RICHMOND, AUG. 6 -- Glasnost has now permeated the NCAA, in the form of Konstantin Pepeliaev -- a nervous, unconfident and very tall 21-year-old who will enroll at Virginia Commonwealth University in the fall and become the first Soviet basketball player to play for a United States college.
Pepeliaev and his team, Leningrad Spartak, are at VCU this week to train for their upcoming national championships, giving Pepeliaev a crash course in American-style basketball.
At 7 feet 2, 214 pounds, Pepeliaev looks more like Manute Bol than Arvidas Sabonis. Ask him about his ability and he gives a sheepish grin.
The Leningrad team scrimmaged a team of ex-college and local players Sunday, and though the Soviets won, Pepeliaev said he got an education.
"I was discouraged by the way the U.S. players fight for rebounds," said Pepeliaev. "It was one of the most educational experiences I have had. In the Soviet Union, it is not that much of a physically impressive game on the boards. I was disappointed with my performance."
VCU Coach Sonny Smith said that, unfortunately, Pepeliaev's self-evaluation is not far off the mark.
"He is not a great player," said Smith. "But he has a chance to be very, very good. He has got to gain weight, gain strength and gain confidence. He has to start believing in himself. He's been playing against too many 7-foot-2, 265-pound centers. That's like being George Foreman's sparring partner."
Pepeliaev spoke through an interpreter, and, in fact, language is the only barrier to his college career. Once the Leningrad team returns to the Soviet Union at the end of the week, he must pass the Test of English as a Second Language, which the United States requires of all immigrants.
But Pepeliaev, who began learning English in earnest only two months ago, said he is learning quickly and will have no trouble with the test. After that, it's easy. All the papers are signed, the exit visa is ready.
"My primary goal in coming to America was to be educated, and culturally educated," said Pepeliaev, a science student. "Then comes basketball."
Indeed, it was because of his scholastic ability and his eagerness to study in the United States that he was chosen by the Leningrad Sports Committee to come.
"They determined who would fit in culturally, who would be able to adapt, and who would be able to do the educational work," said VCU Athletic Director Dick Sander. "And Konstantin is the one they picked."
"They picked a great candidate," said Smith. "He wasn't necessarily the best player, but he's the one who wanted to come."
Smith said he is worried about pressure on Pepeliaev to perform.
"The fans' expectations are always too tough," said Smith, whose team opens the season Nov. 24 against New Hampshire. "Just like coaches' expectations are always too tough. Konstantin may disappoint some people at first. I don't expect him to be a star. I expect him to play his first year. I expect him to give us some rebounds and some blocked shots. I don't expect him to make a huge impact or be the darling of the fans. But I expect him to help us win and I think he will."
One person with confidence in Pepeliaev's ability is his coach, Vladimir Kondrashin, who also knows something about basketball. He coached the Soviet national team to the controversial 1972 Olympic gold medal.
"Once he gets a chance to adapt to the system, he can be very good," said Kondrashin.
The possibility of Pepeliaev's coming to VCU arose in the spring when Smith led a group of VCU officials to the Soviet Union to conduct seminars and clinics. Pepeliaev signed a grant-in-aid when the team arrived here Friday.
Pepeliaev said his sneak preview of life in the United States has been an eye-opener.
"I was overwhelmed with the warm reception I have gotten because I haven't accomplished anything yet," Pepeliaev said. "With my communications skills improving, the warm reception and my ability to make friends, it will make up for the friends I will have to leave behind."
Smith, meanwhile, hopes to have Pepeliaev, the tallest player in school history, for two years, even if it means hiding his ability: "If he gets too good, they won't let us keep him."