“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Alexander “Sasha” Belov: The “three-second” man
There are great players and great careers marked by a single basket, a single game, a single detail. Sometimes that’s unfair, but it’s just inevitable. A man who belongs to this club of the world elite is Alexander “Sasha” Belov, the late Russian player who died on October 3, 1978, at age 27. That’s too short for a single life, but more than enough to leave a mark on basketball. His basket against the USA in the Munich Olympics title game in 1972, which the Soviet Union won 51-50, is part of the history of the Olympic Games and this sport. It’s an immortal play, unique in the last century, a basket that was worth a gold medal under strange circumstances: the repetition of a play; the famous three fingers in the air by FIBA secretary general William Jones, meaning that the last three seconds had to be repeated; the anger of the Americans who later refused to accept the silver medals.
Everything happened that day
Sergei Belov, who was an unrelated but contemporary Russian basketball legend of Alexander’s, and who by chance died the same exact day 36 years later, in 2013, told me about it during the 2007 EuroBasket in Madrid:
“Jones’s decision was totally fair and correct to me. See, when Doug Collins scored to put his team ahead, 50-49, there were three seconds left and the scoreboard showed 19:57. Ivan Edeshko put the ball into play and I was close to midcourt, the table was behind my back. I got the ball and right away, the horn from the table stopped the game. But it was not the end, there was a mistake because the clock showed 19:59. There was one second left, but we protested a lot because it was clearly a mistake. The time had to start running when I touched the ball and not when Edeshko threw it in. After what to us seemed a never-ending moment, Jones lifted his three fingers and said we had to repeat them. The rest is well known. This time Edeshko made a long pass to Sasha Belov, who faked between two Americans, who in turn jumped at the same time almost clashing one against the other, and he scored the basket that was worth a gold medal.”
Born on November 9, 1951, in Leningrad (currently St. Petersburg), Sasha Belov started playing basketball in his native city. He stepped onto the international stage at age 17, when he played in the European junior championships in Vigo, Spain in 1968. His average of 7 points didn’t hint at a future star, but he won his first gold medal. In the final, the USSR defeated a powerful Yugoslavia with Slavnic, Jelovac and Simonovic by 82-73. A year later, he was already playing with the senior team at EuroBasket in Italy. He also had discreet numbers (4 points) but he was not yet 18 years old. In 1970, he played another junior European junior championships, this time in Athens, and he won a new gold medal. His average rose to 8.5 points, but his best moments were yet to come. Before that, he lost his first final at club level. His team, Spartak, had reached the Saporta Cup final, but after two games, Simmenthal Milan was the better of the two. Belov scored 16 in his team’s home win, 66-56, but the Italians won the second game by 71-52 despite his 14 points.
National team coach Vladimir Kondrashin, his coach also in Spartak, trusted Belov. He was a modern forward despite standing just 2.01 meters. He had long hands, broad shoulders and great rebounding skills. He was a nightmare for players guarding him. He was fast and agile, had good technique, and scored with ease. In Munich, on a star-filled team (Sergei Belov, Paulauskas, Polivoda…) he was the best scorer with 14.4 points per game. Truth be told, however, that high average was due to his 37 points against Puerto Rico (100-87). Against Senegal, Yugoslavia and Cuba he scored 14 points each game, but his best moment was in the big final against the United States. He scored 8 points and pulled 8 rebounds, but his last basket made history. Curiously enough, it was a basket that made him as popular in the USA as in the USSR. Some fan clubs emerged and a young American woman traveled to Leningrad to ask Belov to marry her. But the love of his life was Aleksandra Ovchinikova.
At the Saporta Cup final in 1973 in Thessaloniki, Spartak defeated Jugoplastika by 77-62 as Belov was the MVP with 18 points. Two years later, in Nantes, he repeated the feat in a 63-62 win against Crvena Zvezda. He scored 10 points but his title collection was already impressive. I saw on TV the two games that the USSR played against Yugoslavia in the 1969 EuroBasket, with a Yugoslavia win in the group phase (the first one in an official game against the USSR) and a USSR win in the final, but I admit that I do not remember Belov. He didn’t shine in the World Championship of Ljubljana in 1970 (6 points) but in the Essen EuroBasket (8.5) he was already one of the pillars of the Soviet team. Then came Munich and his life would change.
At the World Championships in San Juan in 1974, he won another gold medal, achieving the triple crown: Olympics, World Championships and EuroBasket. Aleksandar Salnikov was the best scorer in the USSR with 17.6 points, especially thanks to his 38 points against the Americans and 32 against the Cubans. Belov’s average was 14.6 points.
I saw Belov live for the first time in 1975 at the Belgrade EuroBasket. He was not in his best shape, but his talent and potential were unquestionable. In the title game, his fight with Cosic and Jelovac, the Yugoslav centers that were way bigger than him, was impressive. That same year, he was drafted in the NBA by Utah with pick number 161 in the 10th round. The following year, at the Montreal Olympics, he played again at an elevated level, with 15.7 points, 5.2 boards and 4.7 assists, but he suffered one of the few disappointments in his career: the USSR ended up third, but he still won one more medal. He also had a triple-double in that tournament against Canada (100-72) as he scored 23 points, pulled 14 rebounds and dished 10 assists. Only he and LeBron James, who would match the feat many years later, hold the distinction of recording triple-doubles in the Olympics.
In January of 1977, I had the chance to see Belov in his native city, with the jersey of his team, Spartak. Radnicki Belgrade was playing the Saporta Cup there in the same group as Spartak. At home, the Soviets won easy, 99-84. I don’t remember how many points Belov scored, but I do remember he was the best man on the court. I have a picture with Coach Kondrashin, who talked to me about the importance of Belov for the games of Spartak and the national team. Alexander Gomelskiy also said that Belov was “the pearl of Soviet, but also European, basketball.”
Accused of smuggling
Some days later, on January 23 of 1977, before a Spartak trip to Italy, Belov was accused of smuggling orthodox icons, which were highly valued antiques in the West. He lost all his acknowledgments and medals and was expelled from the national team. There are several versions about what happened, from his own mistake to a setup to avoid his signing for CSKA. Some even said it was a trap to make Spartak a weaker team. This change turned him upside down. Some say that even before this incident, he complained about chest pains, but that doctors never found anything. In August of 1978, he was called to the national team again by Alexander Gomelskiy, who wanted him to help defend in Manila the golden medal from San Juan. Belov made it to the national team camp, but after just a few days, he had to leave because he didn’t feel well. Two months later, he died of cardiac sarcoma. He wasn’t even 27 years old and he still had a good career in front of him. However, he had also accomplished a lot of things for us to remember him as a great player, a humble and calm man off the court, but a lion on it.