The U.S.S.R. ratcheted up the standards of international competition by turning games into metaphorical life-and-death struggles with the free world. The common denominator for many of the nation's significant basketball victories was Gomelsky, who began an 11-year term as CSKA's coach in 1969 and later served as the team's president while guiding the Soviet national team on and off over three decades. "He was a wily little guy, politically shrewd, considered one of the 100 most powerful men in Russia, disliked by many, connected with higher-ups in the Politburo," says Dan Peterson, the expatriate American who coached in Italy during the Gomelsky era. "A ruthless winner, a brilliant guy."
Gomelsky's most important—and final—triumph was the 82--76 semifinal win over coach John Thompson's collegians in the '88 Games, which prompted USA Basketball to assemble the original Dream Team four years later. That last Soviet team, like the U.S.S.R. itself, was on the verge of splintering amid ethnic quarrels and demands for freedom, but Gomelsky achieved temporary unification in his locker room, according to Peterson, by persuading Mikhail Gorbachev to allow the players to sign with clubs outside the country provided they won the gold medal.
After the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, most of its famed basketball generation scattered throughout Europe and the NBA, for in the first tortured decade of independence there was little money for Russian hoops. The proud clubs of the former empire were unable to pay their bills—CSKA included, though that did not stop the team from winning nine straight Superleague titles. Gomelsky's search for his eventual replacement as team president, someone capable of responding to the problems and opportunities of the new millennium, led him to the isolated Russian city of Perm, a former Soviet weapons-manufacturing base 800 miles east of Moscow that was closed to foreigners until 1989. Perm was home to a small start-up club known as Ural Great, which had dethroned CSKA to win the 2001 Russian championship and which was owned and operated by none other than Sergey Kushchenko. "I visited Perm in 2001," recalls Roy Kirkdorffer, an American financial adviser based in the south of France who represents European basketball players. "And I had breakfast with Gomelsky, who said of Kushchenko, 'He's our bright young hope.'?"
THREE THINGS that illustrate the paradox of Russian basketball:
1. It is not run as a business.
While the NBA exists to make money, there is no tradition for profitability throughout European basketball. The major clubs are funded by private financiers or parent sports clubs and exist simply to win games for their city, region and country—red ink be damned.
2. Kushchenko wants to run it as a business.
Kushchenko, who took over CSKA's basketball team in 2002, talks of creating a market for basketball, of eventually developing sources of revenue that will equal or exceed his club's budget of more than $40 million, which makes it among the richest in Europe. (The average NBA team's budget is more than $100 million.) Over the last three years he has made several trips to the U.S. with his CSKA employees, and together they have studied everything from the marketing to the merchandising to the administration of the NBA website in hopes of acquiring the perspectives of an organization that is built for profit. As foreign as this may be to his Russian colleagues, Kushchenko sees no other future for basketball in his country.
3. There is no compelling need to run it as a business.
CSKA is funded by a billionaire oligarch, Mikhail Prokhorov, 42, who made his initial fortune in the 1980s by selling stone-washed jeans in the U.S.S.R. When the state-owned industries were privatized in the '90s by Boris Yeltsin, Prokhorov leveraged his chairmanship of a bank to acquire Norilsk Nickel, the world's leading producer of nickel and palladium. He has since relinquished his stake in Norilsk, though he retains control of sister company Polyus Gold, the largest gold producer in Russia.
Despite standing 6'9" and having played basketball in grade school, Prokhorov has shown minimal interest in the team. It appears to Western observers that he is involved with CSKA because Putin has instructed billionaire oligarchs to invest heavily in basketball and other sports to raise Russia's profile around the world. As it is, Prokhorov, the 24th-richest person in the world according to
(net worth: $19.5 billion), rarely attends hoops games, and he tends to be impressed neither by the spectacle nor by the American need to profit from the sport. During the NBA Europe Live exhibitions in Moscow in 2006, where the carnival of NBA sideshows was on display during timeouts, he turned to a few international guests and said, "This is all bulls---."
PROKHOROV'S PASSIVE interest has not prevented the team he bankrolls from becoming the most talented outside the NBA. CSKA has reached the Euroleague Final Four a record six consecutive times, and next week in Madrid the Russian power is favored to win the title for the second time in three seasons.
The leading scorer throughout the season (at just 13.4 points per game, befitting the club's balance) is 6'11" center David Andersen, a 27-year-old Australian who plays on a Danish passport and is considering a move to the NBA next season. (The Atlanta Hawks drafted him in the second round in 2002.)