In new Russia, basketball is progressive
BEIJING – The boldest basketball visionary in these Olympic Games spoke softly over the din of screeching sneakers and a most un-Soviet voice booming in the middle of it all. Sergei Tarakanov is the general manager of the Russian men’s basketball team, a loyal son of the Cold War, a Red Army star with a hole in his heart over the 1980 and 1984 Olympic boycotts.
He had wanted so desperately to beat the Americans. Even now, this never leaves him.
Still, Tarakanov sighed, “To find the balance between the old Soviet Union system and this freedom is not easy.”
The essence of this conflict soon walked past the scorer’s table in the Shougang Gymnasium on the outskirts of the city. David Blatt, a Jewish American, had his Russians working on those back-door cuts that are a part of his coaching DNA going back to his days as Princeton’s point guard under Pete Carril. Big game, small world.
As Russian tanks plow into American-backed Georgia, Tarakanov and Blatt have turned into an even more improbable basketball partnership in these Olympics. Maybe this isn’t easy for everyone else, but it works for them.
“You have to give him credit for hiring the polar opposite of what had been in the Soviet Union for all these years,” Blatt said. “The polar opposite in every respect.
“His ass was really on the line.”
Two-and-a-half years ago, the Russian Basketball Federation was desperate to revive its national program. It had suffered the consequences of the old USSR breakup, losing all those players out of the breakaway regions. Without the old waves of talent, the federation had to make the most of its resources. It had to change. The players were no longer pawns in Moscow’s military machinery. They had rich pro contracts. They had attitudes. Mostly, they had choices.
“When I was playing,” Tarakanov said, “it was almost like being the Army. You have to do this, and this, and this. You lived in a camp. You practice two or three times a day. You just followed the orders. You were always under such pressure.
“But now the situation has changed. Russian players make good money. And that can be poison to our system. The national team doesn’t pay money. It’s just pride. And this is all over the world. It’s not easy to build this program.”
So, Blatt, 49, stayed at the top of the GM’s mind. Blatt had won a Russian title with Moscow Dynamo in 2005, but made his reputation in European coaching circles with successful runs at powerhouses Maccabi Tel Aviv and Benetton Treviso. He isn’t just one of Europe’s best coaches, but one of the world’s. It is just a matter of time until a progressive owner and GM hire him in the NBA.
And yet, for the old-line Russians, the mere idea of Blatt as the national coach was blasphemous. The newspapers ripped Tarakanov. The basketball community was livid. How could he do this? How could he risk his whole glorious Russian legacy on an American? Tarakanov didn’t care. He didn’t just need an accomplished coach, but the right one to change the decaying culture of Russian basketball.
All along, Tarakanov believed he couldn’t hire one of his nation’s old-school drill sergeants. When he was a star on those USSR powerhouses, he twice remembers telling coaches that he wanted to quit. They told him simply, “You’ll go so far away in the Army.”
Looking back, he said, “That was the choice. It was easy to manage those teams.”
The ways of the 1970’s and 80’s had come to fail the modern Russian program. They had to end. Tarakanov needed a coach who was tough on the floor, yes, but also connective off it. Fear wouldn’t make these young Russians commit to the national program; it would just drive them away. Russian basketball had to change.
“I’m more of a Western guy, always liked freedom,” Tarakanov said. “I didn’t like when somebody treated me badly. I would get so pissed off. I don’t like when people humiliate me. It was the style of the coach, and it would make me mad all the time.”
“Me, I always dreamed of being with a coach who can be my friend out of the business, out in life. We can talk. We can exchange some jokes. (Blatt’s) like this.”
After a faster validation of his hire that Tarakanov ever imagined, he is still waiting for the apologies. All Blatt did a year ago was navigate one of the great tournament runs in European basketball history. Russia made a historic march through Euro 2007, beating Spain in Barcelona for the title when all they had wanted was a quarterfinal victory and the Olympic berth that accompanied it. Against all odds, Blatt gave Russian basketball its most glorious victory since the gold medal in Seoul 20 years ago.
“Our title was Villanova-Georgetown and then some,” Blatt said.
For some, the victory was a vehicle to harbor even greater opposition to Blatt’s appointment. As it had been described, one was disloyal to his country for offering the job, and the other for taking it. Only Tarakanov and Blatt understood that the global basketball world had evolved enough to make this possible. Together, they’re willing to drag those disbelievers with them.
Blatt is the rarest of coaching species, maybe the most unique concoction holding an American passport. He was raised in Framingham, Mass., played for Carril in the Ivies and shipped away to Israeli for two decades of playing and coaching. He has coached throughout Europe for the major teams, and just signed a rich contract with Russian powerhouse Moscow Dynamo.
As much as anyone, Blatt has lived the basketball coaching and teaching revolution overseas, blending the best of his two distinct educations into a championship style. He understands that most of the best players still live in the United States, but he is sure that there is better skill development, better basketball, coming out of Europe.
“I wasn’t hiring an American coach,” Tarakanov said. “I was hiring a European coach.”
Perhaps Blatt should’ve had pause over taking this job, but he never did. His life story had been about pushing boundaries, about creating an unprecedented path for an American coach. He didn’t hang around the States and wait for a Bobby Knight or a Rick Pitino to anoint him.
“I should’ve had more hesitation than anyone else,” Blatt said. “I am an American Israeli Jewish guy who is being called by the former enemy … to coach their national team. Part of my purpose for doing what I’m doing is to make sport and make basketball my vehicle for ambassadorship and bringing people closer together. What better way for me to throw myself right into it.
“Some people would’ve hesitated and some people see it as some form of disloyalty. That to me is ridiculous.”
The nasty assaults on American Becky Hammon for playing for Russia in the Olympics have made Blatt livid. When he read the words of Team USA coach Anne Donovan suggesting that Hammon, who makes six figures playing professionally in Moscow, was “unpatriotic,” he confessed, “It grabbed me in the gut.” Blatt says that USA Basketball officials told him that the quote was taken out of context – which is a stretch – so he wants to give Donovan the benefit of the doubt.
Nevertheless, he knows that it’s a sentiment shared in too much of Hannity’s America.
“It disturbed me greatly,” Blatt said. “That kind of talk, that kind of ethnocentrism, doesn’t help anybody. To me it’s malicious and unacceptable. Me being in Russia with my background does more for relations between people than anybody sitting at home coaching their own team and never stepping outside their own world.
“It depends what you’re in it for, I guess. But I’m in it because it’s a global game and the world is changing and anything that can bring people together is just an enormous benefit.”
Perhaps, as world tensions rise over the Soviet advance into Georgia, it is never more important than now. Between coaching and scouting at these games, in which Russia has a victory over Iran and a loss to Croatia in Pool A, Blatt has tried to understand the dynamics of the conflict. He is a student of history, and confesses that during his interviews for the national job he flashed back to the image of Nikita Khrushchev barking that the USSR would bury America.
For his own good, Blatt’s foreign policy is confined to stopping Lithuania on Thursday. He doesn’t dare suggest that he’s coaching in a vacuum. It is suddenly a more complex and confusing proposition to be wearing that Russian coaching shirt, and he knows it.
“It’s not a very comfortable time right now,” Blatt confessed. “Every day I’m talking to our people, my staff, guys who understand the situation. I’ve got to tell you: I’m more uncomfortable around the Georgians than the Russians. This is not a good time right now.”
This summer, the Russians had a reunion of the 1988 Olympic gold medal team that beat the Americans in Seoul, and the old Red Army basketball stars still get such joy out of the memories of beating the bronze-medal United States. They were all there – the great Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunus Marciuionis and Tarakanov. His teammates made millions of dollars in the NBA and they understood what their old teammate had done for the national team. They want to win, and still do.
At the end of a practice here, Blatt watched his boss dribbling on the far end of the floor, hitting hook shots and three-pointers. He appeared to be sharpening that old game, working out some angst. Tarakanov had lost a free-throw shooting contest to Blatt that morning, and the coach laughed and said, “He’s still mad. He doesn’t get beat at much of anything.
“And he hates to lose.”
Especially to an American, even now. And yet, still, somewhere between the old Soviet Union and freedom, between a changing world and changing game, the most improbable Olympic basketball alliance walked out of a gymnasium in the Shijingshan District of Beijing and talked about winning a game against Croatia.