DALE BROWN WAS NO COLD WAR diplomat, but he was willing to play one if it landed him a center. On June 20, 1986, the LSU coach sent what was presumably the only letter Mikhail Gorbachev ever received on the subject of college basketball recruiting. Dear General Secretary Gorbachev, Brown wrote, The world is moving at a faster pace each day and often times man doesn't even have a chance to sit down and talk to one another because of our fast pace. With this in mind, I'm coming to Moscow with the hopes that I will have the opportunity to personally visit with you regarding something I strongly feel represents an excellent opportunity to improve relations between our two great countries.
This "opportunity" was in the form of an exchange program. Gorbachev had sort of been asking for one: In the joint statement he and President Ronald Reagan released from their first meeting, at the Geneva Summit in November 1985, they mostly addressed nuclear disarmament but also agreed upon "the utility of broadening exchanges" in "a number of scientific, educational, medical and sports fields," and instructed "the relevant agencies in each of the countries" to develop such programs.
Was Dale Brown a relevant agency? He was not. He was just a rabble-rousing coach with a penchant for testing limits. He had opened the previous season under investigation by the NCAA (for possible recruiting violations) and by the FBI (for possible involvement in his athletic director's attempt to secretly record an NCAA investigator), and closed it by taking the 11th-seeded Tigers on a run to the Final Four, a feat Brown (who was cleared in both cases) likened to the Miracle on Ice. This plan was a heat-check. It was grandiose, historically unprecedented and not even that fair a trade.
Brown proposed to create a youth basketball camp exchange between Baton Rouge and Moscow, as well as to take his LSU team on an exhibition tour of the Soviet Union. In return, the U.S.S.R. would loan LSU the services, for one season, of 21-year-old Arvydas Sabonis, a 7'3" center from Lithuania who was considered the greatest amateur basketball player in the world. And because no Soviet national-teamer had ever played for a U.S. squad, Brown did not want this exchange to happen quietly.
He had this idea, which he was saving for the face-to-face meeting, that he and Sabonis—and Gorbachev and Reagan if they wanted in—would sign the scholarship papers first at the Kremlin, and then at the Statue of Liberty. "I wanted to make a big deal of peace and what-have-you," says the 78-year-old Brown from his office in Baton Rouge. "Make it a dramatic thing."
Brown had brainstormed the plan out of necessity in May 1986, after star center John Williams surprised LSU's coaching staff by entering the NBA draft as a sophomore. It was so late in the recruiting calendar that the Tigers had to think outside the box—and then outside the continent—for replacements. Brown had a flashback of watching Sabonis on CBS in 1982, when the then 17-year-old led the U.S.S.R. to an exhibition-game victory over the Indiana Hoosiers.
Sabonis had been a revelation during that 12-game tour of the States, outplaying future No. 1 draft pick Ralph Sampson at Virginia while displaying face-up creativity and court vision rare for a player his size. "Sabonis was Bill Walton as far as passing," Brown says. Former Cal coaching legend and big-man guru Pete Newell claimed at the time that Sabonis was a better post prospect than Patrick Ewing.
The Hawks used a fourth-round draft pick on Sabonis in 1985, but the NBA voided the choice because he was under 21. The Trail Blazers spent a first-rounder on him the following year but couldn't extract him from Lithuania, a formerly independent republic on the Baltic Sea that was seized by the U.S.S.R., in 1940. Sabonis's interest in the NBA was irrelevant in the face of the Soviet Union's determination to preserve his amateur status for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Brown was proposing a workaround: Sabonis could play for LSU, maintain his Olympic eligibility, raise his profile in the States and increase the value of his future NBA contracts, from which the U.S.S.R. would most likely demand a sizable cut.
Brown had no connections to the Soviet sporting apparat, nor had he ever spoken to Sabonis. (The coach was occasionally spelling Sabonis's first name "Arvadis" and referring to him as Latvian rather than Lithuanian.) It was public record that Brown had told his Tigers, "The hell with the Communists!" before a 1977 exhibition against the Soviet national team. He had only four months to get Sabonis to America and cleared by the NCAA. It looked like the most geopolitically improbable recruitment of all time. When people asked Brown what he thought his odds were, he put them at 50-50.
WHEN TOMMY LLOYD went abroad in September 2012, he had no other mission than recruiting. The Gonzaga assistant and his boss, Mark Few, knew they'd need a talent infusion in 2014, when forwards Kelly Olynyk and Sam Dower would be gone, and point guard Kevin Pangos and shooting guard Gary Bell Jr. would be seniors. Lloyd had consistently brought quality internationals to Spokane, including future NBA players Ronny Turiaf (from France) and Elias Harris (Germany). On this trip Lloyd hoped to visit five of the best 1996-born prospects in Europe, especially 6'10" lefty power forward Domantas Sabonis, the youngest of Ingrida and Arvydas's three sons, in Màlaga, Spain.
Domantas, whom Arvydas once called "the [basketball] future of my family," was born in Portland on May 3, 1996, between Games 4 and 5 of the Blazers' first-round series against the Jazz, a loss in which Arvydas averaged 23.6 points and 10.2 rebounds. The family spent eight seasons in Portland, and when brothers Zygimantas (better known as Ziggy), Tautvydas (Tuti) and Domantas (Domas) hung around the team, oddball forward Rasheed Wallace would address them, respectively, as Sabonis Junior, Sabonis Junior Junior and Sabonis Junior Junior Junior.
Arvydas left the NBA after the 2002--03 season and chose to raise his Juniors—as well as his new daughter, Ausrine—in beachside Màlaga rather than his homeland, where he remains its most famous citizen, the giant who led Zalgiris Kaunas to the Soviet Union championships and helped a newly free Lithuania win a bronze medal over the Unified Team at the 1992 Olympics. "He thought," Tuti says, "that it would be tough for us to grow up in Lithuania with the expectation of being Sabonises." In 2011--12, Domas played for Unicaja Malaga's junior team, as well as the Lithuanian under-16 national team, while attending a British-style high school. When Lloyd showed up, he was pleased to discover that Domas is fluent in English as well as Spanish, and reserves his passable Lithuanian mostly for swearing during games.
Having seen footage of Domas's 15-point, 27-rebound game against Poland in that summer's U-16 European Championship, Lloyd was convinced he was chasing an elite prospect. And he had an advocate in then 20-year-old Tuti, who was essentially running the recruitment while Arvydas was serving as president of his native country's basketball federation and Ingrida was running the family's resort hotel in Palanga, Lithuania. Tuti passed on the chance to go to the U.S. at 16 and eventually signed a pro deal with Màlaga's second-division team, Clínicas Rincón.
"My biggest regret, and I told Domas this, is never going to college," says Tuti, who's ebullient and hypersocial—the opposite of Domas, who, like Arvydas, is introverted. "If you're not really, really good in Europe, you'll spend until you're 22 on the bench."
Lloyd made two more trips to Spain, and he persuaded Tuti and Domas to take an official visit to Spokane in August 2013. Before they set foot in the States, the brothers told Lloyd that if Domas came to college, they were 99% sure it would be Gonzaga.
YOU COULDN'T just go visit the guy in Lithuania. To get involved with Arvydas, Brown figured he had to work the highest channels. He needed an American ally with real influence in the U.S.S.R., and decided that his man was Armand Hammer, the billionaire CEO of Occidental Petroleum and noted philanthropist. Hammer had been doing business in the Soviet Union longer than any other American, and he had the ear of Reagan and Gorbachev to the extent that he had helped persuade the Soviet leader of the worthiness of the Geneva Summit.
The first letter Brown wrote in the Sabonis project was to Hammer, on May 23, 1986, and the flattery was thick. First paragraph: Surely history will recognize you for what you are: a great man. Later: What I am attempting to do on a small scale is not unlike your own monumental work bringing our own nation and the Soviet Nation together. Conclusion: I realize my quest for Sabonis is a dream. Dale Brown lives on dreams. Please help me.
For good measure, on June 6, the coach-slash-dreamer wrote to the other American who had Gorbachev's ear: Reagan. Brown's letter formally proposed LSU's exchange program—If Ping Pong Diplomacy can work, why not basketball?—as well as the Sabonis recruitment, which Brown framed in historic context: I look at Arvadis Sabonis as the Jackie Robinson of international diplomacy.
Due to the lobbying of some well-connected friends—particularly Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, who had received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984—Brown got replies. Mark Parris, director of the U.S. Office of Soviet Union Affairs, wrote on behalf of Reagan. There was uplifting news: They would assist with the Tigers' tour of the Soviet Union and the summer youth exchange. But the deflating part: During a time of tense negotiations over nuclear proliferation, Reagan was unwilling to expend political capital on recruiting for LSU. We cannot comment on your interest in recruiting Mr. Arvadis Sabonis, Parris wrote, since you will undoubtedly have to take this up directly with Mr. Sabonis and his coach.
Hammer was more promising. He agreed to introduce Brown to Soviet sporting officials in Moscow during the lead-up to the Goodwill Games that June; buoyed by this, Brown booked his trip and wrote his letter to Gorbachev. But when Brown made it to Moscow, he was informed that the then 88-year-old Hammer had taken ill and couldn't leave the States. Whether Hammer would have truly helped is questionable—it was posthumously revealed that he'd aided Soviet espionage efforts in the U.S.—but without him, Brown's meeting opportunities dried up. "I was," he says, "pretty much on my own in Russia."
He was not, however, out of angles. The recruitment just had to go guerrilla. Brown proceeded to Madrid, site of the finals of the FIBA world championships (which was also the basketball portion of the Goodwill Games), where Sabonis would be playing for the U.S.S.R. It was an NCAA-mandated "dead period," during which Brown wasn't allowed to contact recruits, but he got into contact with someone who, he believed, could talk directly to Sabonis.
Rima Janulevicius, then a journalism graduate student at Missouri, had been at her parents' home in Chicago in June when, she says, Brown called and introduced himself.
"What do you want from me?" she recalls asking.
"I want Sabonis."
She tried to suppress a laugh. "Seriously? And you think I could deliver this man to you?"
"That's what I've been told."
Brown cannot recall who told him that, but Janulevicius was a rare Lithuanian-American who worked in media, and the Lithuanian gossip network in the U.S. was so extensive, she says, that her plans to go to the Goodwill Games on a Knight Foundation grant could have spread. She had met Sabonis after the Soviet team's exhibition at Indiana in '82 but had not been in contact with Sabonis since.
Still, she says she listened to Brown's pitch: Would you be willing to ask Sabonis if he's interested in playing for LSU?
Why would Janulevicius accept such an assignment when the purpose wasn't entirely journalistic? Her parents fled Lithuania with her sister during World War II and survived a displaced-persons camp in Germany before immigrating to the U.S. Rima was born in New York City in 1957 and moved to Chicago, where a tight-knit community of Lithuanians lived in Marquette Park. During Rima's childhood, "we were all brought up to save Lithuania," she says. "That was our mission: Do something or other in order to make sure that Lithuania was free. I know that sounds weird, but that's exactly how it was."
You could not save Lithuania on your own, but you could, maybe, save one Lithuanian. You could go to Madrid and then to Ferrol, a northwest coastal town where the Soviets were playing their FIBA group-stage games, and book a room in the same hotel as the team, so you could get past the armed guards at the entrance. You could call Sabonis's room on the night of July 9, after a rout of Uruguay, and persuade him and guard Rimas Kurtinaitis to visit you one floor below. You could arrange to meet Sabonis the following day, in the street, where you could more safely ask him questions. Janulevicius did all of these things. She was resourceful.
Janulevicius asked Sabonis—who had not even known he'd been drafted by the Blazers on June 17, such was the information blackout—if he was interested in playing in the U.S. He said yes. She asked if he was interested in playing for a university. He laughed and said yes.
"And I said, 'How do we make this happen?'" Janulevicius recalls. "And he looked at me like I was Cinderella, and said, 'I don't know.'" As in: Nice fairy tale, but you cannot make it real. "It was me who had the stars in my eyes," Janulevicius says. "He knew nothing could happen. This was the Soviet Union. You couldn't do anything. And especially if you were Sabonis, you couldn't do anything. They were watching him at all times."
Janulevicius met briefly with Brown in Madrid, telling him that Sabonis wanted to play in the States and that he'd been informed about LSU. She gave the coach a detailed letter, which mentioned that she'd raised the topic of defecting: He stressed to me that he will not defect (because of family loyalty), that if the condition is that he has to go to Seoul to play, he will do so and then take his chances on being allowed out to play in the pros.... Above all, he stresses he wants everything done above board and legally. He fears recrimination against his family and friends, so if it comes down to running or staying behind, he will remain.
Janulevicius made plans to contact Sabonis later in July in Vilnius, where she could get his transcripts for Brown. But when the time came, Sabonis never answered the phone. Janulevicius and Brown had lost his trail.
ARVYDAS DID NOT come along on Domas's official recruiting visits in August 2013. "What am I going to do there?" he said to Domas and Tuti. "Go have a vacation."
The Sabonises' host in Spokane was, like them, the son of a Hall of Famer: Zags point guard David Stockton, whose father, John, the NBA's alltime assist leader, told him that Arvydas was a "great passer and great player, even though he could barely move" by the time he reached the NBA at 30. David revealed to the Sabonises (with photo evidence) that one of John's favorite T-shirts is a faded, lithuania "Skullman" Grateful Dead tie-dye from the 1992 Olympics, which he received as a gift when the Dream Team played Arvydas & Co.
The pitch Few and Lloyd made was based on more recent history. Two months earlier the Canadian-born Olynyk had been the No. 13 pick in the NBA draft following an All-America junior season. The 7-footer played a hybrid face-up/post-up power forward role that could similarly suit Domas. "Your game translates to our style," Lloyd said. "We're not going to force you to be a five man."
They felt that Domas's rebounding ability, at minimum, could earn him starter-level minutes as a freshman. Major-conference schools had joined the pursuit—Domas was also visiting Oregon, Arizona State and Texas A&M, and Duke was making a late push—but Lloyd liked his odds. "If I've been out ahead of everybody recruiting over [in Europe], I feel like I can fend those types of schools off," he says, "because we're the one school that can say, 'Look at how many international guys we've made our star.'"
In the Spanish season that followed his college visits, Domas was promoted to the top division, and at 17 he became the youngest player in Unicaja history to appear in the Euroleague—but he averaged just 9.3 minutes as a boy backing up adults. A move to college, says his 30-year-old Unicaja teammate Nik Caner-Medley, a former All-ACC forward at Maryland, would be "the reverse adjustment from any other recruit. Almost everyone else comes in as the star of their AAU and high school team, and then gets humbled, whereas Domas was grinding here for the few minutes he got."
Domas did the dirty work of screening and rebounding during games and was a sparring partner for Unicaja's starters in practice. The 6'8" Caner-Medley loved Domas's work ethic—he was surprised by how much effort was required to keep the kid off the boards—and insisted that Domas start wearing kneepads because he was delivering too many bruises. When the topic of U.S. colleges came up, Unicaja's former collegians were adamant that he'd benefit from making the jump. "It wasn't like we had to convince him, though," Caner-Medley says. "His mind was already made up."
Arvydas was the one who needed convincing. "He wasn't keen on the idea of college at first, because Lithuanians have gone over in the past and haven't had success," Tuti says. (National-team starter Martynas Pocius languished on the bench at Duke from 2005 to '09, for example.) "[Arvydas] thought the whole professional level, playing here with men, would make Domas grow more." But every time Arvydas asked Domas which way he was leaning, he would say, "I want to go to the States." He thought it was his best route to the NBA, and he wanted the experience Tuti had missed.
Things became less clear-cut when Unicaja offered Domas a three-year contract worth approximately 500,000 euros (around $630,000). The family didn't need the money, but Arvydas told Domas to read the contract carefully, and asked him, "What about Gonzaga would be better than staying here?"
Arvydas had already given Domas (some of) his height and (some of) his skill, but when decision time came, Arvydas provided something he lacked in the 1980s. "He gave me," Domas says, "a lot of freedom."
Domas picked Gonzaga. Arvydas never spoke with the Zags' coaches, but he signed the scholarship papers, and it was he who, in a Lithuanian basketball federation press conference on April 15, 2014, broke the news that a son of Sabonis was going to college in the U.S.
BROWN CLUNG to what he believed was paramount—that the Lithuanian big man, however elusive, was interested—and forged ahead. He petitioned the NCAA to exempt Sabonis from having to take the ACT or SAT, and he sparred with Cold War xenophobes who couldn't grasp that Sabonis was an oppressed Lithuanian rather than some commie Red.
After hearing of the Sabonis plan, Republican state congressman Mike Thompson remarked during a meeting of the Louisiana House Education Committee, "I suppose it is iconoclastic and heretical to say Dale Brown is incorrect. [But] I'd just as soon lose a Southeast Conference basketball game as go get a Russian [sic] to win it." When the Baton Rouge State Times ran a phone poll of local households, asking if Brown should give a scholarship "to a Soviet," the paper learned that Thompson's view wasn't the least bit iconoclastic: 62.8% answered no, while just 18.6% said yes and the remaining 18.6% had no opinion.
Brown was an extensive world traveler who'd been recruiting internationals at LSU since 1972, so the coach did not suffer this kind of bias lightly. "My answer to anyone with that mentality," Brown said then, "is that we should all check our genealogical backgrounds. I was in Moscow on the Fourth of July, but I saw film clips of President Reagan and Kirk Douglas and Angela Lansbury and that magnificent scene in New York Harbor. This is what the Statue of Liberty stands for. That scaffolding wasn't there to tear the statue down. It was to build it back up."
That August, Brown took Parris up on the Reagan administration's offer to assist with a youth basketball exchange. It was Brown's only foreseeable way of getting a face-to-face meeting with Soviet officials, and it worked: He came to Washington along with LSU's academic adviser, Donald Ray Kennard, and on Aug. 20 they pitched their plan—as well as the Sabonis recruitment—to officials at the Soviet embassy. Brown was shocked he was allowed in, but dismayed by the reception. "They were gracious and everything," he told a reporter at the time, "but I knew I was being stonewalled."
Brown had hoped the meeting would go well enough that he could continue on to Moscow. He made another plea to Gorbachev in a CNN interview on Aug. 23 but got no response. Time was running out: LSU's fall semester was to begin on Sept. 2, and Brown figured the latest he could get Sabonis enrolled would be Sept. 15. The last chance to reach Sabonis would be at the FIBA Club World Cup in Argentina, from Sept. 9 to 14.
Janulevicius was back in Missouri when she says Brown called and asked her, "Do you want to go to Argentina? You'd have to leave tomorrow."
It was another trip to help the cause. She got her professors' blessing, flew to Buenos Aires and got credentialed for the LSU fanzine Tiger Rag. (Janulevicius can't recall who paid for the trip but knows she did not; Brown says he never footed any bills because doing so would have been an NCAA violation.) Janulevicius was there to write an article and see how far Sabonis was willing to go to come to the U.S. She told Brown what she was willing to do. "I would have walked [Sabonis] away to an embassy myself," she says, "and I would have kicked anybody in the balls who tried to stop me. But that was never in the cards for him."
Sabonis was reluctant to talk, and his coach, Vladas Garastas, told Janulevicius that "we have decided that for the next two years until the Olympics in Seoul, he has to remain [in the U.S.S.R.]." That left little else to discuss. Janulevicius watched Zalgiris win the cup without Sabonis playing at full strength—he had suffered his first Achilles strain that summer, and the rushed return led to more serious leg problems—and she reported back that the recruitment was dead.
Brown says that as a result of this trip, two state department representatives dropped in on LSU chancellor Jim Wharton and requested that his school stop pursuing Sabonis, for fear it would cause a political situation. (Janulevicius, whose last name is now Vydmantas, currently works as a U.S. Department of State public affairs officer, in Lithuania.) Brown issued a statement on Sept. 18, saying he had "ceased all recruiting activities" toward Sabonis. The coach said he had no regrets.
In mid-October a letter arrived at LSU from V. Platonov, the secretary of the basketball federation of the U.S.S.R. Thank you for your letter and invitation to Arvidas Sabonis to play for the Louisiana University [sic] team, Platonov wrote. We highly appreciated your interest to have a Soviet player in the NCAA championship.... Arvidas intends to continue studies at the [Lithuanian Agricultural] Academy and playing for Zhalgiris and National teams. He really enjoys support and appreciation of basketball fans in the Soviet Union.
At least they responded.
THE LAST CHANCE for Lloyd to see Domas play before he left for Gonzaga was at the FIBA U-18 European championship, which opened in Konya, Turkey, on July 24. Lithuania's first game was against France in an auxiliary gym at the Municipality Sports Complex. Lloyd was there to check up on Domas and recruit, and Tuti was there because he knew he'd soon be missing his brother and seaside-condo roommate.
"I know there's a big difference," Tuti says. "I didn't have the privilege to see my dad play much, but I get to see Domas—and I see the same things I see in old videos of my dad. People don't always believe me, but I see it, my mom sees it, Ziggy sees it. It's in the little details."
Domas is a 6'10" lefty who lacks his father's skyhook or jumper, and Arvydas was a 7'3" righty who was an alltime great, but they are both taciturn off the court and prone to brief outbursts on it, making the same angry expressions and yelling unintelligibly into their mouth guards. Tuti sees their shared predilection for one-handed passing over their shoulder from the post and for turning outlet passes into an art form.
"Look at him when he rebounds," Tuti says after Domas pulled down a defensive board en route to averaging 12.0 in the U-18s. "They fight for it the same way—tipping, tipping, tipping until they can get it. And when Domas gets it, he doesn't give up the pass normal. He'll flip it one-handed, or twirl it around, or throw it over his shoulder—all the little s--- my dad did."
Asked later if this is deliberate, Domas shrugs and says, "I have no idea I'm doing it."
After each day's slate of U-18 games, scouts, coaches and journalists trickled back to the nearby Hilton Garden Inn, the only known establishment that serves drinks during Ramadan in Konya, Turkey's most conservatively Muslim metropolis. The first night's conversation turned to the 1986 version of Arvydas, which basketball people speak of with a sad reverence, knowing the dual Achilles ruptures that were looming in '87.
"He'll still talk about that sometimes, dunking on David Robinson," Tuti says of his father, referencing one of the signature moments of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. meeting in the '86 world championship final.
"The stuff he was doing, it was unbelievable," Lloyd says. "You definitely got your mom's genes."
Tuti knows this too well; he has studied the YouTubes. "[Arvydas] had his chest on the rim, and Robinson is under him, and he's screaming and then hitting a three on the next play."
"And probably dropping a dime on the next one," says an assistant coach from Pacific. "It's too bad he didn't get to the States earlier."
"But he was fine with it, right?" Lloyd says to Tuti. "He didn't care?"
"He says sometimes that he loves everything that he did," Tuti says. "But once in a while, if me and Domas get him by ourselves, he does say, 'What if?' He doesn't regret anything, but he says, 'What if I did come over earlier?'"
THE U.S.S.R. allowed Arvydas to come over—but not play—in April 1988. His recovery from Achilles surgery was lagging in Lithuania, and the Blazers, who still held his NBA rights, offered the services of their medical and training staff for rehab.
The best course of action for Sabonis's long-term health would have been to keep him sidelined, but the Soviet Union forced him into playing (and winning gold) at the 1988 Olympics. When Sabonis was freed to have a pro career, in '89, he didn't feel he was physically ready for the NBA, and it wasn't until 1995 that he arrived in Portland. "My last shot," he called it. "If I didn't come then, nobody would want me."
That was the season Domas was born. He grew up hearing little about Arvydas's years under Soviet restrictions. "He would just tell us that they followed the rules," Domas says, "because you couldn't risk anything." While the LSU affair made months of headlines in the U.S., it barely registered with Arvydas. "I never thought much about those things then," he told SI in 2011, "because they were impossible." In response to interview requests this summer, Arvydas would only say (through Tuti) that he knew nothing about Brown writing Gorbachev or visiting the embassy, because "stuff like that was controlled by the U.S.S.R."
Brown never spoke with Arvydas. The Tigers never toured the U.S.S.R., and Brown didn't create that youth-basketball exchange. He stopped recruiting Soviet-controlled players, and he retired from LSU after the 1996--97 season—the same school year in which LSU received a transfer student from post-Communist Russia named Irina Slitsan. She came to Baton Rouge from St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University when she was 20, earned a degree in management information systems and later got a job at Chevron. She married an American, Kane Prestwood, and they now have a five-year-old daughter, Katie, and live near Houston. Slitsan brought her mother, Tonya, over to the U.S. after Katie was born.
Irina found LSU through an American pen pal, who asked if she was interested in studying in the States and then was generous enough to help her get a scholarship and pay for her living expenses. The pen pal was not a fan of bureaucracy—he was frustrated that the U.S. consulate general in St. Petersburg wouldn't just give Irina permission to go when he walked her there during a visit in 1992—but eventually helped her navigate the proper paperwork.
The pen pal first wrote to Irina in 1986, but it took her four years to respond. Tonya threw away the first letter, believing it was dangerous to communicate with someone in the U.S. "She grew up in the time of Stalin," Irina says, "when your neighbor could just disappear one day and end up in a camp, and so she feared the KGB." She and her mother had met this pen pal in July 1986, while they were visiting Moscow during the Goodwill Games. Irina was playing with a new toy—they were poor, and this was the most expensive toy she'd ever owned, a plastic horse with a buggy—in Gorky Park when a man tried to strike up a conversation.
Irina was a precocious child who'd been glued to the Russian TV coverage of the Geneva Summit the previous winter, and she believed—as was typical for that era—that Americans were nuclear warmongers with whom Gorbachev was trying to talk sense. This American spoke no Russian. The Slitsans knew only a little English. Irina drew a dove in the sand to help her ask a heavy question, especially for a 10-year-old: Are you for war or are you for peace? The man's answer was genuine and diplomatically correct, and so they agreed to exchange addresses. She was handed a business card that read DALE BROWN, LSU BASKETBALL. He was a coach killing time on what was looking like a wasted trip.
Read an extended version of this story, with bonus photos and content, at SI.com/longform