Tuesday April 22nd, 2008

The world's most elegant cheerleaders take the court like a troupe of ballerinas, dressed simply in lilac tops and low-rise black pants for their role as arm candy to the star of this brief show. The iconic main attraction is decked out in the telltale white body suit and has the familiar upswept hair. During his brief time on earth, the original Elvis Presley typified the Western entertainment that was banned by the Soviet Union as "tumors on the social organism." But in this incarnation he is belting out bastardized Russian-and-English lyrics to the tune of Blue Suede Shoes as the twirling ladies encircle him. "Come on, SESS-ka!" sings Elvis, leaning into the crook of his glittering elbow.

SESS-ka refers to CSKA, or Central Sports Army Club, the home team for this February basketball game in Moscow. The celebrated organization dates to the Soviet days of Stalin and Khrushchev and Brezhnev, who ruled the army generals and also, by chain of command, the gold medalists competing for CSKA. The Red Army athletes were the most intimidating of competitors: fundamentally disciplined basketball stars, ice hockey players and figure skaters who tormented the U.S. in the Olympic Games every fourth winter and summer.

Then in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and soon the Soviet system collapsed. But the teams of CSKA Moscow have continued to thrive, though they bear little more than symbolic allegiance to the military. Instead, they answer to a former disc jockey.

It's true: CSKA is run by a deejay named Sergey Kushchenko, a genial, outgoing 46-year-old who was spinning LPs of the Beatles and bootlegging cassettes of the Rolling Stones even as Soviet coach Alexander Gomelsky and five CSKA players were leading the U.S.S.R. to an 82-76 win over the U.S. at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. That Sergey the deejay happened also to fall in love with basketball has resulted in his spectacularly unpredictable rise to president of CSKA. Sitting courtside in a dark suit and tie -- uncomfortable attire during his deejay days -- he watches the team that he has reinvented to become the best in the world outside the NBA.

Two decades ago Soviet stars such as Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis earned disposable income by selling athletic gear and black-market caviar out of their hotel rooms during international road trips. Now, the high-end clubs of the Russian Superleague have more money to spend than most of their European rivals. Russia's vast natural resources and the ambitions of president Vladimir Putin (who will move to the prime minister's office on May 7) have recast basketball as a metric of the nation's new identity -- even if that identity is often cast by foreigners. The coach of what is still commonly referred to as the Red Army team is Ettore Messina, an Italian. He yells at his three American players, two Greeks, a Slovenian, a Lithuanian, a Belgian, an Australian and a half-dozen Russians in English -- English! -- proof that the new Russia is competing for talent on a global scale.

Sergey the deejay is driving this revolutionary trend in Russian basketball. He is striving to create an open-market environment for the American-born sport within an old-world government of Russian secrecy (in which investigative journalists are routinely found murdered) and strong-arm politics (as manipulated by Putin, who prolonged his influence by handpicking his presidential successor in a March election that was free of viable opposition candidates). The NBA has recognized the ambitions of Kushchenko, and over the last three years he has patiently negotiated a unique relationship between his progressive club and the NBA. Commissioner David Stern usually prefers to marry himself to international federations or leagues, but so important is CSKA to all of basketball in Russia, and so visionary is Kushchenko, that in February the NBA was ready to sign a deal with CSKA that would open the Russian frontier to opportunities benefiting both sides.

On this afternoon the Superleague meeting between CSKA and visiting Khimki is tight into the fourth quarter as CSKA's cheerleaders return yet again to the court. Their elegance is part of Sergey the deejay's larger vision for basketball in the CSKA Universal Sports Hall, a steeply tiered arena of 5,500 seats built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. As the young women sweep gracefully onto the floor, they are met by dozens of colored lights spinning and strobing from the ceiling, another of Kushchenko's innovations. "Like disco," he explains.

An and-one drive by the visitors cuts CSKA's lead to 65-64 with 25 seconds remaining. Trajan Langdon, the former All-America guard at Duke who is one of CSKA's go-to scorers, responds with a free throw. Another drive by Khimki fails and CSKA seizes a 68-64 victory, one of 23 it will earn (against just one loss) domestically this season to claim first place in the Superleague.

Basketball is important to Russia because, in the beginning, it was important to the U.S. The Soviets embraced basketball after World War II for no other reason than to try to prove they could beat the U.S. at its own game, to demonstrate that their collective approach could overcome superior talent. They started by dominating the sport in the old world, dividing the first six European Champions Cups among ASK Riga, the army team of Latvia (winner of the first three titles, all coached by the legendary Gomelsky); Dinamo Tbilisi, the police-sponsored team from the Soviet republic of Georgia; and, of course, CSKA Moscow.

Today there are at least 1,500 Americans playing basketball professionally around the world, but this trend began in Europe when they were imported like mercenaries to repel the Soviets. In 1962 Real Madrid became the first Western European club to break into the finals of the Champions Cup (known today as the Euroleague) after its Hall of Fame coach, Pedro Ferràndiz, had traveled to Philadelphia to recruit 6' 8" power forward Wayne Hightower, an African-American who had left Kansas a year before he was eligible for the NBA draft. Europe had never seen an athlete like Hightower, and though he would return home to spend 11 years in the NBA and ABA, his one season in Europe created demand for more Americans to stand up to the Soviets.

The U.S.S.R. ratcheted up the standards of international competition by turning games into metaphorical life-and-death struggles with the free world. The common denominator for many of the nation's significant basketball victories was Gomelsky, who began an 11-year term as CSKA's coach in 1969 and later served as the team's president while guiding the Soviet national team on and off over three decades. "He was a wily little guy, politically shrewd, considered one of the 100 most powerful men in Russia, disliked by many, connected with higher-ups in the Politburo," says Dan Peterson, the expatriate American who coached in Italy during the Gomelsky era. "A ruthless winner, a brilliant guy."

Gomelsky's most important -- and final -- triumph was the 82-76 semifinal win over coach John Thompson's collegians in the '88 Games, which prompted USA Basketball to assemble the original Dream Team four years later. That last Soviet team, like the U.S.S.R. itself, was on the verge of splintering amid ethnic quarrels and demands for freedom, but Gomelsky achieved temporary unification in his locker room, according to Peterson, by persuading Mikhail Gorbachev to allow the players to sign with clubs outside the country provided they won the gold medal.

After the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, most of its famed basketball generation scattered throughout Europe and the NBA, for in the first tortured decade of independence there was little money for Russian hoops. The proud clubs of the former empire were unable to pay their bills -- CSKA included, though that did not stop the team from winning nine straight Superleague titles. Gomelsky's search for his eventual replacement as team president, someone capable of responding to the problems and opportunities of the new millennium, led him to the isolated Russian city of Perm, a former Soviet weapons-manufacturing base 800 miles east of Moscow that was closed to foreigners until 1989. Perm was home to a small start-up club known as Ural Great, which had dethroned CSKA to win the 2001 Russian championship and which was owned and operated by none other than Sergey Kushchenko. "I visited Perm in 2001," recalls Roy Kirkdorffer, an American financial adviser based in the south of France who represents European basketball players. "And I had breakfast with Gomelsky, who said of Kushchenko, 'He's our bright young hope.' "

Three things that illustrate the paradox of Russian basketball:

1. It is not run as a business. While the NBA exists to make money, there is no tradition for profitability throughout European basketball. The major clubs are funded by private financiers or parent sports clubs and exist simply to win games for their city, region and country -- red ink be damned.

2. Kushchenko wants to run it as a business. Kushchenko, who took over CSKA's basketball team in 2002, talks of creating a market for basketball, of eventually developing sources of revenue that will equal or exceed his club's budget of more than $40 million, which makes it among the richest in Europe. (The average NBA team's budget is more than $100 million.) Over the last three years he has made several trips to the U.S. with his CSKA employees, and together they have studied everything from the marketing to the merchandising to the administration of the NBA website in hopes of acquiring the perspectives of an organization that is built for profit. As foreign as this may be to his Russian colleagues, Kushchenko sees no other future for basketball in his country.

3. There is no compelling need to run it as a business. CSKA is funded by a billionaire oligarch, Mikhail Prokhorov, 42, who made his initial fortune in the 1980s by selling stone-washed jeans in the U.S.S.R. When the state-owned industries were privatized in the '90s by Boris Yeltsin, Prokhorov leveraged his chairmanship of a bank to acquire Norilsk Nickel, the world's leading producer of nickel and palladium. He has since relinquished his stake in Norilsk, though he retains control of sister company Polyus Gold, the largest gold producer in Russia.

Despite standing 6' 9" and having played basketball in grade school, Prokhorov has shown minimal interest in the team. It appears to Western observers that he is involved with CSKA because Putin has instructed billionaire oligarchs to invest heavily in basketball and other sports to raise Russia's profile around the world. As it is, Prokhorov, the 24th-richest person in the world according to Forbes (net worth: $19.5 billion), rarely attends hoops games, and he tends to be impressed neither by the spectacle nor by the American need to profit from the sport. During the NBA Europe Live exhibitions in Moscow in 2006, where the carnival of NBA sideshows was on display during timeouts, he turned to a few international guests and said, "This is all bulls---."

Prokhorov's passive interest has not prevented the team he bankrolls from becoming the most talented outside the NBA. CSKA has reached the Euroleague Final Four a record six consecutive times, and next week in Madrid the Russian power is favored to win the title for the second time in three seasons.

The leading scorer throughout the season (at just 13.4 points per game, befitting the club's balance) is 6' 11" center David Andersen, a 27-year-old Australian who plays on a Danish passport and is considering a move to the NBA next season. (The Atlanta Hawks drafted him in the second round in 2002.)

The point guard is a surprisingly talented player from Bucknell named J.R. Holden, 31. In his six years with CSKA he has become, according to coach Messina, the best point guard in Europe. The 6' 1" Holden's skills are so highly valued by the Russians that he was naturalized in 2003 -- despite not having met residency requirements -- so he could play for the national team. (A former national team general manager, Kushchenko helped persuade the government to grant Holden an exemption.) Last September, Holden hit a contested jump shot with 2.1 seconds left to give Russia a shocking 60-59 victory over Spain in the European championships, a victory that promised to maintain political interest and money in Russian basketball for years to come.

The CSKA roster is overloaded with renowned Europeans such as Theodoros Papaloukas, 30, recently named one of the 35 greatest players in the 50-year history of the Euroleague; his fellow Greek guard Nikos Zisis, 24; and Lithuanian forward Ramunas Siskauskas, 29, who chose to leave Euroleague champion Panathinaikos to move to Moscow this season. The 6' 8" forward Marcus Goree, who grew up playing with Denver Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin in Dallas, is a 30-year-old who, according to Messina, "could be the European Ben Wallace." Messina himself was named one of the top 10 coaches in Euroleague history, and he views his team leaders as Holden and Langdon, who last season was the only American to make first-team all-Euroleague.

The man who put CSKA together, the open and sincere Kushchenko, is in every way the opposite of the stern, cold authoritarian whom one would expect to be presiding over the Red Army club. It helps that he doesn't particularly need basketball. He and some friends from Perm also cashed in on the privatization boom of the 1990s, and their ownership of Kam Kabel -- a manufacturer of electronic cables with 5,000 employees -- has made a millionaire of him. Today he lives with his wife, Svetlana, and their three children in a gated community outside Moscow, in a modern, four-story house with heated floors, a skylit penthouse and fixtures designed by Italian architects.

In 2006 Kushchenko was rewarded with a promotion to the presidency of all of CSKA and its 41 sports, which is a far more political position than simply managing the daily affairs of the basketball club. At All-Star weekend in New Orleans, he was welcomed by the NBA to finalize their long-sought partnership. The agreement appeared to be in place: CSKA would put up close to $10 million to serve as host of NBA events in Moscow, including the charitable youth event Basketball Without Borders and preseason exhibitions involving NBA teams. NBA and CSKA officials would work side by side in Moscow, enabling the Americans to grow their league in Russia while providing CSKA with expertise in transforming basketball into a market-based business. CSKA games would be broadcast in the U.S. on NBA TV. Left unsaid was the eventual possibility that CSKA might become an NBA franchise during the league's planned expansion to Europe over the decades ahead.

The meetings in New Orleans were expected to be a formality -- sign the papers, shake hands, bring in Stern for group photographs -- but Kushchenko unexpectedly revealed that he was unable to agree to the terms. He also was unable to explain why. He grabbed the arm of NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver and whispered, "Don't worry. We'll get that done."

The NBA isn't giving up on Kushchenko. "Russia remains an important market for the NBA," says Silver. "We are encouraged by the discussions we've had with Sergey and his colleagues. We remain hopeful that we're going to work out a long-term deal with him."

But something had changed, in spite of all of Kushchenko's successes in moving basketball forward in Russia. Was he unable to persuade the politicians to run the sport as a business? Were they, in spite of their reliance on foreign basketball talent, unwilling to form a partnership with the Americans? The story of Sergey the deejay, though it is not yet finished, is that Russia, for all of the promise of its new frontier, is still mired in its old ways.

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