High in the cheap seals of Paris's glittering new Palais Omnisports Bercy last Saturday night, Soviet national basketball coach Aleksandr Gomelsky found Bobby Knight. Gomelsky sat himself down and draped an arm around his American counterpart, who was in town scouting the European Pre-Olympic Qualifying Tournament. The two exchanged pleasantries, and presently Knight turned his note pad toward Gomelsky. In big block letters he wrote MOSCOW and LOS ANGELES.
"This," Knight said, circling "Moscow," "leads to this." He circled "Los Angeles." "I blame us more than I blame you people."
As Knight and Gomelsky shared their disappointment, no one who cares about basketball could help but sympathize. The U.S. hasn't played the Soviet Union in the Olympics since 1972, and it hasn't beaten the Russians in Olympic play since 1964. While the Soviets brought what was probably their finest team of all time to France last week, the Kremlin's decision to boycott the Los Angeles Games remained as solid as a Vladimir Tkachenko pick; the confrontation that fans had been dreaming about for more than a decade wouldn't take place.
Optimists first seized on the Soviets' appearance in the 16-team, round-robin tournament as a sign that the Olympic pullout might be reversible. If the Soviets were to change their minds before the June 2 deadline set by the International Olympic Committee, they couldn't play basketball in L.A. unless they'd qualified in France. The three top teams when the tournament ends May 25—most likely Spain, France and West Germany, after the U.S.S.R.—will join Yugoslavia and Italy, the 1980 gold and silver medalists, respectively, as Europe's representatives in the 12-team Los Angeles field. Yet if the Soviets really weren't going to L.A., why show up in France at all? "I have contract with French federation and and with FIBA [basketball's international governing body, which administered the tournament]," Gomelsky said. "It is not possible not to play.
"I have many friends in the U.S.," he went on. "I would like to play in U.S. every time. Good people, Americans. No problem with sportsmen or American people. But problem with terrorist organizations. You remember Munich."
Americans remember Munich not only for the terrorist murders of 11 Israelis but also for the disputed 51-50 defeat by the Soviets in the basketball final. Technically the U.S. lost on a referee's call, but in fact it trailed for all but three seconds of the game, ultimately losing by playing into the slower Soviets' hands.
If the two countries were to meet in 1984, they'd throw remarkably comparable talent at one another. Michael Jordan? Chris Mullin? The Soviets carry six guards, all able to play pressure defense and put the ball on the floor. Sam Perkins? Wayman Tisdale? The Soviet forwards are young, springy, agile and automatic to 20 feet. Patrick Ewing? Jon Koncak? The three Russian big men are the 7'2½", 295-pound Tkachenko; 7'½" Aleksandr Belostenny; and 7-foot Arvidas Sabonis, a 19-year-old who's already one of the finest players in the world.
Remember the "mechanical" Russians? They're history. When FIBA adopted the bonus free-throw rule in 1973, the Soviets could no longer turn each game into an exercise in attrition. "The Russians used to make 40 fouls a game," says Kresimir Cosic, a former BYU and Yugoslav star, now coach of a club team. "But now, three fouls equals six points." And the Soviets have overhauled their game accordingly.
The other stereotype about the Soviet team—that it is unusually well disciplined—is just as invalid. "I laugh when I hear they're disciplined," says Dan Peterson, an American who has coached in Italy for 11 seasons. "Playing the Russians is like playing 12 guys off 12 different playgrounds in Watts."
Presiding over this controlled chaos is Gomelsky, 56, a trim, vulpine Red Army colonel who, except for a hiatus from 1970 to 1976, has coached the team since 1958. He's Sasha to his coaching colleagues elsewhere in Europe, who privately don't evince much respect for him and are convinced he keeps his job through the good graces of his buddies in the Politburo. The Soviets have lost several games they shouldn't have, given their talent—87-85 to Italy in the 1980 Olympic semifinal, after which the Muscovite crowd booed lustily, and 95-94 to Spain in the semis of last year's European championships in France.
Naturally the good colonel doesn't let this bother him. "After I lose in Olympic Games, my team win in [the 1982] world championships in Colombia, and my opponents not too much criticism with me," he says. "I think I have made mistake in championships of Europe, but in that competition not play Tkachenko."
To be sure, Gomelsky has done a fine job developing what he calls his "big boys." The most impressive is Sabonis, who began playing at age 9 in Kaunas, Lithuania, where basketball is the most popular sport and Sabonis is the most popular player. Indeed, when Lithuanians go to the liquor store for a bottle of vodka, if they want a big one, they ask for "a Sabonis." Sabonis has all the skills of a small forward: quickness, ambidexterity, inside passing ability and an unerring jumper he can fall away with if he has to, which is rarely. Says Peterson, "When he dunks, he has to move his head to the side."
"I think he is the greatest player of all my time in basketball," Gomelsky says. "Maybe after this tournament, many players change. But no change Sabonis. He is great artist."
Sabonis is said to be alienated from much of the team, partly because of his precocious talent, and partly because Russian is his third language, after Lithuanian and Polish. He recently told a Westerner that he'd sooner play for an American team than a club in Moscow. There's little question, however, that he has no idea how much money he could command in the NBA.
Gomelsky puts his players through all sorts of unconventional drills in practice, but the work ethic may be hard to instill in a group of full-time athletes whose uniforms no longer sport the hammer and sickle. Among his wristbands, socks, shoes, shorts and jersey, Sabonis alone displays no fewer than 10 three-pronged Adidas florets. But a Soviet player, on his way to practice, will still say, "I have to go to work." For his labors he can expect the sumptuous salary of 300 rubles ($450) a month, an apartment and a car. He may play in Moscow, but officially he is studying 420 miles away in Leningrad. On trips to the West he and his teammates enjoy the constant company of a KGB agent and occasional bedchecks from Gomelsky himself.
The Soviets think nothing of going abroad without one of their best players, and they rarely provide a convincing reason for his absence. Last week Anatoly Myshkin, a starting forward, was left in Moscow, allegedly for poor play during the Soviet club season. But Myshkin is notorious for his Western tastes—he speaks excellent English, loves rock music and is something of a cutup—and he may simply have been considered too much of a security risk in the current political climate. Officially, an injury kept Tkachenko from playing in the '83 European championships. "Every time you speak with a Soviet official he'll say a different thing," says Sandro Gamba, the Italian national coach. "One man says Tkachenko has trouble with a knee. Another says it's an elbow." The most colorful scuttlebutt placed Tkachenko at Belostenny's wedding reception, where, drunk, he severed tendons in his right hand by sticking it through a plate-glass window.
To this day, Vlad the Impaler has no sensation in three fingers of that hand—but in fact Tkachenko had been grounded for a year for customs violations. His sin: taking $1,500 in U.S. currency—equivalent to about 25% of the typical Soviet citizen's annual salary—to the world championships.
With Tkachenko back, the Soviets seem nearly invincible. "Sabonis is good, but without Tkachenko they don't win," says Cosic. "With Tkachenko in, no one enters the lane." Certainly few did through the tournament's first week, by which time the Russians had whipped Israel 106-68 and Ireland by a score that shouldn't appear in a family magazine.
Outside one of the team's training sites in Armenia last summer stood a sign reading IN LOS ANGELES, WE HAVE TO WIN. With the Russians well on their way to qualifying to go nowhere and the U.S.'s chance to avenge the Munich defeat again on hold, the Soviets' appearance in the West last week was a cruel reminder of how deep, talented and fundamentally sound in the American game they are—and what a splendid gold-medal game it could have been.
Tkachenko defends like a one-man, 7'2½" Iron Curtain.
The 7-foot Sabonis lent his name to jumbo-size vodka.