Memories of giants

Oct 22, 2011 by Vladimir Stankovic - Euroleague.net Print
Vladimir StankovicVeteran sportswriter and Euroleague.net collaborator Vladimir Stankovic has been following the best basketball on the continent longer than almost anyone journalist, writing for decades about the sport in major publications in both Serbia and Spain. Once again this season, he offers a blog that honors the history of European basketball - even while history keeps being made!

Well, the Turkish Airlines Euroleague is back and so is my history blog, reinforced by all the positive feedback I got last season with the events covered in this section. Many people, especially youngsters in the business or those who simply love the sport, told me that they learned many interesting things. That made me happy, since that was the point from the beginning: to get the newer generations closer to the events of the past. While last year I basically focused on events like great games with great coaches, this season the protagonists will be the great players of the past, of course all related to the top competition in Europe. The opening game last Monday between Zalgiris and CSKA Moscow reminded me of the great personal rivalry between two giants of Soviet basketball, Vladimir Tkachenko and Arvydas Sabonis. That led me to recall, too, some other big men whose impact marked their eras and, in so doing, influenced European and world basketball.

From Kurland and Krumins...

They say that the first decisive giant seen in Europe was an American named Bob Kurland, a two-time Olympic champion who was a member of the U.S. team in London 1948 and Helsinki 1952. His height, 2.09 meters, is almost nothing by today's standards. Some shooting guards and forwards have been this tall for a while, but at that time Kurland was a giant. There are no complete stats and we cannot know about his rebounding ability, but over six games in London he averaged 10.2 points and four years later he was up there with 9.9 points per game.

With the birth of the Champions Cup in Europe, the forerunner to the Euroleague, on February 22 of 1958, the champion of the first three editions, ASK Riga, based its success on big man Janis Krumins. The team had a great balance between its outside and inside game, but there's no doubt that the key was Krumins, the first giant in European basketball. Most sources measure him at 2.18 meters, but some also say he was 2.23 meters. He weighted around 140 kilos. At that time, when no teams had players more than 2.10 meters, Krumins's size was scary at first sight. I remember him at the 1961 Eurobasket playing in Belgrade when he was with the USSR national team. They won the title against Yugoslavia, who won its own first medal in a big competition. Radovan Radovic, one of the centers in Yugoslavia, told me once that contacting with Krumins in the paint was like "hitting a wall". Krumins was slow, even clumsy at times, but he was efficient. He had a lethal hook shot and almost every ball that went into his hands ended inside the basket.

Alexander Gomelskyi, the coach of that ASK team, knew how to use his height and designed a system around Krumins - and the big man always responded. In the first, two-way final series in 1958, he scored 32 points at home and 13 on the road. The following year he scored 27 and 29 points, while in 1960 he "only" scored 14 and 16. In an interview for this very website, right before the 2002 Final Four in Bologna, Gomelskyi said about Krumins: "Janis was a very useful player. Due to his 218 centimeters, he was a bit slow, but we learned to adapt our game to his pace. We had very intelligent players like Lipso, the Muznieks brothers or Valdmanis, who always found the way to pass the ball to Kruminsh, and that was a basket for sure."

Gomelskyi himself discovered a young Krumins in 1953. He was 17 years old, with a huge physical presence, which he inherited from his father, who died when he was a small kid. At 14 years old, he was already 2.00 meters and he kept on growing. Other coaches tried to sign him for athletics or boxing, but Gomelskyi was smarter. He convinced Bolshoi Yan ("Big Jan") that basketball was the perfect fit for him. Before every practice session of the team, Gomelskyi worked individually with Krumins. He had practical problems in his everyday life, especially with clothes, shoes and beds. Gomelskyi himself told me that once a Soviet Union marshall had to intervene so that a three-meter bed for Krumins could be built.

He made his debut with the USSR in the Melbourne 1956 Olympics, where in the final he squared off against some Bill Russell. The Americans had a blowout win by 89-55 but Russell, who had dominated in all the other games, finished with only 13 points, due to the defense played on him by Krumins, who scored in turn 4 points, all from free throws. He shot the free throws from below, with both hands on the ball between his legs, just like the famous Yugoslav scorer Radivoj Korac and the American superstar Wilt Chamberlain. With the USSR, he won three silver medals at the 1957, 1960 and 1964 Olympiacs, and three gold medals at Eurobasket in 1959, 1961 and 1963. He married a sculptor, Inessa, who made a statue of him in 1960 that was 2.25 meters tall, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the union between Latvia and the USSR. He had two sons and a daughter. Krumins died on November 21, 1994 at 64 years old, but his legend is still alive.

...to Tkachenko and Sabonis

If players standing 2.10 or 2.12 are considered normal nowadays, the new number for someone to be considered a giant is about 2.20. The first one to appear after Krumins was Vladimir Tkachenko, born on September 20, 1957 in Ukraine. When he stepped in with the USSR national team at the 1976 Olympiacs in Montreal, he quickly caught everyone's attention. He started with 6 points against Japan, but he was bigger game after game: 10 against Cuba, 16 against Mexico, 19 against Australia and 22 against Canada. He was stopped by Yugoslavia (84-89) as he was guarded by Kreso Cosic (20 points), Rajko Zizic (10), Zeljko Jerkov (8) and Vinko Jelovac (no points). The following year, at the Belgium Eurobasket, I saw Tkachenko live for the first time. In the final against Yugoslavia, who won by 84-71, he played a great game as he scored 16 points and pulled 18 boards in 33 minutes. The Yugoslav team had the same recipe as in Montreal: constant rotation of big men on Tkachenko regardless of the number of fouls. Cosic had 18 rebounds, Jerkov had 8 and Dalipagic 7 but the outside shooting was the key: 19 points for Dalipagic, 14 for Kicanovic and 12 for Slavnic. At the World Championship final in Manila, the same happened again. Yugoslavia won, 82-81, after overtime and Tkachenko scored 14 points, but the Yugsolav big men stopped him again. Cosic, Radovanovic, Jerkov and Zizic were, once more, a nightmare for Tkachenko at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow (101-91) in their way to the Olympic gold.

But the true rival for Tkachenko appeared the following year, 1981. He was only 17, he was 2.20 meters tall and he played for Zalgiris Kaunas. His name: Arvydas Sabonis. Until then, from time to time, European basketball saw dominance by ONE center, but starting in 1981, that were TWO. In the USSR League, they were great rivals, with luck falling on both sides. Tkachenko's CSKA Moscow won the league in 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1988 while Zalgiris won in 1985, 1986 and 1987. In the Euroleague of the time, Zalgiris played the final in 1986 but lost to Cibona. Sabas was ejected from the game with 27 points and 8 rebounds, while CSKA didn't reach a single final during that time. At the same time, from the Colombia World Championships in 1982 until the one in Spain in 1986, Sabas and Tkachenko shared the USSR jersey. They hardly played together while in that team, but no other team in the world had two players of 2.20 meters.

Both were different, but useful in their own way. Sabonis was much more talented: better technique, better shooting, better passing. Tkachenko was stronger, a wall under the board, but also capable of scoring and pulling rebounds. Together they won gold medals at the Colombia Worlds and the Germany Eurobasket in 1985. Also a silver medal in Spain 1986 and bronze at the 1983 Eurobasket in France. Tkachenko didn't have his great dream, an Olympic gold medal. Even though he played at the 1987 Eurobasket with Sabas injured, and won the silver medal, coach Alexander Gomelskyi didn't include Tkachenko in the list for Seoul 1988, where USSR won the gold medal, led by Sabonis.

Curiously enough, their sons followed their footsteps. Igor Tkachenko played in Dynamo Moscow and last year in Unics Kazan, while Tautvydas Sabonis, the eldest of the three sons, was formed in Unicaja and this summer won the gold medal with Lithuania at the U19 World Championship in Riga. But in their cases, those famous surnames are more a curse than a blessing.

To put an end to today's entry, I will explain how my first interview with Sabonis went straight to the trash bin. By chance, we were at a shopping center in Nantes during the Eurobasket in 1983. The young star was very kind and despite the language barrier - he only spoke Lithuanian and Russian, while by then I could barely speak a few words in Russian - we made an interview from which I only remember one sentence from him: "I will never play in CSKA Moscow." When I was back to the Borba newspaper, where I was chief of the sports section, I was looking through everything I had sent in from France, but I didn't find the Sabonis interview. My partners told me: "We didn't have enough space and since he was just a youngster that people do not know..."