Twenty years ago, in 1991, FIBA published the results of a survey of their own about the best player in the history of FIBA basketball. The name at the top of the list was Sergei Belov, the great captain of CSKA Moscow and the USSR national team. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield recognized this fact by inducting Belov in 1992 as the first European player ever to be included there. I had double luck: first I followed him as a player from 1967, the year of his debut with the USSR at the World Championships in Uruguay until he retired after the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. I saw him in his glory moment as the last carrier of the Olympic flame to set the torch at the Lenin Stadium in Moscow and also his last games with the national team. After that, I met Belov as a head coach and workman. We have spoken many times, but never like we did during EuroBasket 2007 in Madrid, where he gave me an interview for Euroleague.net that caught many people’s attention all over Europe.
From a difficult childhood to glory
Sergei Aleksandrovitch Belov was born on January 23, 1944 in the village of Nashekovic, region of Tomsk. Before giving birth to Sergei, his mother survived with her elder brother, the famous siege of Stalingrad. The father, an engineer, worked far from home and the family got back together in 1947. The gift for the small child was a football, something scarce and valuable at that time. Sergei wouldn’t part with his favorite toy. He was a goalkeeper, but he also was into athletics, specifically the high jump. However, his quick growth to 1.90 meters decided his future. He started to play basketball and didn’t stop until the end of a brilliant career. His first coach was Georgiy Josifovitch Res. In the summer of 1964, while in Moscow to study, Belov was seen by Aleksandar Kandel, the coach of Uralmash of the city of Svrdlovsk and he called Belov for his team. The promising teenager accepted and already in the 1964-65 season, at just 17 years old, he played in the USSR first division. In the summer of 1966, Belov made his debut with the USSR national team and in 1967 he was already a world champion in Uruguay with an average of 4.6 points. He scored a total of 32 points in the tourney (his game high was 11 against Japan).
In 1968 another key moment in Belov’s life took place: he signed for CSKA Moscow and for the following 12 years, he would be the best player of the Red Army team under colonel Aleksandar Gomelskiy on the bench. Belov, like other players, was also an officer in the army, even though his only profession was playing basketball. In 1969, in Barcelona, he won his first European crown against Real Madrid. In an unforgettable game that CSKA won after double overtime (103-93), big man Vladimir Andreev was the main star with 37 points and 11 rebounds. Both Belov and Andreev played the entire 50 minutes. Belov finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds. The following year CSKA lost the final in Sarajevo against Ignis Varese 79-74 with 21 points by Belov. However in 1971 the Red Army team won the title back after beating Varese in Antwerp 67-53. Belov scored 24 points, but he also acted as a coach due to some problems for Gomelskiy at the Russian border. In 1973 he played his last final with CSKA, of course against Varese, and lost in Liege 71-66 despite scoring 34 points.
Three seconds in Munich, 1972
Sergei Belov was a player ahead of his time. He was a shooting guard, but also capable of playing point guard or small forward. Just like Dragan Kicanovic, Mirza Delibasic, Manuel Raga, Bob Morse, Walter Szczerbiak and other shooters from the era, they had to play without three-pointers, which were introduced by FIBA during the 1984-85 season. He was unstoppable in one-on-one situations and after the dribble you could count on an assist or a precise shot, many times with only one hand. He was also a great rebounder, but his best quality was his cold blood, his 100 percent concentration in crunch time. His teammates always looked for Belov for the last play or the last shot. He was a leader who transmitted security and confidence to the rest of the players and true fear to some rivals. He was a player respected by all, because of his qualities and his behavior. He was a true officer and gentleman.
With the USSR he won 18 medals: Four Olympic medals (gold in 1972, bronze in 1968, 1976 and 1980); six in World Championships (two golds, 1967 and 1974; three silvers and one bronze), eight at European Championships (four golds, two silvers and two bronzes). In total, seven golds, 5 silvers and 6 bronzes in the most important international competitions. His only Olympic gold was from Munich against the USA.A famous final because of the repeated last three seconds under the orders of William Jones, the then secretary general of FIBA. In September 2007, Belov told me the story of the most famous three seconds in basketball history:
“I think the decision was correct and fair. Look, when Doug Collins scored to put his team ahead 50-49, there were three seconds left, the clock showed 19:57. Ivan Edeshko put the ball inbounds and I was close to mid-court and the table was behind my back. I got hands on the ball and almost at the same time the siren stopped the game. But it wasn’t the end of the game, it was a mistake because the clock now showed 19:59. There was a second left and we protested a lot because it was an obvious mistake. Time had to start running when I touched the ball, not when Edeshko passed the ball. After some moments on court that seemed to have no end for us, Jones raised his three fingers and signaled that they had those three seconds had to be played again. The rest is history… This time Edeshko passed the ball to Aleksandar Belov who faked for two American players to jump and managed to score the basket that gave us the Olympic gold.”
Disappointment at home, 1980
If his most glorious moment was the 1972 gold at the Olympics in Munich, I am sure that his biggest disappointment was the Olympic Games played in Moscow in 1980. Playing at home, the USSR lost first to Italy in the group stage and later against Yugoslavia after overtime and the team was out of the title game. Some days later, he received an offer which in fact was an order:
“I got a call from the USSR Sports Minister, Sergei Pavlov, and he literally said ‘From this moment, you are the USSR national team coach’ and I rejected it on the spot. The Minister insisted and he repeated his offer constantly. Gomelskiy found out about the issue and through his connections he made it that the KGB wouldn’t allow me to leave the country for several years… I was an officer in the Soviet army and it was easy to do that. Those were the worst years of my life and now I can say that for five years I even feared for my life!”
The darkest period in his life also coincided with the comeback from Brazil of a USSR emigrant, a friend of his. Sergei greeted him at home and this was a suspicious act for the “usual services”. His problems lasted until 1988, when he returned to CSKA as coach. In 1990 he coached Italy and in 1993 he was back to Russia, where he became president of the Russian Federation until 2000. He was also the national team coach for the World Championships of Toronto in 1994 and Athens in 1998, where Russia won silver medals and also during the Barcelona EuroBasket of 1997, where it won bronze. From 1999, Belov joined Sergei Kuschenko as general manager and president to build a great team in Perm, Ural Great, which broke the dominance of CSKA Moscow and won league titles and played the new Euroleague in 2001-02 as the first Russian team in the competition. Belov lived in Perm where he died October 3, 2013.
He doesn’t have any doubts that he, as well as other talents of his generation like Cosic, Dalipagic or Kicanovic could have played and triumphed in the NBA, just like Arvydas Sabonis did, getting there at 31, or Pau Gasol, or Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki, Vlade Divac and so many other Europeans who showed that good basketball and good players are not an American-only privilege.
( November 19, 2011)