The snow that had fallen steadily on the city the day before now crunched under the feet of 18-year-old Max Lazorovich Blank and his companion as they trudged through the frozen night. The security police must have been watching them, because as soon as they passed one of the kiosks outside the crowded sports arena, two men suddenly appeared and came up to them. Then, with little explanation, one of the men began running his hands through the pockets of Max's friend, 17-year-old Curtis Reed. As this scene unfolded, passersby averted their eyes. Inside the Spectrum, that night's game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Seattle SuperSonics was about to begin. Curtis wearily raised his arms to shoulder level and allowed the men to search him. Curtis, who had been waiting for a third friend to return from the will-call window with his and Max's tickets, was told by the men that he was suspected of being a scalper.
Max felt he was witnessing something that might have taken place in his hometown, Odessa, on the Black Sea in the Soviet Ukraine, which he had left with his father, Lazar, and mother, Asya, and eight other relatives five years earlier. Max claims that Jewish friends of his in Odessa had on occasion been detained and questioned for no other reason than that they were Jewish. He was surprised, but not horrified, to learn that something similar could happen in his new home of Philadelphia, too.
Just three days earlier, the 6'8½", 215-pound Max had gotten another lesson in civics—if not civility—while playing center for George Washington High in a Public League quarterfinal playoff basketball game between his school and Murrell Dobbins Technical High. The game was played in the Dobbins gym, a bandbox with curtains covering its large windows to keep the sun out of the players' eyes. Max, who had four fouls, had sat out much of the third quarter and Washington had fallen behind by 16 points. When he came back into the game, the Dobbins fans would derisively chant "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" every time he went to the free-throw line. Once, a Dobbins Tech fan yelled at him. "Hey Max, how about playing a little Russian roulette?" George Washington's Eagles made a comeback, but it fell short after Max fouled out with 4:57 left. Still, he'd had 35 points and 14 rebounds. "We threw everything at him but the kitchen sink," said Dobbins coach Rich Yankowitz, "but he was graceful, excellent and unstoppable."
That game ended a season in which Max Blank averaged 25 points and 16 rebounds for the Eagles, as well as a year in which the immigrant kid became an all-American—not on any popular list of blue-chip high schoolers, but as an adopted son. "People complain about everything that's wrong with this country," Max says, "and they tell me how much better things used to be. But to me, it is perfect. America is totally awesome."
Max has embraced the American, way—democracy, the flag, Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, slam dunks—and he's sure that his own example is proof that anyone willing to work hard can make it here. "He loves life in America," says Gerry Gimelstob, the basketball coach at George Washington University, at which Max will matriculate next fall. "He loves all the opportunities that are here for him. In a way, Max is more American than a lot of kids I know." Also more famous. "Anywhere I walk on the street in Washington, D.C.," Max says proudly, "people know me. They come up and say, 'Hello, are you the immigrant?' I say yes, this is me."
"I think Max could be a very important person nationally," says Gimelstob. "He's a symbol of what's being oppressed in Russia, of the thousands of other lives and all the potential that's being wasted behind the Iron Curtain."
But Max is blissfully unaware of how miserable his life in the Soviet Union was supposed to have been. "I was very happy in Russia," he says. "I had a lot of friends there, and my stomach was never hungry. I never had it hard. I always had a pair of shoes on my back."
In Odessa, shoes were likely to be the least unusual thing Max had on his back. There were, for starters, 30 parrots in the Blank house on Fontana Street, 25 cats, and 11 dogs—including an Australian dingo. "Dat dog didn't understand anything," says Asya. "He was more like voolf." The Blanks also had 25 pet ducks for a while, "but then the rats came, so I killed the ducks and we ate them," says Asya.
"My father used to train large white rats for the circus," Max says. "They were like pussycats, those rats. My father also trained bears to ride bicycles and do lots of tricks. Those bears did everything but talk, especially the one named Marta that slept with my father. That was before my mother married him, of course." Of course. "We had a pet ape once, too," Max says, "but my father burned it on the butt with a soldering iron, and that ape tore up everything in our house."
Now the Blanks don't have so much as a goldfish in their northeast Philadelphia home, but for 30 years the Blank family presided over one of the most famous circuses in Russia, the Margotmax. "My grandmother was a magician," Max says. "She could make parakeets and balloons disappear from her hand, and put people in trances and make them rise up into the air. One of her best tricks was to spin a record on the tip of a sharp pencil and make the music play."