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.
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.