After a crash course in Russian and some fine-tuning on his three-point jumper, Virginia Commonwealth assistant coach Vince Wilson embarks for the Soviet Union next month, toting several pairs of Levis and preparing to be the first U.S. basketball player to play in the Soviet National Championships.
Wilson, 24 and a former VCU point guard, was chosen as part of a unique exchange program between the Richmond university and the Lesgast Institute of Physical Education in Leningrad. He will play for the Spartak Club of Leningrad in the preliminary round of the championships, throughout October.
"It's definitely a privilege," Wilson said. "I'm absolutely thrilled about being the first American, but I'm even more excited about being able to play in the games there."
One member of the Spartak Club, 7-foot-2 Konstantin Pepeliaev, has enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth and will be a member of the Rams for the 1990-91 season, which begins Nov. 24 against New Hampshire.
VCU Athletic Director Dick Sander said the two institutions have a number of agreements -- signed last October -- that go beyond basketball, including student and professor exchanges.
"International education is very much a priority here," Sander said. "It's become a trend to make the world an arena for educational exchanges like these."
Wilson, who is 6-3, 180 pounds, started at Anderson (S.C.) Junior College in 1986-87, then transferred to VCU, where he was the school's co-captain his final two seasons. He averaged 9.7 points and 4.1 assists in 1988-89, his senior year. Wilson spent last year as Coach Sonny Smith's assistant with the Rams.
Wilson says he does not see himself as an ambassador. He just wants to show the Soviets that Americans can still play basketball, despite their poor showing against the U.S.S.R. in the 1988 Olympics and the recent Goodwill Games and World Championships.
"It even goes beyond basketball," Wilson said. "I want to be able to show them some things about life, and maybe they can teach me some things."
Wilson met the members of the Spartak Club when they visited the United States this summer. They trained together for the national tournament, in which Spartak finished seventh out of 12 teams in 1989. Spartak is coached by Vladimir Kondrashin, who led the Soviets to a controversial Olympic gold medal over the United States in 1972 and a bronze medal in 1976.
Sergei Beliaev, a professor at the Lesgast Institute who is beginning a year teaching a course at VCU entitled "The History of Sport in the U.S. and U.S.S.R." and assisting Sander, said Spartak has improved greatly over last year's championships.
"They're a veteran team and are very strong," said Beliaev, who works for the State Committee for Culture and Sports in Leningrad. "The tournament's first round will be held in October, with the semifinals in December and finals next March." Wilson is scheduled only to play with the team through the preliminary round, and has not decided whether to join them for later rounds.
Wilson, who will travel to Moscow and Riga for first-round games, says he is not worried about adjusting to the foreign culture. "I'll probably bring some Levis, because I know the people always want those. I've already met the team, so I just want to show them what I can do."