Yes, the Russians were coming, that was for sure. The question was, what were they coming to do: bury us, as they had in that still-controversial Munich basketball final, or simply gawk at skyscrapers and shake hands with Mickey Mouse? By the time the first week of the long-awaited tour was over, by the time the team from the Soviet Union had visited Los Angeles, San Diego, Albuquerque and Indianapolis and was on the way to New York and Baltimore, it was obvious that they had come to play—but that they just weren't playing well enough. The U.S., with so much more to lose, was busy proving that while basketball was born here, it certainly wasn't going to die here. Not just yet.
The main problem with the Russians during the coast-to-coast tour was that they appeared to be performing as if they had windup keys sticking out their uniform backs. This was not entirely true, as demonstrated by a two-point Soviet victory in San Diego after they had lost the opener. Disciplined, fiercely determined and honed to a fine edge from playing together almost year round, the Soviets rarely made mistakes and challenged a strong American team throughout the series. Mechanically, they were impressive. They used several variations of a zone defense for the first time in veteran Russian watchers' memory. Their young, big men, Ivan Dvorni and Aleksander Belov, were nettlesome with their hook shots underneath the basket, and they even unveiled a new intercontinental ballistic shooter, Aleksander Salnikov, who scored 31 points in Albuquerque.
In fact, it soon turned out that they had also come to learn. But while they were learning the intricacies of switching man-to-man defense, they were enjoying themselves, too, dancing with make-believe bears in Disneyland and feeding real-life whales at Sea World. Their traveling uniforms included gaudy Mexican sombreros given to them in New Mexico and oversized denims and double knits purchased in Indiana. They swayed awkwardly to American music and rubbernecked like awed tourists at the glass and steel canyons on the East Coast. It was apparent they were enjoying themselves—off the court.
The Americans, on the other hand, embraced the series as if it were a chance to avenge Sputnik, the grain deal and the travails of Terry and the Pirates as well as that embarrassing loss in Munich. The Amateur Athletic Union, sponsor of the tour, induced Bob Cousy to coach the U.S. team and, after the usual trying NCAA-AAU byplay, got Doug Collins, Bobby Jones, Tom Henderson and Jim Brewer, who were on that Olympic team, and Bill Walton, who was not, to play. They were joined by college stars Ernie DiGregorio, Ron Behagen, Swen Nater and George Karl, and when Cousy announced his team would play quarter-horse basketball instead of the dragging style so favored by Olympic Coach Henry Iba, it was all anyone could do to keep from quivering with anticipation.
May 13, 1973
Forget the Team Canada hockey series. Hadn't the Soviets needed three tries and all kinds of devious chicanery to beat us at Munich? And that was a U.S. team that for various excuses was not nearly as strong as it could have been. Walton preferred to stay in California and practice making funny faces. Nater quit because they wouldn't feed him enough cheeseburgers. Some of our top players weren't even asked, and others said no. And Iba, it was pointed out, made the players perform as if they were dribbling to the strains of Moon River.
This East-West confrontation, they said, would be different, and by the time the third game was over even the Russians were becoming impressed. The spindly Jones, a junior at North Carolina, had missed but four of his first 20 shots. In Albuquerque he hit eight of 10 and led the team in rebounding despite being bent and mashed into Silly Putty by the brawny Russians. "He's a hell of a pro prospect," said Cousy in admiration. "That kid is really something. I don't know if he has an outside shot because he never shoots outside. He doesn't have to. He has the ability to score in close with as little wasted motion as anybody I've ever seen. And he has guts."
That had first become evident back in San Diego, where Jones offered the token resistance of a carnival dummy being knocked over with a ball. Only this time the ball was the 6'10", 240-pound Dvorni. "I saw him coming," recalls Jones, "and you can't imagine the things that went through my mind. At UNCI would have stood there because we always take charges. Then I thought, "He's 6'10" and 240.' And then at the last moment, I thought, 'I'm going to do it for my country.' That was the most terrifying moment I've had in my life." When the fans, players, coaches and officials opened their eyes and took their fingers out of their ears, Jones got up, and Dvorni went to the bench with his fifth personal foul and a quizzical look on his face.
Not that the U.S. had all the pro prospects. Belov is 6'7" and he handles the ball as well as anyone on the Soviet squad. In fact he brings the ball upcourt against a pressing defense. A good outside shooter, he prefers to get low position where his strength, speed and spring are handiest. He also is strong on defense and even for the Russians, very emotionless, so much so that he hardly seems capable of perspiration, sort of a John Havlicek in red. A student who is studying shipbuilding in the Soviet Union, Belov was asked if he knew he could make 150,000 rubles a year playing professional basketball in America. "I know it," he shrugged. "It is nothing. Really. It is nothing."
The U.S. team assembled in Los Angeles a week before the start of the series. Collins was not there, missing because of an ankle sprained prior to an all-star game in Las Vegas. Neither was Brewer, who was embroiled in negotiations over his pro contract. Still, everyone's enthusiasm was boundless, primarily because of Walton. The UCLA star dismissed any suggestion that he was participating because of guilt feelings over skipping the Olympics, but his fervor was hard to escape. "We all but had to hose him down with ice," said Cousy. Despite a sore ankle and his bad knees, Walton wanted to take part in the two-a-day practices until Cousy assured him it would be better to work only once daily.
As coach of the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, Cousy had just completed an arduous pro season, but he was eager to go against the Russians, not because they were Russians or Communists—"I cannot understand how anyone with a degree of education can dislike any group for whatever reason"—but because he is enough of a sentimentalist to get blurred vision over the national anthem.
The coach's preparations were as complete as a teen-ager prepping for his driver's license exam. Besides the twice-daily drills, he scheduled countless strategy meetings with his assistants. Draff Young, his aide at KC-O, and Buster Sheary, his college coach when he played at Holy Cross. Cousy kept voluminous notes, studied films with his team and had them view a videotape of the Munich loss. All of this might have seemed an example of overcoach, especially since the Russians had left some of their better players at home. For example, Sergei Belov, a fine guard but no relation to Aleksander, missed the trip because of a sprained ankle.
The Russians arrived in America and promptly stuck their sneakers in their mouths. At a New York press conference they said they were not fearful of playing against Walton, in fact they never had heard of him. "Is he white or black?" they wondered. "You're going to have to teach the Russians how to spell your name," a delighted Cousy told Bill.
Before a packed house in Los Angeles and a national television audience, the Russians were introduced to Walton. Although the UCLA center played a measly 16 minutes, he treated the guests as if they were a college team, blocking shots and controlling the boards. One play in particular demonstrated the Walton style. Belov had the ball on a clean breakaway in the second half. As he jumped to lay it in, Walton thundered up behind him, reached over the Russian's shoulder and swatted the ball away. The crowd reacted as if their taxes had been cut. The U.S. scored an easy 83-65 victory.
True, Walton wrenched a knee as a result of battering from the visitors and would not play again; granted, some of DiGregorio's passes, which often brought oohs from the stands, reacted as if they had spaghetti sauce on them; and, agreed, the Russians outshot the U.S. team from the floor. Still, most onlookers felt that the Russians, who wore wrinkled YMCA-type uniforms with felt numbers tacked on their backs, would be better off sticking to gymnastics and leave the dunking to us.
Cousy, however, was not as enthusiastic. After flying to San Diego for the second game of the series Monday night, he said, "I think we'll split. We'll win three, they'll win three. Tomorrow night it could be reversed, and we might lose by 20. They are very well disciplined and they have strength. All I know is that the secret to this game is the boards. And they go to the boards well, they block out and they're strong. They were disciplined today and I think they will be better tomorrow."
One thing the Russians had in their favor was their understanding of the unwieldy set of international rules under which the series was played. Because the rules limit free-throw shooting, it is to a team's advantage to be rough and disorderly under the basket, a fact the Soviets quickly drummed into the Americans' sore bodies. In the loss at San Diego, the U.S.'s Behagen tried to retaliate by hitting Belov with an elbow while the two were running downfloor. "I didn't do it out of anger," Behagen explained. "I was just trying to do what they were doing to us. They look around to see where the officials are before they do anything. If they're not looking, they hit you. Coach Cousy told me to see what I could get away with." For his efforts, the confused Behagen was thrown out of the game.
The Americans were confident despite the missing Walton. "I can block his shot," Nater told Cousy at a workout when the coach fretted about Dvorni's inside hooks. Dvorni played only 16 minutes, but made eight of 13 shots, mostly hooks, and Nater is still wondering how to block them. The Russians won when Jaak Salumets hit two free throws with just under two minutes remaining, although the U.S. had several chances before Jim Oxley's last-second attempt hit the left edge of the rim and rattled off for a 78-76 Soviet victory.
On Wednesday night in the locker room in Albuquerque, Cousy unleashed his secret weapon, his old coach, Sheary. During his seven years at Holy Cross, Sheary amazed his team with what might gently be called fanaticism. Once, striving to convince his players that they could not be hurt if they refused to acknowledge fear, he knocked himself out while smashing his head with his fist and chanting, "It doesn't hurt. It doesn't hurt."
Now Sheary got down on his 64-year-old knees and gave one of his emotional speeches, freely invoking references to God and country. Cousy was so moved that he had to leave the room to avoid tears. The players did not have that alternative, and when they took the floor they held the Russians without a field goal for the first 3½ minutes and went on to an easy victory, 83-67, leading by 27 points on several occasions. Belov had a sore ankle and did not play, but Aleksander Salnikov made 11 of 17 shots, mostly from the corners. "I tried three different guys on him and couldn't slow him," Cousy said.
At Indianapolis, strengthened by the addition of big Marvin Barnes and Len Elmore, the U.S. stars continued their domination of the Russians. Cousy's assiduous preparations were paying rich dividends. For 30 minutes the Americans played inspired ball, and behind the audacious Karl and implacable DiGregorio, the U.S. built a 20-point lead before the margin was whittled to 83-75 by the game's end.
The Russian officials on hand were as different as Nater (7 feet) and DiGregorio (6'1"). The leader of the delegation, Vladimir Khudoleev, looked like that old stereotype of a Russian: well-scrubbed pink face, deep-set eyes, scowl, rumpled dark suit, sunglasses. His personality reminded people of someone bothered with nasal drip flavored with pure lemon. After the opening Russian defeat at Los Angeles, Khudoleev turned truculent and refused to allow newsmen to talk to the team.
At the other extreme was the Russian coach, Vladimir Kandrashin, a likable, businesslike man who has coached the team for three years. In the one Soviet victory in San Diego he proved that he knows what he is doing, completely changing the programmed Russian style into a running game that matched the Americans'. At each game Kandrashin had someone taking films of the action and he requested an audience with Cousy late in the week to talk over the vagaries of the sport. Make no mistake about it, the Russians are improving. In addition to Munich they have won the University Games and the European championships under the aegis of the 44-year-old Kandrashin.
Wherever they went, the Russians provoked curiosity. "I don't know what to think of it," said Glenn Ferguson, a past commander of American Legion Post No. 64 in Indianapolis. "Lots of people think different about it. Like how about when the Japs [sic] came over last year? The Jap Ping-Pong team. Lots of people thought different about that, but if it's a sports-minded thing, I'm for it. If it's a group of Communists coming over here trying to tell us what to do, though, I'm against that 100%."
In reality, the Soviets appeared no more dangerous than the Boy Scouts. With their clean-cut looks, clear eyes and earnest deportment, they seemed like so many youths off a Nebraska farm, unless they happened to be spotted eating their curious breakfast salad of one whole tomato, one whole onion and one whole cucumber. They read with incredulity about Watergate, offering the in-.formation that none of them ever had been eavesdropped upon. During a post-game reception in Los Angeles, a young and pretty California blonde named Kathy Wilcox told Soviet player Ivan Edeshko she was surprised that the Russian players could mingle freely with the Americans. "The people in America same as Russia," said Edeshko. "Same. In Italy, France, Spain, not same. America, the same!" And then, looking at the young girl, he added with a sheepish grin and a wink: "Especially the girls."
The only thing different, it seemed, was the U.S. basketball team. Since the Russians had last seen it in Munich, it had changed a great deal.