“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!
Gennady Volnov – Europe’s winningest player
The history of European basketball doesn’t have anyone quite like Gennady Volnov. He played at six FIBA EuroBaskets and won six gold medals! He also won four Olympic medals and two from the World Cup, giving him 12 trophies won in the three most important international competitions. It’s true that Kresimir Cosic of Yugoslavia had 14 medals in the same competitions, but Volnov outdid him at the club level. While Cosic was never a EuroLeague champ, Volnov won continental titles with CSKA Moscow in 1961, 1963 and 1969.
Gennady was born in Moscow on November 28, 1939, and he passed away in Moscow on July 15, 2008. He was a versatile player and, as Sergei Belov used to say, ahead of his time. At 2.01 meters tall, Volnov played three positions: shooting guard, small forward and power forward. His natural position was close to the rim due to his physical features. He was a great rebounder, but also shot well from long range. Aside from his qualities as a player, he was a natural leader and served as the captain for both CSKA and the USSR national team for many years.
The career of Gennady Volnov – his friends called him Genka – started in 1956 with Burevestnik, a humble club from Moscow. In 1959, at 20 years old, he moved on to CSKA Moscow along with Anatoly Astakhov and Armenak Alachachan. That very same year, he made his debut with the national team at the EuroBasket in Istanbul. There he won his first gold medal, even though, since he was a rookie, his contribution was not prominent. In fact, Volnov averaged 3.8 points per game and he didn’t even take the floor in the decisive games. The following year, he took part in the 1960 Olympics in Rome and there he saw a genius of the game. Watching American player Oscar Robertson, a super-modern guard at the time, opened for Volnov new perspectives on how to play. He understood that basketball was not only about shooting and physical strength, but also about imagination and creativity, that the game could be fun without the systems created by the coach.
I saw Volnov for the first time at the 1961 EuroBasket in Belgrade, even though I must admit that I had my eyes on Janis Krumins, the first giant of European basketball. At 2.18 meters tall, Krumins looked like a colossus and attracted eyes everywhere he went. In Belgrade, with an average of 11.7 points, Volnov won his second gold medal. He repeated that feat in Wroclaw in 1963 (10.7 ppg.), Moscow 1965 (12.6 ppg.), Helsinki 1967 (11.1 ppg.) and Naples 1969 (7.0 ppg.). In between EuroBaskets he also shined at World Cups in 1963 in Rio de Janeiro (bronze, 14.1 points with a high of 20 against the USA) and Montevideo 1967 (gold, 11.1 ppg.). At the Olympics, he won four medals and, together with Belov, he is the basketball player with the most Olympic medals. In addition to the silver in Rome he won another in Tokyo in 1964 (9.8 ppg.), in Mexico 1968 (7.4 ppg.) he took the bronze, and the peak of his Olympic career was the 1972 gold in Munich (6.8 ppg.).
After the 1969 EuroBasket in Naples, due to lack of communication with coach Aleksandar Gomelskiy, Volnov left the national team and at 30 years old he practically put an end to his career because he didn’t want to play for any team other than CSKA. He did not play in the 1970 World Cup in Ljubljana, where the USSR won the bronze medal, and he was not at the 1971 EuroBasket in Germany either, even though the coach there was Vladimir Kondrashin. However, for the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Kondrashin realized that a charismatic and experienced player like Volnov could help the team. Gennady accepted and wore the Soviet jersey again. He didn’t play much, but Kondrashin wasn’t expecting double-doubles from him either. He needed Volnov as a locker room leader. Volnov obliged and even scored some points: 12 against Senegal and Poland, 11 against the Philippines, 6 against Germany and 2 against Italy. After sitting out against Yugoslavia and Cuba, in the historic final against the USA, he didn’t score, but his 4 fouls showed his fight on defense. The USSR won the gold medal after the famous replaying of the last 3 seconds, on a basket by Alexander Belov. The 1972 Olympic silver medals are still in the vaults of the Olympic Museum in Lausanne waiting for the American players to pick them up.
After Munich, Volnov decided to put an end to his brilliant career and started to teach chemistry at a military academy. He played basketball with the CSKA veterans and helped the young players by showing them the tricks in his repertoire. He was a very polite man, calm and never lost his temper when opponents hit him hard, because that was the only way to stop him.
EuroLeague champ three times
With 12 medals in the three most important international competitions, 10 Soviet League titles and three European crowns with CSKA, Volnov is one of the winningest players in the history of European basketball. His first EuroLeague title came in 1961 against ASK Riga, to break that Latvian team’s domination after it won the first three editions of the competition, somewhat unexpectedly, between 1958 and 1960. In the first game of the final, played in Riga, the ASK squad of Gomelskiy lost 62-89! Volnov scored 18 points for CSKA. ASK won the second game in Moscow, but just by 5 points (66-61). Volnov scored 13 points for CSKA, which won its first European title.
The second title arrived in 1963 after three games against Real Madrid. The Spaniards won the first game in Madrid 86-69 with 6 points from Volnov. In the second game, CSKA won by the same 17 points, 91-74, as Volnov scored 8. The following day the third game to decide the series was played. In that one, on August 1, 1963, in front of 20,000 fans, CSKA won 99-80. Gennady Volnov scored 26 points and was the hero of the game.
The third crown for CSKA and Volnov came in Barcelona, on April 24, 1969 – against Real Madrid again. CSKA won 103-99. It was a game full of drama that featured two overtime periods. Belov, who was a player/coach for CSKA, spent all 50 minutes on the court. Center Vladimir Andreev played the game of a lifetime (37 points, 13 rebounds) and Volnov had 12 points and 2 offensive rebounds in 37 minutes.
After Volnov’s death, Belov stated that Volnov had not been properly appreciated at home. Belov described Volnov as “the pioneer of modern Soviet basketball.” Many others thought justice had not been done when, in a major survey for the best starting five ever in Soviet basketball, Volnov was not selected.
One thing is sure, however. This born winner belongs among the greats.