Three-Second Edeshko — The Thrill And Agony Of Victory — 3 Unforgettable Seconds Changed Edeshko’s Life

By Glenn Nelson
Seattle Times Reporter

MOSCOW – The rhythm of rock-and-roll blasting from a cranked-up, imported stereo system has the rectangular room pulsating like a giant heart. Against a massive mural of the Brooklyn Bridge, Ivan Edeshko is prancing, twisting and turning to the beat. His moves are not as graceful as those of his daughter, Natasha, 19; but his smile, if it is possible, is bigger.

One tune into the evening, the father in Edeshko gives way to his earlier role of host. He gestures to a guest seated on a sofa in the corner of the room. Recalling Edeshko’s declaration that “it is tradition to dance in our house,” the guest takes a place alongside Natasha.

And the beat goes on.

In an adjoining room, duplicate in shape and dimension, Edeshko’s wife, Larisa, is clearing away the residues of revelry. Plates, coffee cups, shot glasses and leftover bread and fish – she transports them all down a hallway to a well-appointed kitchen. By Soviet standards, this apartment-turned-discotheque is cavernous, and itself a cause for celebration.

The real source of celebration was revealed back when the first bottle of vodka was opened, before the toasts to women and world peace, and the rummy conversation about friendship and lifestyles. Before all that, Edeshko was cuing a video tape on his VCR that would transform his color television into a window on basketball history.

Over and over, the three-second piece of tape was repeated. They were three of the longest seconds ever played. Three seconds that shook the world. Ticks of the clock that catapulted “Three-Second” Edeshko to a life of adulation and privilege – larger apartment, travel outside the country, summer home and access to hard-to-get consumer goods.

It is the wee hours of morning, Sept. 10, 1972, in Munich.

Three seconds remain in a gold-medal basketball game between the Soviet Union and the United States. The Americans have won all 62 Olympic games they’ve ever played. During those three seconds, Edeshko will toss three prayerful lob passes that prove him a man with a golden arm.

Edeshko, inserted into the game for the sole purpose of heaving a hail-Mary, tosses one to teammate Sergei Belov at midcourt. As Belov pivots toward the Soviet goal, play is stopped. The Soviets finally are granted a timeout they’d requested while Doug Collins was depositing a free throw to give the Americans a 50-49 lead.

Once again, Edeshko is perched behind the baseline, ball in hand. Somehow, in the single second that remains, Edeshko again tosses a strike to Sergei Belov at midcourt; Belov spins and throws a relay that glances off the fingertips of Alexandr Belov, the country’s most celebrated player, and cannons off the Soviet backboard. The Americans jubilantly storm the court.

Freeze frame.

“The Americans think they have won,” Edeshko says, an almost-gleeful tone in his commentary. “But watch.”

Edeshko depresses the “play” button on his remote control. William Jones, general secretary of FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, is on the court, gesturing for order as the Americans celebrate. He rules the Soviets should have been granted a timeout before Edeshko’s first pass. Astonishingly, he also orders the time restored on the game clock, and the final three seconds replayed.

After the Americans protest in vain, Edeshko’s third pass travels the length of the court. Alexandr Belov catches it cleanly. As flanking defenders Kevin Joyce and Jim Forbes tumble like bowling pins to the floor, Belov whirls and lays the ball into the hoop. The Reds have stripped the white and blue from the made-in-America game.

The video tape continues. American players, who refused their silver medals in protest, are paraded before the camera to complain about their stolen thunder. One, Thomas Henderson, says, “I know my gold medal is somewhere in Russia.”

Edeshko waves at the television. “Poor-sport Americans,” he declares, but he is smiling when he says it.

Even if Edeshko would admit to having pinched Henderson’s medal – which he won’t – he couldn’t say where it was. Some of the trappings of his fame are prominently displayed in a cabinet. But not his gold medal. After rummaging in drawers and cabinets, Edeshko finds the treasure buried in a cardboard box brimming with other roundball relics.

Why doesn’t he keep it in a case or something?

“The Olympics are history,” he explains. “It is in the past.”

But the past clings to Three-Second Edeshko like cat hairs to a velvet blazer. Sometimes he is irritated by it; sometimes he’d just like to sweep it away altogether. His life, his profession, even his nickname, provide constant reminders.

“The most terrifying thing,” Sergei Belov said earlier in the day at the Central Army sports complex, “is that people remember only the past. People are always saying, `You were, you were, you were.’ And that can keep you in the past. But you must go on with your life.”

Which is what Belov and Edeshko did. And, after several twists and turns, the often-temperamental beast called fate saw fit to reunite them at the place where they spent 10 years training and playing their way to Olympic fame. Belov, now 46, has just completed his second season as head coach of the Central Army basketball team with Edeshko, 45, as his assistant.

The old teammates have guided their old club to the Soviet national championship. The feat solidified Belov’s status as a rising star in the country’s basketball coaching ranks, and a likely successor as national-team coach. Belov could claim the post sooner than expected if Vladas Garastas, the present coach of the Soviet national team, bows to the wishes of his native Lithuania. The breakaway republic has disassociated its teams and athletes from the Soviet Union.

Three years ago, such a development would have been considered unthinkable. Belov had acquired such an impeccable coaching reputation, he was considered a threat to the Soviet basketball’s status quo. Caught in a web of athletic politics, he was blocked from coaching international teams. It was a basketball exile he served for six years.

“It has been hard,” Belov says. “Only now can we talk about the Russian mafia.”

Edeshko’s post-playing career was only slightly less circuitous. After coaching teams in Africa, he was summoned as an assistant to Alexander Gomelsky, the coach who engineered the Soviet victory over the U.S. in the 1988 Olympics in South Korea. With Gomelsky, Edeshko took part in the joint basketball venture with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks in 1987.

If Belov and Edeshko eventually are charged with guiding the Soviet national team, they will consider it a rebuilding effort. The Lithuanians, led by Arvydas Sabonis and Sharunas Marciulionis, provided the foundation for the Soviet team that mined Olympic gold two years ago. If they are lost to an independent Lithuanian national team, the Soviets will be hard-pressed to replace them.

Belov and Edeshko wholeheartedly agree their country failed to capitalize on the momentum generated by the three seconds in Munich.

“It should have,” Belov says. “Everybody was very inspired. Our victory should have raised the game on a national level. But our leaders didn’t find a way to do it. They didn’t want to plan for the future. They could only think of today.

“Our country can show only one team, and Americans can bring 30-40 teams with the same number of talented players. In Russia, we don’t have the system or the dream your players do.”

Neither do they have the money. The country’s swooning economy is hurting what has long been an elitist system catering to star athletes and high-profile sports such as track and field and soccer. Economic hardship has reduced support for Soviet athletics and basketball, a middle-rung priority sport, has suffered as a result.

“Twenty years ago, it was much better,” Belov says wistfully. “Every place had a basketball court, and you could see people playing. Now it’s hard to find a place to play. It’s hard to get shoes. It’s hard to find time to play. Now, we have more people at McDonald’s than we do on our basketball courts.

“The time you Americans spend playing basketball, we spend standing in lines for food.”

On that twist, the course of the conversation changes, as it inevitably does with Three-Second Edeshko in attendance. Once again, the subject is the 1972 gold-medal basketball game. Two national heroes emerged from that contest’s final seconds: Edeshko, the passer, and Alexandr Belov, the scorer, who has since died of leukemia. And the question rages – which was more important, the pass or the score it led to?

“If you count both as 100 percent,” Edeshko says, “then the pass was 30 percent and the score was 10 percent. But catching the ball was 60 percent. To catch a ball with very big speed, then keeping your coordination for landing is much more complicated than throwing the pass.”

Edeshko leaves the impression that, in some ways, he believes Alexander Belov to be the lucky one. At least his former teammate is at peace, buried with some of the answers to the questions constantly posed to Edeshko. This is the part of Edeshko that stashes his 1972 gold medal in a box with other trophies from his past.

“Fame is a food that dead men eat,” the poet Austin Dobson once wrote. “I have no stomach for such meat.” Ivan Edeshko’s three seconds are a bittersweet substance, both his blessing and his curse.

“People always want to talk to me about them,” he says. “So much that I can’t even speak about it anymore. But if I didn’t have those three seconds, I would never be that popular. I know this. My life would be very different than it is now.”

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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