Remember playing basketball under a streetlight at night, with the basket on a telephone pole and a handful of people standing on the sidewalk watching? It was something like that in Madison Square Garden last week when the formidably named and formidably rugged Russian national basketball teams opened a tour of the U.S. Barely 3,000 people were in the huge, 18,000-seat Garden, and the games—men's and women's both—while close and furiously played, seemed somehow informal, like pickup games in the neighborhood. The Russian women beat the Nashville Business College team by two points 59-57 after two overtime periods, and the Russian men lost 70-66 in the last 20 seconds to a U.S. team of American Athletic Union All-Stars, but when it came to rating the artistic merit of the proceedings, the handful of basketball connoisseurs in the Garden understandably voted nyet.
For one thing, the size of the crowd was a disgrace, though it should be obvious by now that New Yorkers won't pay $5 and $6 a ticket to see second-rate basketball—and the novelty of gazing at real live Russians has long since worn off. For another thing, the officiating was erratic and inconsistent, and at the end a Canadian referee's dubious call of charging against the Russians cost the visitors a victory. (The game had seen more charging than could be expected from the Light Brigade, but this was an undiplomatic time to notice it.)
Then, too, the American men's team, which, in theory only, consisted of the best amateur players in the country, simply didn't look very good. That could be blamed on the bruising Russian style of play as well as lack of practice with each other—but years of practice would not have brought the U.S. squad up to the level of a college all-star team.
As for the Russian men (the ladies of both countries played excellent basketball, if you enjoy watching ladies play basketball), they were expected to have produced, after years of trying, a smooth, modern team. They had even hinted at having some surprises for the U.S. But the Soviets seemed pretty much the same as they've been, in the past: rough in tactics, archaic in strategy (see right). Only three Russians played what might be called an American style of basketball—6-foot 10-inch Alex Petrov, an effective pivot man who was high for the night for both teams in scoring and in rebounding; 6-foot 7-inch Jak Lipso, who played less than half the game; and 6-foot 6-inch Yuri Korneyev, a tough, driving forward who both antagonized and charmed the crowd. Korneyev was mean and aggressive, and the spectators, rooting for the Americans, resented him at first. But when, with the Russians leading, he was pulled out of the game and the Americans promptly began to catch up, the crowd—wanting good basketball even more than victory—yelled, "Put Number Eleven back in!" He came back in and was, of course, the Russian called for charging with the score tied and 11 seconds to play. The foul attempts were made and that was the ball game.
Afterwards, the Russians mildly criticized the officiating, mildly praised the Americans and intensely questioned Jerry Lucas, the All-America from Ohio State who had played against them in 1960 and 1961. Lucas, who had come from Ohio to analyze the Russian team for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, was by a clear margin the tallest journalist at the game, and so far as the Russians were concerned the only one that mattered.
They clustered around him like so many Platos at the foot of Socrates, eager to listen and to learn. He had visited them at lunch that afternoon ("Ah, Loo-kas!" they had said with delight when they first saw him) and through an interpreter had asked him if he was playing now and where he would eventually play and who was better, Chamberlain or Russell, and how professional teams compared with amateur teams ("They are so much better," said Lucas, "that there is no comparison." And the Russian coach, his eyes wide in wonder, echoed, "No?"). Lucas, in turn, asked the Russians how long they had been playing together as a team. "About two weeks," suggested one, timidly. Lucas laughed. Two of the players then dragged Jerry off to their room, saying, "Souvenir, souvenir," and pressed upon him a bottle of Russian champagne, commenting in English, "Very good. Very good." Lucas carried the champagne around with him all afternoon and evening and at midnight still had it with him, though he had his raincoat wrapped around it like a steel-mesh mat at a blasting site. "It might explode," he explained. "It's gotten pretty warm."
Now, after the game, the Russians quizzed Lucas again. He listened patiently to each question in Russian, then to its translation, answered it, waited patiently while the interpreter put the answer back into Russian and then waited again as another question started its tedious journey through the language barrier. His answers were direct—no, he really didn't think they had improved. Yes, he admired the Russian defense. No, he hadn't thought that Vadim Gladun was particularly impressive, though he had played a sound game. And on and on. The Russians took notes. Finally one of them asked if Lucas would send them some more movies of American players in action. Lucas said he would. He didn't think it would do much good—the Russians now need native ability more than they do technical instruction—but, after all, they had given him that champagne.