Nikitazo Ruso was the way one Chilean newspaper headlined its story the morning after the Russians slaughtered the Americans (62-37) in the world amateur basketball tournament in Santiago last week. This is tabloid shorthand, Chilean style, and means that Nikita's boys were supreme. Another banner read RUSSIA ATE THE U.S. AND WASHED THEM DOWN WITH COCA-COLA. It is not necessary to understand the Spanish words in which these headlines were written to appreciate that they hold a significance somewhat beyond the mere reporting of victory in a game of basketball. For to Chileans as well as Russians, Mexicans, Chinese and all the rest of the world—except, alas, Americans—the arena of international sport is the place for putting one's best foot forward with pride, often in the search for prestige.
And when the people who actually invented this sport, people generally regarded as a brash and cocky lot anyway, are humiliated by those with whom they are in competition on so many other grounds, this is not just fun and games. Victory in international basketball lifts the hearts and impresses the minds of millions. "Look here," Chileans were saying as they watched the game in Santiago's vast National Stadium or listened to it on a dozen radio stations, "first sputnik and now this. The Yankees can't even win at their own game."
It is no good at all to say—with truth, of course—that a truly representative U.S. team would have waltzed through this tournament without a deep breath. It is no good to say it, and it is precisely the point. For Americans have assumed supremacy in basketball for so long that most of them believed that sending along any old group of healthy kids meant another world championship.
Our team in Santiago wasn't even healthy. Two of the best players—Bob Jeangerard and Eddie White—had plaster casts on their arms because of broken bones. They made the trip, but White couldn't play at all and Jeangerard made only a few brief, ineffectual appearances. The rest were generally crew-cut, the nicest kind of boys you would want to meet, and they tried hard. But they were as representative of good U.S. basketball as Nikita Khrushchev's grandmother. In a very real sense, sending this team to Santiago was an insult not only to the host nation of Chile but to all who expected to see and play against our best. How did this nice, bewildered, outclassed group of youngsters come to be in Santiago?
The story is simple enough, though parts of it will undoubtedly be denied in some sensitive quarters. The world championships take place every four years, midway between Olympics. Four years ago Chile was chosen as host. The time was supposed to be October or November 1958. Chile began to prepare a large indoor arena in Santiago to accommodate it. By early last fall, however, it was apparent that the arena would not be finished in time, and Chile was granted permission to shift the date to January 1959.
Now January is right smack in the middle of our collegiate, industrial league and AAU seasons, so our representatives in the International Basketball Federation knew they had little chance to assemble a decent team. In fairness to them, they did ask around the National Industrial Basketball League and other leagues for players and were turned down. Americans generally didn't give a hang, making it impossible to stir up enough sentiment to force the issue of how to organize a representative group. Instead, Chile was notified the U.S. would not participate.
Chile, in turn, realizing that the U.S. was defending champion and would be the big attraction, refused to accept this decision, very likely incredulous that the champions would not defend their title. They appealed to our State Department, in the name of Pan-American amity, and the State Department put pressure on Dan Ferris and Lou Wilke of the AAU.
A SMALL FOUL-UP
With no place to turn, these gentlemen were happy to be told by Colonel Ralph Stevenson, Chief of Special Services of the U.S. Air Force, that the Air Force would be glad to send along a team of all-stars. At this point there occurred a small but extremely significant foul-up. An Air Force group had won the AAU championship in 1957, and when the news was released that the Air Force would represent us in Santiago, the official statement clearly read that this was the same team. Wire-service reports with this information were printed and broadcast around the world. Today, in Santiago, Moscow and way stations between, people still believe that the Americans who were clobbered by the Russians last week, beaten by the Brazilians and nearly beaten by others, are the amateur champions of the United States.
They are nothing of the sort. Few of the members of that 1957 team are still in the Air Force. This group was assembled hit-and-miss from service bases all over the States and some from overseas. Most had never even met before, and after a few brief practice sessions they were hustled onto a plane and dispatched to represent their country against a Russian team which had been playing together for four years.