The red giant: "Against Madrid they asked us to win or die"

Marc Bret and Nacho Morejón narrate in a magnificent book half a century of basketball in the USSR. The Cold War with the United States, Munich 72, the TSKA-Madrid duels ...


The Red Giant, the history of Soviet basketball, is the title of a magnificent book, very meticulous and full of testimonies, written by Marc Bret and Nacho Morejón and published by Ediciones JC. The work takes an exciting journey through the sport of the basket in the former USSR during the second half of the 20th century, a country that became the second great world power only behind the United States. A basketball book, but also a history book, that narrates the sporting rivalry and the Soviet plans to defeat the Americans, especially in the Olympic Games, in the middle of the Cold War, with a fundamental figure, that of coach Alexander Gomelski, who reached in the Seoul 88 Olympic event, the only title that was missing and, ultimately, the last of the Soviet Union before its dissolution.

The two authors, by the way, also have a good story behind each one. Marc Bret was born in Barcelona in 1987 and grew up in Badalona, a basketball city, received his doctorate in experimental particle physics in London and currently works at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, although without losing sight of the world of the basket and where he has collaborated on the Basketme website. In London he met what is now his wife, a Muscovite, who led him to soak up the Slavic culture and also to learn the Russian language.

Nacho Morejón, for his part, was born in Huelva in 1972 and is a telecommunications engineer from the University of Vigo and, currently, head of network automation teams at Telefónica UK (United Kingdom). Long-time federated basketball player and author of The Woman Visiting Her Own Grave, A Manchukuo Story.

"The red giant contains extensive and reliable information about the USSR and its players that was previously a mystery to foreigners," writes Sergei Tarakanov, forward of TSKA Moscow and the USSR national team in the decade of the 80. A pleasure to discover unknown facts with a reading that is both entertaining and didactic, with a multitude of anecdotes and situations not revealed in its day in a time marked by secrecy.

A work that spans international competitions since 1947 (title debut in the Eurobasket before chaining eight gold medals in a row between 1957 and 1971) and the USSR's Olympic premiere in 1952, which had previously rejected the Olympic appointment as a competition of the elites. The victory against Nazi Germany in World War II changed the landscape, the Soviet athletes were going to become ambassadors of the USSR, although with the intention of participating only in international events in which the first place could be achieved. “If we lost, the bourgeois press would take the opportunity to criticize our nation as a whole and our athletes, which had already happened before. To get permission to compete internationally, I had to send a special letter to Stalin guaranteeing victory. Thus, one was responsible for the results, and the consequences of failure were very serious, "said Nikolai Romanov, Minister of Sports in those years. The "consequences", purges and harsh punishments have a lot of myth, as the authors explain.

The Basketball Cold War began in Helsinki 52, with the American triumph in the final, a success determined, among other things, by the superiority of the Kurland and Lovelette interiors (in 1956 it would be the turn of a 22-year-old named Bill Russell). A physical handicap that marked the Soviet sports leaders, who had to find large players to face their rival. The search for giants began, a legacy that the USSR left to basketball with centers such as the Chechen Akhtaev, 2.32 m; the Latvian Krumins, of 2.20 and first Soviet five of international level; the Russian Andreiev, 2.15; and, later the Russian-Ukrainian Tkachenko and the Lithuanian Sabonis, both of 2.20.

It all ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR, whose remains (basketball speaking) survived until the Games of Barcelona 92, where part of the former Soviet team competed under the flag of the Commonwealth of Independent States reaching the semifinals. The bronze medal was taken from Lithuania in a duel that was as direct as it was symbolic at the time.

A bolt to more than 40 years of Soviet basketball, in which the red giant won 14 Eurobasket, three World Cups and two Olympic Games. Almost half a century in which its clubs also came to dominate the Old Continent. TSKA Moscow did it (“In the duels against Real Madrid in the 1960s it was a matter of state, they asked us to win or die”, remembered the virtuous Armenian point guard Alachachian) and ASK Riga, winner of the first three editions of the European Cup with Gomelski on the bench. Others left their mark in their own way, like the Spartak of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). And within the teams chapter, the league rivalry between TSKA and Zalgiris of the great Sabonis in the 80s was very special. A boom in popularity for the sport of the basket on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

The death of the Munich hero 72

The tragic story of the athletic center Alexander Belov, author of the winning action in Munich 72 in the controversial final three seconds that toppled the USA for the first time in a Games, and that of Vladimir Kondrashin, his coach in that selection and also in the Spartak of Leningrad, is very emotional and is very well investigated and narrated. The coach was like a father to the player, who lost his prematurely, and later it was Belov himself who died at only 26 years of age due to an incurable sarcoma, which deeply shocked teammates and rivals in the middle of the World Cup dispute of the Philippines in 1978.

The other Belov, Sergei, the shooting guard, the best Soviet player in history until then (and later coach), was the last torchbearer at the 80 Moscow Games, at the beginning of an unforgettable decade that opened with a resounding failure, since the gold went to Yugoslavia in the Olympic appointment. From the most absolute disappointment to revenge in the World Cup in Cali 82 with great protagonism of Myshkin and the remembered Tkachenko, who missed the Eurobasket a few months later in France as internal punishment when he was discovered with foreign currency and products bought abroad to sell inside of the country and thus be able to get extra money in rubles. A common practice that prompted multiple reprimands from the KGB.

The 1988 Games in Seoul would be the final crowning of one of the greatest teams in history, the swan song of the USSR before the dissolution and also the mandatory prerequisite for players like Marciulionis and Volkov to obtain the permission to land in the NBA just a year later, in 1989, while Sabonis did it in our ACB, in Valladolid.

A great story about Soviet basketball that deserves to be read, especially if it is as well told as in The Red Giant.

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