For more than two weeks they had been lumbering in and out of airplanes, buses, Holiday Inns and arenas. Tall, placid men with caviar, vodka, black bread and little cans of fish in their luggage. One of them was a Siberian giant, 7'1" Mikhail Selantev, who carried around a fragile balalaika that he gently strummed on occasion. Another was Major Sergei Belov, an engineer in the Red Army who collects stamps. There was 7'2" Vladimir Tkachenko of Kiev, who at age 18 wears a size-56 suit that could enshroud Lenin's tomb. And there was Aleksandr Belov of Leningrad (no relation to Sergei), who knew just where to go in Indianapolis for tall men's fashions.
This was the Soviet Union's national basketball team on tour in the U.S.A., eating Big Macs and pizza, playing games almost nightly in rummage-sale church-league uniforms against American collegians in double knits. And losing half those games. Yet the Soviets are the defending Olympic gold medalists, and if the U.S. relaxes its efforts to field a strong team, they will be the winners again next summer in Montreal. While losing another Olympic basketball championship to the U.S.S.R. would not be as tragic as the Soviets seizing the Panama Canal or stealing the blueprints for the Micronite filter, it would be most unsettling for many Americans, who have a stronger proprietary feeling about this game than any other.
The Soviets set themselves a tough task on this 26-day trip, playing many of their 14 games against the highest caliber of college competition. Even last season's NCAA champion, UCLA, would have difficulty winning more than half the time on a road trip like that. After Thursday and Friday victories over Syracuse and Richmond, the Soviets lost to powerful North Carolina last Saturday afternoon 82-78 in a game that perhaps had more significance than the others, since Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith will be in charge of the U.S. Olympic team in 1976.
Soviet Coach Vladimir Kondrashin, believing he was being jobbed by the scorekeeper at UNC's Carmichael Auditorium, threatened in the first half to take his team off the floor, but otherwise the game at Chapel Hill was a typical stop on the tour. And the deafening noise from the stands was only a mild indication of the turmoil that might occur in Montreal. If events in the recent Pan-Am Games or at the Munich Olympics were any clue, the ideals of international goodwill and sportsmanship will be trampled in Canada like so many buttercups in the path of a stampeding elephant.
That is exactly what happened at Munich in 1972 during the last moments of the basketball final. With three seconds left, Doug Collins made two free throws to put the U.S. ahead by one point. It seemed certain that the U.S. record of never having lost an Olympic basketball game would remain intact. But after that, the Americans might as well have been Israelis playing against Saudi Arabians in Cairo with Palestinian referees.
After Collins' foul shots, Ivan Edeshko's inbounds pass was batted away. The Americans celebrated. But the officials ruled that there was still one second to play. Edeshko's second pass went awry. Another American celebration.
For reasons that remain unclear, the referees then put three seconds back on the clock. Edeshko illegelly stepped inbounds as he passed to Aleksandr Belov, who had been in the free-throw lane longer than the rules allow and who probably committed a foul as he leaped for the ball. Belov put in the basket that won the game. This time the Soviets did the celebrating. And during the melee U.S. Coach Henry Iba had his pocket picked of a wallet containing $370.
"It was a nightmare," says Iba, who saw the final play on film for the first time just seven weeks ago. "There was nothing we could do the way it was stacked against us."
Still, the Soviets deserve credit for remarkable progress in a short time. They did not compete in the Olympics until the 1952 Games at Helsinki, where their star was 6'8" Otar Korkiia. Otar's nephew Mikhail is one of the best players on the current national squad. They had seven-footer Jan Kruminsh at Melbourne in 1956, but the U.S. had Bill Russell and won easily. In Rome, Brazil fell to the Americans in the final. In Tokyo, the title-game loser was the U.S.S.R. In Mexico City it was Yugoslavia. It seemed as if U.S. dominance might go on forever. It did not, and it may never return. Not only are the Soviets vastly improved, but so are the Italians, Spaniards and Yugoslavs.
Tom LaGarde, a 6'10" North Carolina junior, played on America's successful Pan-Am team and on the U.S. all-star team that lost twice to the Soviets last summer, once at Greensboro, N.C. and once at Leningrad. "They are good enough to win the NCAA championship," he says. "They play intelligent basketball with good, solid defense. They move the ball well and get good shots. They don't have the fancy twisting shots, the fancy passing and the expertise that we have, but they are not as mechanical as they used to be. They can get the job done without looking funny. Overall, the Russians are as fast but not as quick as U.S. players."
The Soviets—there were Ukrainians and Georgians as well as Russians among them—arrived in Milwaukee on Oct. 31 and launched their tour with a Nov. 2 game against Marquette. The Warriors won 67-56, and the next night Indiana gave the Soviets a 94-78 thrashing as Forward Scott May hit 13 of 15 shots and eight of 10 free throws for 34 points. In that game Kondrashin, who, not unlike U.S. coaches, disputes just about every call against his team, became angered at a whistle against A. Belov and removed his team from the floor. It took five minutes of arguing before action resumed.
Indiana Coach Bob Knight was the soul of diplomacy after the game when he was asked about U.S. Olympic policy. "I think we should send the winner of the NBA championship," he said. "We should send them to Montreal next year, and if the Russians don't like it, then tell them to go to hell."
The Soviets went on to defeat St. Louis University by 15 points and sampled their first pizza ("Too much tomato," said one of the players). They beat Dayton by 13, lost to Providence by two, defeated Syracuse by 13 and overwhelmed Richmond by 19. At each stop they displayed a voracious appetite for capitalist goods and services.
Bill Wall, executive director of the Amateur Basketball Association of the U.S.A., escorted the Soviet coaches and officials to an X-rated movie. Kondrashin walked out, either in disgust or boredom or both. Edeshko brought along a West German tape deck to be repaired; a custodian at the Dayton field house did it for him. Center Vladimir Shigili was in a Syracuse shopping center when a Russian-speaking jeweler chased him down, took him back to his store and sold him a digital watch for a bargain price. Converse and Adidas made sure that each player would go home with at least three pairs of basketball shoes. One player had a list of medical books he wanted to buy. The Soviets bought dresses and platform shoes for their wives. They purchased coats and even some groceries. Blue jeans, very expensive in the U.S.S.R., were a prized item.
Wall handed out $18 per day in meal and laundry money, but the players tried to get by on less so that they could buy more goods. They did not care much for McDonald's, but the price was right. Free pizza feeds were welcomed, too much tomato or not.
The Soviets are not as quick on the courts as they are at the bargain counters. They are particularly slow when either of their seven-footers, Tkachenko or Selantev, is in the game; they operate better with a "medium-sized" lineup of 6'3" Sergei and 6'7" Aleksandr Belov, 6'10" Shigili, 6'9" Alshan Zharmuhamedov (the Soviets' leading scorer so far on the tour with a 13-point average) and 6'4" Vladimir Arsamaskov. Korkiia, 6'5", is a good swingman, and there is plenty of talent on the bench. There is probably more of it at home, too. Iba says the Soviets have a habit of showing up at the Olympics with one or two outstanding players no American has ever seen before.
The Soviets play tough defense—it was mostly a zone last week—pass off unselfishly and make good use of the international rules, which permit more contact and allow interference with the ball once it hits the rim. After their loss to North Carolina, their tour record was only 4-4, but that did not fool Dean Smith. He knows that the job of molding a bunch of young U.S. all-stars into a team good enough to beat the Soviets during the four weeks allotted to him next summer is not going to be easy.
The plan now is for the U.S. trials to start next May 28, probably at the University of Utah. In five or six days the selection committee, which will include Iba, John Wooden and Providence Coach Dave Gavitt, will cut the group down to 12. Smith will then take the squad to North Carolina for three weeks of practice. Immediately before the trip to Montreal there will be a few practice games, perhaps against a group of ex-U.S. Olympians who know something about international rules. One new rule that went into the books after Munich will be helpful to the Americans. Now a team must advance the ball over the half-court line in 10 seconds or lose it. U.S. players adept at full-court pressure might give fits to foreign teams that have rarely faced such tactics.
Smith is noted for teaching players how to apply pressure at the offensive end of the court by scoring with quick, freelance passing. His Tar Heels showed evidence of that training against the Soviets. Mitch Kupchak, a 6'10" center of Ukrainian descent, 6'10" LaGarde and 6'5" Walter Davis battled the Soviets effectively under the boards, and the snappy inside feeds of Guard Phil Ford kept Carolina ahead most of the game.
The first half was close, mostly because the Tar Heels found no way to stop S. Belov. With the scoreboard reading 28-28, the Soviets called time-out. When play resumed, Kondrashin discovered he was trailing 28-26. Earlier in the game one of the referees had signaled incorrectly that a Soviet basket was good; as a result, the board operator had the wrong score posted. The official scorer corrected the error during the time-out, and that set off Kondrashin, who was certain that he was being cheated. As in Indianapolis, he threatened to quit the game. "Fine," said Smith. "I'll take a 28-26 win."
The Soviets stayed, but in the second half they could not keep up. Perhaps three games in three days had taken their toll, not to mention the fact that the players had had to push their bus to get it started that morning.
"They have an impossible job," said Smith. "All their games are in somebody else's gym. I think we'll see a more inspired Soviet team in Montreal."
"The Soviets are very clever in their approach," said Gavitt. "They're trying to win, but only within the limits of an overall training mission. They're trying to set us up for the Olympics. Don't be misled. We'd be very, very unwise to think we're going to win the gold medal on the basis of these games."