Mr. Buck Williams Olympian University of Maryland U.S.A. Moscow, July 22 Dear Buck:
When you dream of the basketball medal that would have been yours here, don't consider anything but gold.
Nobody still plays the American game as well as Americans. The Soviets can muster perhaps the bulkiest front line ever. But they also move about as fast as glaciers and their program actually seems to be sliding backwards.
Their best player, Sergei Belov, is almost 37. Physically, he has the lope and gray-haired look of the former NBA star, Paul Arizin. He is a Kyle Macy play-alike, the shooting guard who also controls the game with his passing when matters become tense.
The level of play drops off drastically after Belov, although the Soviets still are tough, technically decent and shoot well from the outside. But they might fold under full-court pressure. They might even lose to the Yugoslavs, as they did in the semifinals of the '76 Games.
Until the boycott, this was the setting so many of us basketball junkies had been anticipating so heavily since the Soviets won that controversial gold medal in the '72 Games and were awarded these Olympics in '74: the quadrennial pickup team of America all-stars vs. a Red machine honed to peak efficiency and with the home-country advantage.
The gym here is twice as large as Cole Field House but with a smaller seating capacity. Perhaps they would have allocated more seats if the U.S. team had come. Anyway, most of the seats are temporary. The permanent ones are so far away a 6-foot-7 player must seem no taller than Monte Towe.
Soviet fans can be passionate. They took to whistling and stomping their feet while a Brazilian was on the free-throw line the other night trying to cut a 12-point first-half lead to 10. But the arena is so immense that by the time all those voices rattle around, the effect is no worse than, say, Duke's indoor stadium.
The court is raised about 3 1/2 feet off the regular floor, and it is easy to imagine you or Isiah Thomas or some other defensive workaholic scambling for a loose ball, failing to brake after 15 feet or so and falling into the arms of a Russian fan, or on your head if the Soviets were behind.
In the main arena, the court is said to be fine. But the practice facilities are lumpy in spots, as though the wood has just recently been glued to the concrete base.
The Soviets still have 7-4 Vladimir Tkachenko at center. He is not even close to being mobile -- and neither are the power forwards. Brazil lost the other night to the Soviets, but got shot after inside shot without even setting a pick.
The Soviet coach, Aleksander Gomelsky, volunteered that he was not satisfied with the defense. Still, his first remarks were that the level of play during the 101-108 victory was evidence that the tournament was valid without the Americans.
Brazil fought hard. But hardly any of its players would start in the ACC. It was interesting that Gomelsky, who speaks English quite well, said he thought NCAA champ Louisville was not the best collegiate team in the U.S. last year.
"Kentucky was not here, Indiana was not there, North Carolina and Notre Dame not there," he said. "Louisville did not impress me."
Gomelsky shares information about strategy and conditioning with American coaches such as Bobby Knight. This may seem odd at first, swapping secrets with such a fierce rival. But, as you know, American coaches do it all the time with each other. They just won't let the other coach in on the recruiting keys.
That is the major Soviet problem now. Out of a population of 268 million, the Soviets do not seem to be developing first-class international players at a respectable rate. Future Belovs are nowhere to be seen.
There are whispered to be no more than a handful of competent lead guards in the whole country.
I told them four years ago how to do it. I wrote that the Soviets in the '76 Games still were too mechanical, still lacked the experience and fluid motion to improvise under pressure. This form is fine, but most of all them dribble as though a texbook is flipping page after page in their minds.
Such as "defender closing in . . . switch ball from left to right hand . . .
chest pass to forward . . . Page 45, fake one way and drive the other." Only Belov is creative at more than a primitive level. But the Soviets may also be lethargic without the Americans to provide special incentive.
They would do well to follow the advice I offered at Montreal: send the next generation of promising players, the ones 14 to 18 years old, to American playgrounds in the summer, Send 15 or so to Washington, another group to New York, another to Los Angeles, another to Philadelphia.
These youngesters would only get better playing in an American city environment. The Soviets will not beat the Americans -- or at least not regularly -- without playing an American-style game against players like yourself and Albert King.
What they must do is cable their embassy in Washington, find the phone number to the Jelleff League, call and politely inquire: "Comrades, can we come play?"