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THE WORLD'S most elegant cheerleaders take the court like a troupe of ballerinas, dressed simply in lilac tops and low-rise black pants for their role as arm candy to the star of this brief show. The iconic main attraction is decked out in the telltale white body suit and has the familiar upswept hair. During his brief time on earth, the original Elvis Presley typified the Western entertainment that was banned by the Soviet Union as "tumors on the social organism." But in this incarnation he is belting out bastardized Russian-and-English lyrics to the tune of Blue Suede Shoes as the twirling ladies encircle him. "Come on, SESS-ka!" sings Elvis, leaning into the crook of his glittering elbow.
SESS-ka refers to CSKA, or Central Sports Army Club, the home team for this February basketball game in Moscow. The celebrated organization dates to the Soviet days of Stalin and Khrushchev and Brezhnev, who ruled the army generals and also, by chain of command, the gold medalists competing for CSKA. The Red Army athletes were the most intimidating of competitors: fundamentally disciplined basketball stars, ice hockey players and figure skaters who tormented the U.S. in the Olympic Games every fourth winter and summer.
Then in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and soon the Soviet system collapsed. But the teams of CSKA Moscow have continued to thrive, though they bear little more than symbolic allegiance to the military. Instead, they answer to a former disc jockey.
It's true: CSKA is run by a deejay named Sergey Kushchenko, a genial, outgoing 46-year-old who was spinning LPs of the Beatles and bootlegging cassettes of the Rolling Stones even as Soviet coach Alexander Gomelsky and five CSKA players were leading the U.S.S.R. to an 82--76 win over the U.S. at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. That Sergey the deejay happened also to fall in love with basketball has resulted in his spectacularly unpredictable rise to president of CSKA. Sitting courtside in a dark suit and tie—uncomfortable attire during his deejay days—he watches the team that he has reinvented to become the best in the world outside the NBA.
Two decades ago Soviet stars such as Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis earned disposable income by selling athletic gear and black-market caviar out of their hotel rooms during international road trips. Now, the high-end clubs of the Russian Superleague have more money to spend than most of their European rivals. Russia's vast natural resources and the ambitions of president Vladimir Putin (who will move to the prime minister's office on May 7) have recast basketball as a metric of the nation's new identity—even if that identity is often cast by foreigners. The coach of what is still commonly referred to as the Red Army team is Ettore Messina, an Italian. He yells at his three American players, two Greeks, a Slovenian, a Lithuanian, a Belgian, an Australian and a half-dozen Russians in English—English!—proof that the new Russia is competing for talent on a global scale.
Sergey the deejay is driving this revolutionary trend in Russian basketball. He is striving to create an open-market environment for the American-born sport within an old-world government of Russian secrecy (in which investigative journalists are routinely found murdered) and strong-arm politics (as manipulated by Putin, who prolonged his influence by handpicking his presidential successor in a March election that was free of viable opposition candidates). The NBA has recognized the ambitions of Kushchenko, and over the last three years he has patiently negotiated a unique relationship between his progressive club and the NBA. Commissioner David Stern usually prefers to marry himself to international federations or leagues, but so important is CSKA to all of basketball in Russia, and so visionary is Kushchenko, that in February the NBA was ready to sign a deal with CSKA that would open the Russian frontier to opportunities benefiting both sides.
On this afternoon the Superleague meeting between CSKA and visiting Khimki is tight into the fourth quarter as CSKA's cheerleaders return yet again to the court. Their elegance is part of Sergey the deejay's larger vision for basketball in the CSKA Universal Sports Hall, a steeply tiered arena of 5,500 seats built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. As the young women sweep gracefully onto the floor, they are met by dozens of colored lights spinning and strobing from the ceiling, another of Kushchenko's innovations. "Like disco," he explains.
An and-one drive by the visitors cuts CSKA's lead to 65--64 with 25 seconds remaining. Trajan Langdon, the former All-America guard at Duke who is one of CSKA's go-to scorers, responds with a free throw. Another drive by Khimki fails and CSKA seizes a 68--64 victory, one of 23 it will earn (against just one loss) domestically this season to claim first place in the Superleague.
BASKETBALL IS important to Russia because, in the beginning, it was important to the U.S. The Soviets embraced basketball after World War II for no other reason than to try to prove they could beat the U.S. at its own game, to demonstrate that their collective approach could overcome superior talent. They started by dominating the sport in the old world, dividing the first six European Champions Cups among ASK Riga, the army team of Latvia (winner of the first three titles, all coached by the legendary Gomelsky); Dinamo Tbilisi, the police-sponsored team from the Soviet republic of Georgia; and, of course, CSKA Moscow.
Today there are at least 1,500 Americans playing basketball professionally around the world, but this trend began in Europe when they were imported like mercenaries to repel the Soviets. In 1962 Real Madrid became the first Western European club to break into the finals of the Champions Cup (known today as the Euroleague) after its Hall of Fame coach, Pedro Ferr�ndiz, had traveled to Philadelphia to recruit 6'8" power forward Wayne Hightower, an African-American who had left Kansas a year before he was eligible for the NBA draft. Europe had never seen an athlete like Hightower, and though he would return home to spend 11 years in the NBA and ABA, his one season in Europe created demand for more Americans to stand up to the Soviets.