On a recent visit to the website of Spartak St. Petersburg club, I found an interesting article with some famous names. It says that the club and players made a visit to the graveyard where legends of Russian basketball, the coach Vladimir Kondrashin and Alexander Belov lays, who died a long time ago, as a remembrance, to show respect and appreciate their contribution once again. I said to myself: I am lucky because Sergey Belov is still there, he’s alive and may be, one day I will have a chance to speak with him.
Russian basketball is still in crisis. The presidency election for the basketball federation is highly controversial and there remains a lot which stays under the carpet. They made a bold decision to replace Fotis Katsikaris with Vasily Karasev just a few weeks before the Eurobasket and the team returned with a catastropical series of results from Slovenia. The Russian media asks for the reasons although there is a variety of reasons suggested; they agreed on one thing: The team lacked a leader.
Everybody knows what a leader is. Despite that, somehow, it is confused by other qualities. Scoring all the points is not what makes a leader. It is not related with the ability to make a 360 turning dunk. It is not about being the star, the popular guy, constantly encircled by media officers, photographers. You cannot be a leader all of a sudden, for instance in a couple of tournaments. The leaders are the memories of the team. When you look at them, you remember how much the team achieved or failed. You can recall how long the team has been struggling to improve. You remember the disastrous defeats or epic victories of them. Leaders are like water to drink. When they are there, you generally do not notice their real contribution. Their true value, however, is best understood when the team lacks them. The leaders are like the older brothers of the team, they suffer the most when the team loses but the important thing is the team and the goals of the team.
Sergey Belov, at the age of 70, on the 3rd of October this year, took his last breath and left us. Was he the greatest player of the Russian or even the Soviet history of basketball? It can be questioned and discussed. Of course I did not have a chance to watch him closely, only from the old vintage records, provided by various sites, downloaded to PC. Here is my conviction: Sergey Belov, is the leader of Soviet basketball during the 70s. The Soviet Union was huge, they were capable of choosing the right player from a rich player selection options from all over the country. However, while new players coming up and older ones are going out. Belov was always there. His national team story began with 1967 and lasted until 1980s. There were new assistants for him all over the way. Zharmukhamedov, Kovalenko, Paulauskas, Edeshko, Mishkin, Belostenny, Tkatchev, Eremin, Jovaisa, Chomicius. They were all great players but always waited for the ball from Belov.
When we say Belov or the Belovs, the first thing comes to mind is the famous 72 Olympics final. Soviets won the game with 52 points and nearly half of them came from Belov, Sergey Alexandrovich. Many people agreed that the treatment from the referees towards USA was unfair and they were robbed. However, I guess there was another reason that made Americans mad. The things was, they just could not believe that a country, which is a symbol of authoritarianism, serves as a human rights violation centre and other various bad things, had made it very hard for them to win the Olympic title. They had pushed the game into the final seconds and they were not capable of controlling one ‘communist’ guy, Sergey Belov. Not to forget that for US people, basketball was their own game. That’s why we can call him the Gagarin of Soviet basketball. It tells a lot about the importance of Belov in the Soviet history that it was him who lightened the Olympic torch during the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games opening ceremony.
This comment from the son of great coach Alexander Gomelsky, Vladimir is worth looking. “It was not just the game of 72 final only but he saved USSR or CSKA for many times. The bigger and more complex the game was, the bigger he playing level gets. During the last seconds, you could not look at his face, his eyes were burning like fire. He was a great leader. Maybe he was not the most talkative person, it was hard to get closer to him but that does not overshadow his greatness of basketball. Russia lost an icon of sport. ”
The shyness of Belov was also discussed in an another great article from Lev Tigai. In 1970, where Belov shared the same room with his teammate, Modestas Paulauskas and they barely talked. This is due to, maybe, his place of origin. He was from a small town in Tomsk, he was not born in Moscow or Petersburg.
Drazen Petrovic died in 1993. Six years later, Vladiımir Kondrashin, the hero of 72 Olympics on the Soviet bench, lost his life. Mirza Delibasic died in 2001 and Alexander Gomelsky in 2005. We lost Cesare Rubini in 2011 and this year, after Manuel Comas, Sergey Belov took his last breath. I wished I had a single chance to talk with them. The European basketball memory is now being erased, slowly. Instead, a generation coming up, buying the shining shirts of various NBA stars and thinking of basketball as an individual game where talent means how far can you jump or how many rebounds you have made, how many points did you score. Euroleague is becoming more and more like NBA.
During Belov’s time, there was no 3 point arc. Nearly the whole defence was located very close to the rim, focused on closing the 3 seconds area. The style of Belov was apparently beyond this era with his dribbles, penetrations and very accurate one handed jump shots. He maybe seemed to be slim and did not look like the muscular superstars of contemporary basketball universe. He did not have a huge physical advantage but somehow he managed to dominate the game and that’s what amazes me. At least this is the impression that I have from the matches of CSKA and USSR I have watched. He had his own style and maybe one sentence from him, summarizes all: “I worked with Gomelsky for a long time but I learnt everything on my own.” What is more, it has been claimed sometimes that the two legends did not have an easy relationship but despite that, achieved a lot during all those years. Belov was the star of the days where, the numbers and not the names written on the jumpers.
Belov was not just a player. He was a symbol, captain, mentor and a manager. He was not a type of person who would be afraid of taking responsibility during the dark 90s of Russia Federation. He became the basketball federation president when the whole country was in chaos and there was a lack of funds not just for basketball but a lot of other things. They lost the final by the famous Welp dunk at the Eurobasket final that year against Germany. He coached the team at Atlanta Worlds 94 and with players like Karasev, Bazarevitch and Mikhailov, they again got silver in the final against the Dream Team. After that, they got another bronze from Eurobasket 97. His pupil, from those days, Viitaly Nossov describes him: “He never took a step back. He always works himself and also he made us work. He was tough, strict person with a strong character. He taught us not to give up and fight until the end.” He gave a break to his national team career but his achievements would continue on club basketball scene.
When Sergey Kuschenko, the president of Ural Great, called Belov to coach the team from East, Region of Perm, he accepted. It turned out to be a great decision because the club from the big mountains intervened into CSKA’s hegemony of Russian League and won the domestic titles in 2001 and 2002. This is an achievement, even today, no other teams have managed against CSKA. This was not enough for Belov. He returned to the Russian bench for one last time and led Universiade team to their first final since the 1980s, or in other words from the times of Sabonis, against the home side Serbia when the games were held in Belgrade. Interestingly enough, the coaching career of Belov had already started in 1971.
It was the Cold War years and and CSKA reached the European Champions Cup final in Belgium. As was very well known, the coach of the army team, Gomelsky was a jew and KGB did not let him out of the country as a precaution for his possible evasion to Israel. It was Belov, who picked up the coaching responsibilities beside his playing duties and CSKA won the game against Varese. The army club had to wait for another 34 years in order to reach that achievement once more.
Russia has a hard task. They are in a transitional era for basketball. They have the talent but they lack an efficient system to unleash the potential of younger ones. They have lost the legacy left from 90s both in men and also women basketball. They tried to fill the gap with the players from NBA or naturalized US players. They have huge administrative problems, cannot even complete one election process without controversy. There is no stability. Blatt have left and Katsikaris have been hired. Then Katsikaris was fired and Karasev was called. Both sports minister Vitaly Mutko and the new president Julia Anikeeva claimed that they are looking for stability and Karasev will stay as head coach regardless of the results from Eurobasket. Now everybody knows that they talk with Blatt again. The star from Eurobasket, Alexey Shved announced that he loved the way of NBA and will apply for US citizenship. His compatriot, Andrei Kirilenko, who has recently announced that his national team career is over, has already got a second passport and became an US citizen. 35 aged Veteran Savrasenko did not refuse for one last time to play for Russia whereas Timofey Mozgov, an unknown figure not long ago, decided that it is too much risky to play at Eurobasket beside captains like Sergey Monya and Vitaly Fridzon, for his future NBA career.
He was not just acting on the highest level of active sport, he was also very active on grassroot levels and worked hard for youth basketball. “It is nowadays, too much important for Russia” says Ivan Edeshko, a former teammate of Belov. He also adds that one should not forget; Belov was the first non-US player to be a Hall of Famer and it is not only us but the whole world I guess, is mourning for him. He is right. It is not easy to find a Belov and he deserves to never be forgotten.