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Russian Revolution
IAN THOMSEN
April 28, 2008
The home of Stalin, Putin and Langdon—Langdon?—is trying to embrace American-style (read: capitalist) basketball ... with a little Elvis thrown in
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April 28, 2008

Russian Revolution

The home of Stalin, Putin and Langdon—Langdon?—is trying to embrace American-style (read: capitalist) basketball ... with a little Elvis thrown in

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The point guard is a surprisingly talented player from Bucknell named J.R. Holden, 31. In his six years with CSKA he has become, according to coach Messina, the best point guard in Europe. The 6'1" Holden's skills are so highly valued by the Russians that he was naturalized in 2003—despite not having met residency requirements—so he could play for the national team. (A former national team general manager, Kushchenko helped persuade the government to grant Holden an exemption.) Last September, Holden hit a contested jump shot with 2.1 seconds left to give Russia a shocking 60--59 victory over Spain in the European championships, a victory that promised to maintain political interest and money in Russian basketball for years to come.

The CSKA roster is overloaded with renowned Europeans such as Theodoros Papaloukas, 30, recently named one of the 35 greatest players in the 50-year history of the Euroleague; his fellow Greek guard Nikos Zisis, 24; and Lithuanian forward Ramunas Siskauskas, 29, who chose to leave Euroleague champion Panathinaikos to move to Moscow this season. The 6'8" forward Marcus Goree, who grew up playing with Denver Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin in Dallas, is a 30-year-old who, according to Messina, "could be the European Ben Wallace." Messina himself was named one of the top 10 coaches in Euroleague history, and he views his team leaders as Holden and Langdon, who last season was the only American to make first-team all- Euroleague.

The man who put CSKA together, the open and sincere Kushchenko, is in every way the opposite of the stern, cold authoritarian whom one would expect to be presiding over the Red Army club. It helps that he doesn't particularly need basketball. He and some friends from Perm also cashed in on the privatization boom of the 1990s, and their ownership of Kam Kabel—a manufacturer of electronic cables with 5,000 employees—has made a millionaire of him. Today he lives with his wife, Svetlana, and their three children in a gated community outside Moscow, in a modern, four-story house with heated floors, a skylit penthouse and fixtures designed by Italian architects.

In 2006 Kushchenko was rewarded with a promotion to the presidency of all of CSKA and its 41 sports, which is a far more political position than simply managing the daily affairs of the basketball club. At All-Star weekend in New Orleans, he was welcomed by the NBA to finalize their long-sought partnership. The agreement appeared to be in place: CSKA would put up close to $10 million to serve as host of NBA events in Moscow, including the charitable youth event Basketball Without Borders and preseason exhibitions involving NBA teams. NBA and CSKA officials would work side by side in Moscow, enabling the Americans to grow their league in Russia while providing CSKA with expertise in transforming basketball into a market-based business. CSKA games would be broadcast in the U.S. on NBA TV. Left unsaid was the eventual possibility that CSKA might become an NBA franchise during the league's planned expansion to Europe over the decades ahead.

The meetings in New Orleans were expected to be a formality—sign the papers, shake hands, bring in Stern for group photographs—but Kushchenko unexpectedly revealed that he was unable to agree to the terms. He also was unable to explain why. He grabbed the arm of NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver and whispered, "Don't worry. We'll get that done."

The NBA isn't giving up on Kushchenko. " Russia remains an important market for the NBA," says Silver. "We are encouraged by the discussions we've had with Sergey and his colleagues. We remain hopeful that we're going to work out a long-term deal with him."

But something had changed, in spite of all of Kushchenko's successes in moving basketball forward in Russia. Was he unable to persuade the politicians to run the sport as a business? Were they, in spite of their reliance on foreign basketball talent, unwilling to form a partnership with the Americans? The story of Sergey the deejay, though it is not yet finished, is that Russia, for all of the promise of its new frontier, is still mired in its old ways.

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