Whenever rumors about new troubles with the Russians reach the hill-country hamlet of Paintsville, Ky., the oldtimers who spend their days decorating the steps of the Johnson County Courthouse with tobacco juice invariably react with yawns. This used to be Hatfield-McCoy territory, and folks around Paintsville still prefer their feuds closer to home, like when the Inez High School Indians come down from the surrounding hills to play the home-town boys in basketball. If anything makes the blood race in Eastern Kentucky more than white lightning, it is probably basketball.
It was because of this passion that Paintsville finally got excited last week about the Russians. Into town, aboard a Greyhound bus that rumbled through Appalachian countryside strewn with heaps of forgotten automobiles and adorned by billboards reading GET RIGHT WITH GOD, came some improbable visitors, the Soviet national basketball team. Nearing the end of a three-week U.S. tour, the tall pasty-faced strangers stayed around Paintsville long enough to demonstrate qualities they have in common with the Ralph Beards and Dan Issels who are held so dear in those parts. They whipped an American team 97-86, then departed for an easy win in Albuquerque before finally losing in Salt Lake City. When they left this week for Moscow, they took along an 8-1 record against U.S. competition, all of which makes one wonder whether the game might not have been invented by Dr. James Naismithonovich after all.
The Paintsville visit was arranged to give the "furriners" what Jim Fox, the AAU official who shepherded them around, called "something more low-keyed than usual," and it was certainly all of that. Paintsville offered no demonstrators such as those who picketed the team in Cincinnati to protest treatment of Soviet Jews nor was there anything like the awkward moment when a civic greeter in Buffalo, presenting the Russian athletes with a gift, kiddingly told them, "We're giving you this, and in return we expect you to give us back Cuba." It was with understandable relief that Priit Tomson, one of the few Soviet players to speak any English, said. "This is a small town, and because of this we have a good rest."
Decked out in cowboy hats they had picked up in Amarillo, Tomson and his countrymen marched off one evening, interpreter in tow, to Paintsville's tiny movie house to see Waterloo. The next night, benefiting from a fortuitous change in program, they returned to see It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. As if this were not enough moviegoing, a rumor breezed through Paintsville that the Russians had also found time to take in an Elvis Presley triple feature at the Sky Vue drive-in, arriving in a Cadillac, of all things.
June 6, 1971
The report was quickly shot down by Robert Rice, the drive-in's ticket taker. "If a bunch of big guys talking Russian came in here in a Cadillac, I guess I'd a noticed 'em all right," he reasoned.
Apart from such innocent pleasures as those experienced in Paintsville, the Russians tended strictly to business throughout the tour, obviously regarding it as an important tuneup for next year's Munich Olympics. None of the Soviet players smoke and the only time any of them had so much as a sip of vodka was on the rare occasions that their chaperones were not around. "It is the aim of Soviet sport, and the spirit of Communist education, that we not just win but also build character," explained Marat Shishigin, chief of the Russian delegation. It was apparently in line with such lofty thought that when handsome Alexander Boloshev, a husky forward from Moscow, was called upon at a luncheon to kiss Paintsville's 18-year-old Apple Queen, Shishigin gently advised him, "V scheku—on the cheek."
But Boloshev deviated. Ardor overcoming obedience, he promptly kissed the young lady convincingly on the mouth, which moved her to conclude, "Men are the same everywhere."
So worldly a testimonial might have surprised The New York Times, which in running the Soviet team's itinerary had unaccountably referred to Paintsville as "Hicksville." The slur was further belied by the town's consolidated new Johnson Central High School, an ultramodern building with a gymnasium seating 5,500, which exceeds Paintsville's population by 1,400. The Russians drew 4,500, including Jim Fyffe, a Paintsville radio sportscaster, who said, "Boy, I'm glad I don't have to broadcast the game and wrestle with those names." But Fyffe, manning the PA system, proceeded to do a perfectly creditable job with such tongue twisters as Modestas Paulauskas and Aljan Zharmukhamedov, two of the Russian stars.
As elsewhere, the Soviet team seemed to play only as hard as was warranted by the competition, which varied from hapless at Amarillo to talented at Indianapolis, where the Russians outlasted Artis Gilmore and Jim McDaniels 80-78 before 13,000 spectators. In contrast to the well-drilled, defense-minded Russians, four of whom played together on their country's third-place team in the 1968 Olympics, most of the U.S. teams were hurriedly assembled, an example being the one at Paintsville, which consisted of a Lexington AAU club beefed up with a few ex-collegians.
Still, the Americans put up a fight at Paintsville. Although badly outmuscled under the backboards, they pulled to within a point, 75-74, with four minutes to go, thanks largely to the fine outside shotmaking of ex-University of Kentuckian Phil Argento. But the red-jerseyed Russians, countering with some barnyard shooting of their own, notably from Sergei Belov, a 27-year-old guard, outscored the U.S. the rest of the way 22-12. "They're a lot more poised and polished than before," said Argento, who also played against the Soviets when they last toured the U.S. two years ago.
The idea of visiting Paintsville, inspired though it was, seemed somewhat less so the next day when the Soviet players left for Albuquerque, a 10-hour odyssey involving a 45-mile bus trip followed by a flight schedule that took them into six airports. When the Soviets wearily arrived in mile-high Albuquerque, they were greeted by the promoters of the local game, a group of Jaycees in freshly lettered name tags, who had rolled out a genuine red carpet. As a nine-piece mariachi band serenaded them, the Russians were mortified to learn that instead of being taken at once to their downtown motel they were expected at an elaborate reception for the press.
Shishigin pettishly consented and then got in a good lick. Asked if he regarded the travel arrangements as part of an American plot, the Soviet spokesman glowered from behind his wraparound sunglasses and replied, "If it is, then you gentlemen of the press are part of it, for you are keeping us waiting around the airport." He smiled and the crisis soon passed, although not before the Soviet team bowed out of a scheduled banquet that night at a Mexican restaurant, leaving long-faced Jaycees to feast on their frijoles refritos by themselves.
Next evening's game, meanwhile, was getting a big buildup, LAST HOPE TO BEAT USSR? asked The Albuquerque Tribune, while the U.S. cause was strengthened with the enlistment of three first-round ABA draft choices, Weber State's Willie Sojourner, Armed Forces' Darnell Hillman and New Mexico's Willie Long, all 6'8" or better. But the Russians would not admit to feeling any pressure, not even 19-year-old Alexander Belov, the team's youngest member. No kin to Sergei-Belov is quite common in the Soviet Union since it literally means White—the sad-eyed Alexander just shrugged and muttered something in Russian about playing one game at a time.
As it turned out, the Americans might have been that red carpet at the airport, the way the Soviets walked over them 91-67. The younger Belov, who would be a pro prospect in the U.S., repeatedly twisted his 6'8" frame around—and sometimes over—the flat-footed Americans, while his comrades, working off precise picks, seldom missed from outside. "They seemed to have somebody open every play," said Utah's Mike Newlin, the San Diego Rockets-bound guard whose first-half ballhawking gave the Soviet team a few moments of trouble.
Their easy win made it debatable whether the Russians, in the U.S. to study basketball techniques, were the students or the teachers. "Learning is a reciprocal experience," said Shishigin just before the Russians left to receive a lesson in Salt Lake City—a 94-91 loss to a team of Utah all-stars.
That the Russians play good basketball hardly came as news, except possibly to the youngsters who mobbed the Soviet players for autographs at every stop, but nowhere with more enthusiasm than in Paintsville. "I'm gonna put this with my Cincinnati Reds collection," said one Kentucky boy, 11-year-old Jeff Buchanan, waving a Russian player's autograph. Asked whose it was, Jeff puzzled over the Cyrillic scrawl, then looked up helplessly. "Well, it doesn't matter," he said, with a sweep of his hand encompassing everything from Andreyev to Zharmukhamedov. "They're all pretty good."