To my mind there is no mistaking it. Since I last played against the Russians in May of 1961, their improvement has been negligible. Watching them, I now suspect they have gone as far as they can in attempting to manufacture basketball players, and that there is no artificial way to produce the kind of natural talent that we get in boys who have played the game all their lives. The Russians are certainly dedicated enough, and technically they understand basketball, but their execution seems to have leveled off.
They may also have reached a stage where imitation of our players is actually hampering them. They have taken hours of film of many of us—including myself. I remember some they took showing the way Oscar Robertson shoots his jump shot. This may be educational, but I can't believe that anybody anywhere can ever learn to shoot and make shots the unorthodox way Oscar does. The Russians are wasting time trying.
Though the Russians have mastered the fundamentals—except for their ball handling, which remains shoddy—it seems to me that they have failed to advance because they have utilized no real individual ability. U.S. basketball progressed because players like Hank Luisetti, George Mikan and Bob Cousy introduced ways for a man to be dangerous all by himself. But with the Russians, it is still only the threat of the whole unit that is evident. Their entire offense, for example, is designed to use the drive off the pick. Even their best driver, Forward Yuri Korneyev, will always wait for a teammate's pick, rather than try to beat his man one-on-one.
In the favorite Russian play, Korneyev, the roughest of the Soviets, gets the ball in the left corner, and then bulls his way to his right off a pick set by the center. Korneyev will always drive if he gets the ball—and the pick. There is no subtlety to the play. The only question is whether he will drive for the shot or pass back to the center, spinning toward the basket.
Like Korneyev's bruising charges, the entire Russian game is still a hard one. International rules favor roughness—particularly by the offense—and the Russians have set their style to take best advantage of the rules. However, their concentration on driving has now overbalanced the rest of their game. For instance, the Russian guards are almost useless on offense. They have no outside shot, so they seldom even handle the ball once they have passed it in to the forwards. And even the men up front tend to ignore good, close shots, preferring to risk short, dangerous passes in the attempt to work the ball even closer to the basket.
The Russians' tight, switching man-to-man defense remains the most impressive aspect of their play. Always hustling and scrambling, they never let up—with their main purpose being to deny the other team a chance to drive. They also are strong under the boards. They block out extremely well, get very good position, and appear to be jumping better than ever. The best rebounder is Center Alexander Petrov, who is also the team's best player, succeeding the captain, Viktor Zubkov, whose play they have long overrated. Petrov, a broad-shouldered 6 feet 10, is quick and smooth, and since last year has developed a good shot from in close. When I played him in Russia, he could hardly hit the backboard.
Though Petrov is the only Russian who is significantly improved, he does not have their greatest potential. The man who does is a slender, 6-foot-7 second-string forward named Jak Lipso. I played against him in 1961 when he was still in what might be called their minor league. I wondered why, because he was the best Russian I had seen. He seemed to have real basketball instinct, natural moves. Now he has learned a fine soft jump shot and a smooth hook, one that looks particularly familiar to me, since it is a carbon copy of my own hook shot. He has been studying movies, too, I guess.
It is around players like Lipso that the Russians must build, yet they don't seem to realize it. Their present style of play, in fact, dilutes Lipso's value to the team. His instinctive ability is subjugated to the single team plan. There is plenty of time before the '64 Olympics for the Russians to concentrate on individual development. But until they do, it will be difficult to consider them as serious contenders to any representative U.S. team. They have to learn that Lipso's soft touch is more of a threat than Korneyev's hard drive.