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."