General Secretary, Communist Party
Dear Mr. Gorbachev:
Seeing as how you've been busy selling glasnost lately, you probably weren't able to keep tabs on the Soviet national junior basketball team as it made its way through the middle of Middle America last week. Just thought I'd drop a note to let you know how the young comrades fared during their 22 hours in Indiana.
Surely you know about Indiana—it's called the Hoosier State, and it's hotter than a souped-up Lada right now. A former Indianapolis anchorwoman named Pauley wakes up America; a former Indianapolis weatherman named Letter-man puts America to bed; and the state religion, as practiced in countless gyms of worship, is being exalted through a best-selling book, a mega-grossing movie and an NCAA championship. In America, that's the magical troika of news, weather and sports.
The Hoosier hosts who welcomed your team to the town of Anderson were feeling pretty cocky last Tuesday night—until the junior comrades pinned a 122-105 defeat on some of the best high-schoolers the state had to offer. But don't worry, Mr. Gorbachev, there were no hard feelings. It wasn't even necessary to console the locals with reminders that your team is supported by one of the most powerful governments on earth, while theirs, officially called the Anderson ALAC/Marion Plymouth Club, was supported by the combined resources of a laundry and a bowling alley. The 18 members of your delegation—13 players, 2 coaches, an interpreter, a doctor, and a mission chief who was proudly wearing a Florida state trooper's hat given him during a stop in Tallahassee—were much impressed by their first encounter with Hoosier Hysteria. "The spectators in Indiana love basketball above all." said your coach, Vladimir Obukhov. "It seems to me, when they watch basketball, they keep hand in this place." Then he put his hand over his heart and smiled.
I gather that Obukhov wasn't smiling in Spain last summer after coaching your senior men's team in its loss to the United States at the world championships. Perhaps that is why Obukhov was demoted to his old job as coach of the juniors. "Players win," Obukhov explained solemnly. "Coaches lose."
No need to exile Obukhov to grade-school hoops in the Urals, though. He's doing a good job on this trip. Despite a three-point loss to the street-smart Gauchos of New York City and an overtime stumble in Memphis, the young comrades have won six games in 12 days of their North American tour. Not bad at all, considering the grueling travel pace. "If we take nap, we shoot O.K.," said assistant coach Victor Bozhenar. "If we don't take nap, problem."
The team's fatigue was exacerbated by its full social schedule, which included a stroll down New York's "42nd Avenue" and a visit to Graceland; exhaustion caused them to cancel a trip to Disneyland, a nonaligned country near L.A. The cultural whirl was in sharp contrast to the atmosphere surrounding your juniors' last U.S. tour, in 1983, before the Los Angeles Olympic boycott. Then, socializing was kept to a minimum, and the press was kept at bay. This time, glasnost has prevailed. In Charlotte, N.C., the players were even turned loose in a shopping mall while the adult comrades napped in their rooms.
I must say. Mr. Gorbachev, your people have seemed awfully relaxed, at least off the court. During the '83 tour, Obukhov angrily took his team off the floor in one game after disagreeing with a block-charge call. It took a "No play, no eat" ultimatum from the referee to lure the team back. On this tour, Obukhov briefly pulled his players to protest a little home cooking by the refs in Memphis, but no such brinkmanship came into play in Hoosierland.
The local culture, however, did present temptations. Eyes popped when Lyndon Jones and Jay Edwards, the co-recipients of Indiana's Mr. Basketball award, drove away after the game in Jones's flashy Corvette. Bored by blue jeans, the delegation vowed to buy VCRs—"with voltage switches," said interpreter Andre Romanin. And 6'8" forward Elshar Gadashev spoke enthusiastically about some heavy metal sounds from AC/DC, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. But the most decadent capitalistic creature comforts to tempt them were the quarter-a-pop "magic fingers" boxes, bedside at Anderson's Mark Motor Inn.
Nevertheless, sir, you'll be glad to know that the young comrades were very well behaved. Said Jack Dyson, a retired Anderson auto exec, who drove your team around, "The most commotion we had from 'em was when that girl in short-shorts walked by at the Burger King."
Rest assured, too, that the lads were very well-fed. Your team of 18-to 20-year-olds brought appetites befitting their size: three players at 6'10" and none shorter than 6'3". The delegation ate the traditional American teenager's four meals a day: breakfast (at Big Boy), lunch (at Burger King), dinner (at Do-Len-Ski's Supper Club), and late-night pizza (at All-Star Pizza). At dinner, Oleg Meletshenko, your savvy little point guard, studied the Worcestershire sauce, then the A-1 sauce, before burying his steak in ketchup.
The conspicuous consumption, however, did nothing to dull their play once game time rolled around. Nor were they fazed by the Hoosier hoopla inside the 8,996-seat Wigwam, the second-largest high school gym in the world. The young comrades remained gracious even after Anderson's own Sandi Patti, who sang The Star-Spangled Banner at the Statue of Liberty celebration last summer, gave a grand encore performance, while your own Soyuz nerushimy was wheezed out on the organ.
With the tip-off, the balance of power shifted. Over the past few years your basketball players have finally shed their reputation for being "mechanical." Now the Hoosiers, the original pale naturals, are believers, too. Five times in the first half, 6'10" Dmitry Minaev drove in from the wing to dunk after pump-faking a path clear. "I can imitate the jump and shot," he said, "and when they believe me. . . ." Meanwhile, guard Gundars Vetra demonstrated the Latvian layup, a sweet 22-footer that goes svish. The Indiana team was hindered by 6'10" center Shawn Kemp's early foul trouble but stayed close on the shooting of the talented 6' 3" Jones (bound, with Marion High School teammate Edwards, for Bob Knight's I.U. team), who scored most of his 28 points in the first half. But your youngsters dominated in the second half and, to the surprise of the locals, ran away with it.
After the game the adult comrades and their hosts toasted one another—"Everyone understand 'Cheers!' " said Romanin—and nodded in agreement when Obukhov said, "Let's talk serious. The future of the world is with those kids. We must continue to play. Every year." He modestly deflected reporters' questions about his team. "Better to see what you say," he told them, "because I like our guys, and I am not objective."
I liked your guys, too, Mr. Gorbachev. With one reservation: those uniforms. The socks are raggedy and the shorts are too tight. Might I suggest that you put Raisa on the case before the next visit.
Cordially, Alexander Wolff
The Soviets were perfect guests until they played head and shoulders above their hosts.
Obukhov felt the good vibrations in Indiana, with a bedside assist from "magic fingers."
For the Soviet players, the local pizza parlor was an agreeable slice of American life.