“31 Masterminds of European Basketball” was released in 2019 to profile the greatest coaching minds the game has seen on the European continent. The limited-edition book, written by EuroLeague historian Vladimir Stankovic—who began covering many of those greats in 1969—and published by Euroleague Basketball, pays tribute to the stars on the sidelines who have led teams to countless titles. Stankovic tells the stories and digs into the strategies of each of the 31 profiled coaches and in doing so paints the path to trace greatness among European basketball coaches to the 1950s. However, it’s not just about the history of European coaches; five of them will coach in the EuroLeague this season. Enjoy!
Vladimir Kondrashin, Triple-crown winner
There are only two players who have won the Olympic Games, EuroLeague and NBA championships. They are Bill Bradley (USA in Tokyo 1964, Simmenthal Milan in 1966, and New York in 1970 and 1973) and Manu Ginobili (Argentina in Athens 2004, Kinder Bologna in 2001, and San Antonio in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014). Among coaches there are no such triple champions, simply because until David Blatt there had never been a coach who won the EuroLeague and coached in the NBA.
But there is one coach with a very impressive triple crown of his own: Vladimir Kondrashin.
This great Russian coach, who lived his best years on the bench with the USSR, was an Olympic champion at Munich in1972, EuroBasket champion in 1971 and World Cup champion in 1974, all of them with Team USSR. And with his lifelong club, Spartak St. Petersburg, Kondrashin also won a USSR championship and two Saporta Cups. He was a much-coveted coach, loved by all because of his personality and human qualities.
A difficult childhood
Vladimir Kondrashin was born on January 14, 1929 in Saint Petersburg. He was caught in the middle of World War II as a 12-year-old, and his native city was under German siege for 872 days. He went through hell, like the rest of the city’s inhabitants: famine, fear, cold and all kinds of suffering.
When, on January 27, 1944, the so-called “Way of Life” was finally opened, he traveled to his grandmother’s town, even though his father was badly injured. After the war, Kondrashin returned to the city where he finished his technical degree in school. He was a plumber, but his destiny would be in sports. He lived in a neighborhood with a bad reputation and many of his street friends ended up as criminals. Kondrashin was saved by sports. First, he started boxing, then came football and ice hockey. He learned about basketball when he had to go to military service.
There, he met Alexander Gomelskiy, who years later would become his greatest opponent.
Thanks to my friend and colleague from Moscow, Bojan Soc, I can present some more details about Kondrashin. I was fortunate enough to meet him and talk to him a couple of times, but the information provided by Soc completed my memory of this great coach.
It’s been said that he was a solid player. He played shooting guard and was a hard worker, taking at least 500 shots in every practice. In 1952, he played for CSKA, the Red Army team. Basketball was his destiny, and in 1953 he married Yevghenia, a Dinamo player. One year later, their son Yuriy was born.
The decisive year in Kondrashin’s career was 1958. Spartak St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, won the city championship and a qualifying tourney that entitled the team to play in the USSR first division. That same year, a good American team played in the city and Kondrashin – still an active player – was seen at the Americans’ practice, jotting down some notes. Those were the first clues that he wanted to be a coach.
Kondrashin put an end to his playing career in 1965 at 35 years of age and was swiftly named head coach at Spartak, but he felt he was not yet ready for this role. Instead, he took charge of the junior team and stayed there for two years until coming back to the bench of the first team in 1967. He remained there for 30 years, sharing the job with the position of USSR head coach for several years.
The fact that both Kondrashin and Gomelskiy came from the same city caused some to think there was a “Saint Petersburg school” of coaching, but the great Sergei Belov didn’t agree.
“None of that school nonsense,” he insisted. “It was only Kondrashin’s passion, his vision, his hard work. He was the first one to build the national team away from the city. He enjoyed discovering young talents, becoming their second father, and then taking them to the sports institute.”
His biggest discovery, and the most important player in his career, was Alexander ‘Sasha’ Belov. Both would enter the history books of basketball and the Olympic Games, but before that, Kondrashin would have to win a battle with Belov’s parents. Belov Sr. was having none of his son playing basketball, but Belov’s mother supported her son’s choice. The mother prevailed and, at age 16, Belov made his debut against VEF Riga where the giant Jan Krumins was playing. The kid, a lot faster, had some steals on the big man and even blocked some of his shots.
In three seasons between 1968 and 1970, Spartak finished fourth, third and second in the league. Kondrashin had built a great team using his special methods and quirks. Some say, for example, that during trips, Kondrashin took his own water from a fountain in the village of Sapki, where he had a second residence. He didn’t trust the water in some cities.
Kondrashin came close to his first title in the 1970-71 season. CSKA (coached by Gomelskiy) and Spartak ended up with the same number of points and had to play a tie-breaker in Tbilisi. With 5 seconds to go, Yuri Stukin put Spartak ahead by a single point, but Sergei Belov scored an impossible basket to give CSKA the title.
Three more years of second places would have to pass before Spartak finally won the league title. It happened in the 1974-75 season, with the decisive game played in Saint Petersburg. CSKA led in the first half by 17 points, but Spartak came back in the second and managed to pull off the win by a single point, 78-77. Sergei Kuznetsov scored the decisive basket with 6 seconds to go.
Yuriy, Kondrashin’s son, says that his father gave even more value to this title than to the 1972 Olympics gold in Munich. Andrej Makayev, the only player to appear in all 36 games that season, explained Kondrashin’s methods of work.
“We didn’t have videos, no technical help,” Makayev recalled. “Kondrashin used pictures from magazines he bought when he traveled abroad. In a single still shot we studied the possible moves of the opponents. He insisted a lot on repetition until you became automatic. We put some emphasis on the full-court pass, something that gave him the Olympic gold in Munich.”
One of Kondrashin’s most definitive features was defense. At Spartak it was forced upon him, because in his team only Vladimir Arzamashkov and Makeyev had reputations as good shooters. The rest were fighters, hard workers who had rebounding as their best weapon. Stats from the 1974-75 season show that Spartak pulled seven out of every 10 possible rebounds. Kondrashin had 14 players in the roster, but three of them only played between one and four games. Gomelskiy’s CSKA had two almost identical lineups, but Spartak won its title with five or six starters and three or four substitutes.
Two Saporta Cups
Before that league triumph, in the 1972-73 season, Spartak won its first European title. In the old Cup Winners’ Cup – renamed later the Saporta Cup – Kondrashin’s team defeated Jugoplastika Split 77-62 in the title game played in Thessaloniki. There were no doubts about who the champ would be. Sasha Belov scored 18 points and Valeriy Fyodorov 25.
Two years later, in Spartak’s best season ever, the team recaptured the same title. This time, the rival in the final was Crvena Zvezda Belgrade in a game played in Nantes, on March 16, 1975. It was again in comeback fashion as Zvezda was winning 53-38 in the 30th minute, before a 2-18 run allowed Spartak to jump ahead and in the end win 62-63. Vladimir Arzamashkov was the top scorer with 17 points, while Belov netted 10.
Spartak would go on to win the national cup in 1987, but in 1988 Kondrashin left the club. Without him, the team struggled to stay in the first division. He returned in 1989, launching a young talent named Evgeny Pashutin, and Spartak finished second. His last title came in 1992, when he won the CEI league (made up of new countries arising from the breakup of the USSR). His last goodbye came in 1995. He died on 23 December 1999.
Three seconds in Munich
Kondrashin and Gomelskiy were rivals not only in the USSR league, but also with the national team. After the 1970 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Ljubljana, Gomelskiy was released from the national bench and Kondrashin sat there for the first time. His debut came at the Universiade in Turin, where the USSR beat a good USA team in the final. The 1-3-1 zone used by Kondrashin put the American offense in real trouble.
Recalling that time, Sergei Belov spoke about “a new atmosphere” in the team and also a different style of play, regarding it as “more creative, even though Kondrashin is a rigorous tactician.”
At the 1971 EuroBasket, the USSR won the gold medal with two new men, Ivan Yedeshko and Aleksei Tammiste. Sasha Belov and Mikheil Korkia also became staples in the national team. In the semifinals, the USSR defeated Italy 93-66 and in the title game the victim was the world champion, Yugoslavia, 69-64.
Kondrashin was a great, systematic coach who paid attention to detail. He was also very tactical and very humane with his players. His wife says that he “breathed basketball” and that sometimes he woke up in the middle of the night to jot down some ideas he had while sleeping.
However, his career will always be marked by the infamous 3 seconds that had to be repeated in the 1972 Olympic final in Munich. For that competition, he convinced Gennadi Volnov, a six-time European champion with the USSR, to come back to be the leader the team needed. In the final against the United States, Kondrashin surprised observers with a starting five including both Belovs and Alzhan Zarmuhamedov, but then he also added Zurab Sakandelidze and Mikheil Korkia, who were not the usual starters. He wanted a faster, more aggressive style.
As they say, the rest is history. Due to a mistake at the officials’ table, FIBA Secretary William Jones ordered the last 3 seconds of the game to be repeated. In that repetition, the USSR scored through Sasha Belov to win the gold. Kondrashin later explained the miracle in his own words.
“In our practices, both in Spartak and the national team, we practiced the long passes a lot, especially full-court passes,” he revealed. “Ivan Yedeshko had good strength in his hands and our only chance was a long pass to Sasha Belov. I was sure he would get the ball, but I was expecting a foul and hoping that one free throw would go in so we could have overtime. However, the pass was perfect and so was Sasha’s fake, and we managed to win the game.”
That was the end of a 63-game winning streak for the United States in the Olympic Games, dating back to 1936 in Berlin. At the 1974 FIBA World Cup in Puerto Rico, Kondrashin and the USSR completed the triple crown with a gold. Yugoslavia placed second and USA third. And if that was not enough, he also won the 1975 Intercontinental Cup.
At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, the USSR fell in the semis to Yugoslavia 84-89 and could only win the bronze medal, which was enough for Kondrashin to be released. The communist ideology didn’t understand second or third place. It was Kondrashin and Sasha Belov’s last big competition.
In his last few years, Kondrashin worked with young players at the Spartak school which bore Sasha Belov’s name after the latter died in 1978. The two heroes of Munich 1972 were, in some way, together again.