Nikitazo Ruso was the way one Chilean newspaper headlined its story the morning after the Russians slaughtered the Americans (62-37) in the world amateur basketball tournament in Santiago last week. This is tabloid shorthand, Chilean style, and means that Nikita's boys were supreme. Another banner read RUSSIA ATE THE U.S. AND WASHED THEM DOWN WITH COCA-COLA. It is not necessary to understand the Spanish words in which these headlines were written to appreciate that they hold a significance somewhat beyond the mere reporting of victory in a game of basketball. For to Chileans as well as Russians, Mexicans, Chinese and all the rest of the world—except, alas, Americans—the arena of international sport is the place for putting one's best foot forward with pride, often in the search for prestige.
And when the people who actually invented this sport, people generally regarded as a brash and cocky lot anyway, are humiliated by those with whom they are in competition on so many other grounds, this is not just fun and games. Victory in international basketball lifts the hearts and impresses the minds of millions. "Look here," Chileans were saying as they watched the game in Santiago's vast National Stadium or listened to it on a dozen radio stations, "first sputnik and now this. The Yankees can't even win at their own game."
It is no good at all to say—with truth, of course—that a truly representative U.S. team would have waltzed through this tournament without a deep breath. It is no good to say it, and it is precisely the point. For Americans have assumed supremacy in basketball for so long that most of them believed that sending along any old group of healthy kids meant another world championship.
Our team in Santiago wasn't even healthy. Two of the best players—Bob Jeangerard and Eddie White—had plaster casts on their arms because of broken bones. They made the trip, but White couldn't play at all and Jeangerard made only a few brief, ineffectual appearances. The rest were generally crew-cut, the nicest kind of boys you would want to meet, and they tried hard. But they were as representative of good U.S. basketball as Nikita Khrushchev's grandmother. In a very real sense, sending this team to Santiago was an insult not only to the host nation of Chile but to all who expected to see and play against our best. How did this nice, bewildered, outclassed group of youngsters come to be in Santiago?
February 9, 1959
The story is simple enough, though parts of it will undoubtedly be denied in some sensitive quarters. The world championships take place every four years, midway between Olympics. Four years ago Chile was chosen as host. The time was supposed to be October or November 1958. Chile began to prepare a large indoor arena in Santiago to accommodate it. By early last fall, however, it was apparent that the arena would not be finished in time, and Chile was granted permission to shift the date to January 1959.
Now January is right smack in the middle of our collegiate, industrial league and AAU seasons, so our representatives in the International Basketball Federation knew they had little chance to assemble a decent team. In fairness to them, they did ask around the National Industrial Basketball League and other leagues for players and were turned down. Americans generally didn't give a hang, making it impossible to stir up enough sentiment to force the issue of how to organize a representative group. Instead, Chile was notified the U.S. would not participate.
Chile, in turn, realizing that the U.S. was defending champion and would be the big attraction, refused to accept this decision, very likely incredulous that the champions would not defend their title. They appealed to our State Department, in the name of Pan-American amity, and the State Department put pressure on Dan Ferris and Lou Wilke of the AAU.
A SMALL FOUL-UP
With no place to turn, these gentlemen were happy to be told by Colonel Ralph Stevenson, Chief of Special Services of the U.S. Air Force, that the Air Force would be glad to send along a team of all-stars. At this point there occurred a small but extremely significant foul-up. An Air Force group had won the AAU championship in 1957, and when the news was released that the Air Force would represent us in Santiago, the official statement clearly read that this was the same team. Wire-service reports with this information were printed and broadcast around the world. Today, in Santiago, Moscow and way stations between, people still believe that the Americans who were clobbered by the Russians last week, beaten by the Brazilians and nearly beaten by others, are the amateur champions of the United States.
They are nothing of the sort. Few of the members of that 1957 team are still in the Air Force. This group was assembled hit-and-miss from service bases all over the States and some from overseas. Most had never even met before, and after a few brief practice sessions they were hustled onto a plane and dispatched to represent their country against a Russian team which had been playing together for four years.
Miserable failures as basketball players, they still fulfilled an important function off court. World championship meetings also demonstrate the ability of individuals with sharply contrasting backgrounds and attitudes to get along with each other before an eager and attentive audience. And the good humor and candor of these youngsters contributed a great deal to the fact that the tournament in Santiago was an engaging and generally successful experiment in international relations.
All 12 visiting teams in the final round, and some of the others that had been eliminated earlier, stayed at Santiago's Carrera Hotel, a comfortable establishment across the street from Chile's "White House" and in the heart of a beautiful and hospitable city surrounded by peaks of the Cordillera de los Andes. In a multilingual and multiracial atmosphere of high spirits and good will, players, coaches and officials constantly crowded the Carrera's lobbies, bars and restaurants, exchanging basketball information, souvenirs and the telephone numbers of Chilean girls. Santiago is blessed with a remarkably large number of striking young ladies, whose features attractively display the vast mixture of European blood that is Chile's heritage. These chilenas also crowded the lobbies, and feted and dated the players with genuine native affection and the organized efficiency of a female junior chamber of commerce. Wherever they went, the visitors trailed crowds of autograph-seeking youngsters, wide-eyed teen-agers and adults eager to make them welcome.
The exception to all this amity and accord was the behavior of the Russians and Bulgarians, who appeared for meals and showed up promptly for their games but stayed in their rooms all the rest of the time. This was the rule until the day after the Russians beat the U.S. Then one found Communist players in the Carrera swimming pool, wandering the streets and even a few socializing in the lobbies. They had done what they came to do, and now they were permitted to relax.
By all odds, the most popular group was the Nationalist Chinese, for a number of sound reasons. In a general atmosphere of cordiality and politeness, their apparently innate courtesy still stood out, on the basketball court, in the hotel, on the streets. They also reaped a universally sympathetic response from other delegations and the Chilean people when the Russians refused to play them (on the grounds that the U.S.S.R. recognized no such country as Nationalist China). At every Russian appearance, crowds taunted them with shouts of "Play with China." Finally, the Chinese were probably the smallest in size (though excellently conditioned) of all the teams. They had to work hard for their shots, and even the Chilean audiences, whose shouts often betrayed little understanding of this sport, appreciated China's speed and ball-handling ability. In Wong Kwok Yeung, a peppery little ball hawk and superb shooter, China had one of the very best players in the tournament.
The basketball itself, however, was atrocious. It will remain that way on the international level until something is done about the officiating, which in every game was unbelievably bad and often bordered on insanity. In many games, the two teams and the two referees were obliged to communicate in sign language—for example, when Russia played the U.S. the officials were, naturally, from Peru and France.
This confusion in communication was as nothing, though, when compared with the lack of understanding of the rules shown by nearly all the officials. This was most obviously demonstrated by a refusal to concede any rights to the team which did not have the ball.
The result was that every team's offense ultimately consisted of one man taking the ball, lowering his head and driving for the basket like a battering ram. Even if he ran over two or three opposing players who clearly had established their positions, he invariably drew fouls and was given the basket if he scored on his football-style play. On other points of rule, calls were equally astonishing, and apparently the officials themselves must have been aware of their own inefficiency, because they were constantly invoking double fouls, as if to say that thereby no one team would suffer unduly.
True enough, the officials were not biased, all teams being penalized equally. But with all the whistle-blowing, it was simply impossible for any team to play deceptive, smart basketball (even if it were capable of doing so), and games often resembled soccer, which Latin Americans prefer to basketball anyway.
Many times this referee-induced style of rough play brought amusing results and, happily, also evoked a large measure of good sportsmanship, which each team practiced with only rare exceptions. Once, Russia's tall, slender Victor Zubkov went up for a rebound and Brazil's tall, rugged Amaury Passos slammed into him, needlessly, like an aspiring sophomore lineman into a tackling dummy. As Zubkov crumpled to the floor, Passos yanked him back to his feet, grabbed him around the neck and kissed him twice on the cheek. Zubkov acknowledged the gesture with a wide grin, and exactly 30 seconds later repaid it in kind. Passos dribbled the ball upcourt, spurted into a typical, heedless power drive, and Zubkov gave him the knee, hip and shoulder all at once. Nearly every inch of Passos hit the floor at the same time, but Zubkov was on him immediately, brought him erect and hugged him like an impatient groom alone with his bride for the first time. Passos, of course, hugged back. Needless to say, the referees called the fouls the wrong way both times.
BETTER THAN HIGH SCHOOL
Much of all this was true of the play and the officiating in the Russia-U.S. game. Between the halves, U.S. Coach Buzz Bennett, an earnest young man but hardly closer to first-rank as a coach than his players, tried to goad his men to better performances by saying, "Don't you guys realize that's a high school team you're playing against? Maybe some of those Russians couldn't even play on one of our good high school teams."
He was not being fair to the Russians, many of whom could easily play on our better college teams, but he was accurately describing the quality of basketball his own team was displaying. They made one basket and a total of five points in the first 10 minutes, all of five baskets and 14 points in the first half. They were never ahead, never in the game at all.
The Russians used a zone defense when their 7-foot-3 Ivan Kruminsh was in the game and man-to-man when he wasn't. And both defenses stopped the Americans cold. They had no attack except desperation drives, and wild shooting. Only a fair defense (the Russian attack wasn't much, so you cannot give the Americans much credit for Russia's low score, either), the rebounding of rugged Bob Hodges and the defensive job Henry McDonald did on Kruminsh, kept the game from being more of a rout than it was.
After the holocaust, the Russian coach, Stephan Spandarian, said, "we won because we did what we planned to do." If he would really like it to be conceded that the Russians won because of anything they did, he will have to concede, himself, that the U.S. team, the AAU, the State Deapartment and the American people gave him and his team a lot of help.
There can be no doubt that the Russians were the best in Santiago. However, they stuck to their political principles, condemned though this attitude was by the rest of the delegations, and refused to "recognize the existence" of China's Nationalist government by playing its team. This cost them the official title, because they surely would have beaten the undersized and undermanned Chinese and thus have amassed enough points to win. Instead, Brazil, probably the second-best team, is the new world champion. They finished with 11 points to 10 for the U.S. Russia's score was reduced to zero by the International Amateur Basketball Federation as penalty for defaulting.
This same Russian team will be coming to the United States in the fall for a series of games with American all-stars. Any volunteers? Anybody interested?