Here are two names, Vladimir Kandrashin and Alexander Belov, that Doug Collins, the Philadelphia 76ers head coach, never wants to hear again. Why? Because Collins was the starting point guard on the U.S. Olympic basketball team that lost to the Soviet Russians coached by Vladimir Kandrashin, and whose star player was Alexander Belov. It was the first time an American basketball team lost a Gold Medal in the Olympics.
I don't blame Collins for being bitter. After Collins sank two free throws to put his team ahead by one point, the game turned into a fiasco of mismaagement. The game clock was reset three times in favor of the Russians, and the referee's rulings were bizarre at best. Still, with 3 seconds on the clock and the U.S. up by one point, it's hard to imagine how our team allowed the Russians to throw the ball (unchallenged) the length of the court and how our players allowed Alexandr Belov to catch the ball so close to the hoop and score the go-ahead basket.
The entire American team and coaching staff refused to accept their silver medals. Na-na, Na-na Na-Na!! I guess that showed the Russians.
Not one iota.
In Saint Petersburg, every year in the early fall, the Kandrashin Family sponsors the Kandrashin/Belov Basketball Tournament in honor of the deceased coach and player; which officially begins their professional basketball season. All the extant players from that 1972 Olympic Team are honored at half-time. The arena is packed with basketball fans, young and old, paying homage to their heroes.
In 2007, I was invited by the Russian Basketball Federation to attend that tournament. Although I was not born in Russia I was born of Russian parents in China and am a naturalized U.S. citizen. One could argue, and I have, that I'm the first Russian to play in the NBA. (Jim Luscatoff was born in the U.S.) In any case, that was the status accorded to me by the Russian media prior to my arrival in Russia, and who was I to argue? I am proud of my Russian heritage.
I had never traveled to the birth place of my parents. Now I would get the chance to visit my ancestral home and meet two cousins on my mother's side who lived in Moscow. I would also be able to meet a friend Valery Diev, an ex-player for the Saint Petersburg pro Basketball team Spartak, who lived in Saint Petersburg, or Peters as the locals call it.
In early August, I traveled to Peters, where I took a refresher course in the Russian language, then on to Moscow to visit my relatives. By the time the tournament came around on September 28th I felt I was speaking proficiently enough that I wouldn't make a fool of myself in front of 15,000 plus people. But what would I say? I was tempted to tell them that there was no way that last desperation basket would have made it, had Kareen Abdul Jabbar been playing center. Or that the game would not even have gone into overtime had any of our NBA players been allowed to play in the Olympics. It was tempting. I stood in center court. The announcer introduced me and handed me the microphone. I hesitated, then I thanked the Kandrashin family and the Russian Federation for inviting me. As I looked at the row of old men, survivors of that winning team, holding bouquets of flowers in their arms, standing proudly under banners of the their old coach and teammate, there was only one thing I could do. I congratulated them on their win, and I said the Russian people should never forget them.
Between weekend games, the Kandrashin family, surviving members of the team, and my friend Valery and I, crowded into a bus for the annual trip to the cemetary where Kandrashin and Belov were buried. The bus stopped and we unloaded a folding table, and enough food to satisfy the Russian army: caviar, hard boiled eggs, herring in cream sauce, borscht, meat pies, cabbage rolls, shikabobs, and pickles. There is an old Russian saying that whereever there are pickles there must be vodka. Standing solemly around the grave sites of their fallen heros, we toasted them with neat vodka. More than once. Some of the ex players wept. I toasted my parents homeland. Later as we ate, I asked the players about that controversial game. Most of them agreed that the calls were bizarre, but they blamed the German clock managers and the Brazilian referee for their lack of communication. As for the outcome of the game, they voiced the belief that they won fair and square. Ivan Edeshko, who threw the final down-court pass said, "The Americans were favored to win. That we were virtually tied by the end of the game was in itself a victory. I have no idea why your McMillen never guarded me out of bounds. I had a clear view of the basket and threw a perfect full court pass. Belov caught it despite two American players guarding him, and made the shot. I feel bad for the Americans but Alexandr [Belov] made a spectacular play." The next day the tournament ended and I departed Russia.
Tall Men by Tom Meschery
for my father
I admit sleeping in late at the Hilton,
ordering room service,
handing out big tips while other men
are opening their lunch buckets. I know
you would have scolded me
Какая работа это для человека
"What kind of work is this for a man?" *
Old immigrant, I admit all of this
too late. You died before I could explain
newspapers call me a journeyman.
They write I roll up my sleeves
and go to work. They use words
such as hammer and muscle to describe me.
For three straight years on the job
my nose collapsed. My knees ached,
and I could never talk myself out of less
than two injuries at a time. Father,
you would have been proud of me:
I labored in the company of tall men.
What my musings are all about...
Blogging might well be the 21st century's form of journaling. As a writing teacher, I have always advised my students to keep a daily journal as a way of organizing their thoughts for future writing projects, a discipline I have unfortunately never consistently practiced myself. By blogging, I might finally be able to follow my own good advice.
The difference between journaling and blogging is that the blogger opens his or her writing to the public, something journal- writers are usually reluctant to do. I am not so reticent.
The trick for me will be to avoid cluttering the internet with more blather, something none of us need more of. If I stick to subjects I know: sports and literature, I believe I can avoid that pitfall. I can't promise that I'll not stray from time to time to comment on ancillary subjects, but I will make every attempt to be interesting and perhaps even insightful.