole lot of things special to stay in the game. Give me a couple of days and I'll see if I can figure that out, but I ain't a magician."
Though Blatt makes the U.S. sound invincible, the other American coach in the game believes otherwise.
"We are beatable, not unbeatable," Mike Krzyzewski said. "I've been fortunate to be the coach for the last five years and there is no one in our country who has a greater feeling in our country for the international game than me."
Krzyzewski points to all the good teams and exceptional players.
"It's an honor for us to be in these competitions," he said. "But we also know that we're beatable."