Political, hoop summits converge in Moscow

Updated: May 13, 2005, 5:23 PM ET
By Chad Ford | ESPN Insider

Chad's blog: Read dispatches from Moscow all weekend.

MOSCOW, Russia – We all have irrational fears about things and places.

My grandparents, brought up in the throes of World War II, still fear all things German and Japanese.

My parents still scold me when I eat out at a Vietnamese restaurant.

My kids, force fed a steady diet of violence in the Muslim world, would rather take a swim in a shark tank than step foot inside Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia.

Me, I grew up during those years in the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan's America had me and everyone else I knew convinced that Russia was going to blow up the world.

I loved and loathed shock movies such as "Red Dawn" (about a Russian invasion of America), "The Day After" (about a Russian nuclear attack of America) and even had a fond place in my heart as a kid for "Rocky IV" – the one where Rocky travels to Russia to defeat Ivan Drago.

Irrational childhood fears never totally go away. Some adults still leave their closet lights on at night. I stayed the hell out of Russia – until the Euroleague decided to hold the Final Four in Moscow this year.

I'd like to think I'm rational enough to be over all of that, but in the interest of full disclosure, the trip to Moscow got the adrenaline pumping in a way that trips to more dangerous cities like Soweto, Jerusalem and Sarajevo didn't.

Getting off the plane in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport failed to calm me down. Russian soldiers dressed in the same uniforms they used to wipe us out in "Red Dawn" were stationed with AK-47s around the airport.

Trying to get into Russia proved just as hard as trying to get out of it used to be. It took me more than three weeks, a mountain of paperwork and $300 just to get a visa into the country. As I arrived at passport control, the lines were enormous and each passport agent was spending as much as five minutes with each passenger.

I had been warned that even the slightest issue with your passport or visa can get you locked up in their detention center for 72 hours. Imagine my horror when my traveling companion, Detroit Pistons international scout Tony Ronzone, reveals to me – as we get off the plane – that he doesn't even have a visa.

Red Square soldiers marching
REUTERS/Alexander NatruskinSoldiers march during a rehearsal for the military parade in Moscow's Red Square. Russia prepares to celebrate the Victory Day on May 9.

Ronzone's passport was stolen in Germany and though he'd gotten a new one, the U.S. Consulate wasn't able to replace his Russian visa in time. Ronzone has an amazing ability to get out of tight spots – the business card with the Pistons' logo on it does wonders – and within minutes he was talking two Russian officials into letting him in without it. They took him upstairs and I waited in line. Nearly 90 minutes later, I finally passed through passport control to find Ronzone waiting on the other side, ready to go. Unbelievable.

Tensions are especially high in Moscow at the moment. The Euroleague Final Four happens to take place on the same weekend as the 60th anniversary of Victory Day, a huge national celebration that commemorates the end of World II. President Bush and other world dignitaries will be in Moscow this weekend.

With Chechen rebels promising terrorist attacks, the government has shut down major tourist areas like Red Square and are stepping up security throughout the country. On Thursday, Russian authorities captured a truck carrying over one ton of explosives and also claimed that they've confiscated a cache of chemical weapons containing a cyanide-based substance.

It was under those conditions that a driver picked us up in what he referred to as a "security car."

The Russia depicted in movies is actually pretty accurate. Everything is a hue of gray or brown. Square concrete apartment buildings dot the skyline. The sky is gray. The grass is brown. Everyone wears black and chain smokes. The city and its people look like they haven't seen sun in decades.

However, outward appearances can be deceiving.

Russia has changed in almost every way imaginable since Reagan dubbed Russia "the evil empire." Communism is gone. Democracy reigns. Communalism has been replaced with consumerism. Now, just like everywhere else in the world, it's only a short walk to McDonald's (McStroganoff, anyone?) just about anywhere in the city.

Everyone seems to speak a little English. The hatred we thought they once felt for Americans appears to have vanished. Warm smiles and unbelievable hospitality are flowing from everywhere in Moscow now.

The one thing that hasn't changed is Russia's love for basketball. Russians might not have the passion that Israeli fans do. They might not worship it the way the Serbs can. But they own one of the richest legacies of basketball excellence anywhere in the world, and that commitment is unwavering.

For the third time in three years, the Euroleague Final Four is being played in the city that also hosts the favorite to win it all. FC Barcelona won the Euroleague title in Barcelona in 2003. Maccabbi Tel Aviv won it all in Tel Aviv in 2004. This year, CSKA Moscow, a team that's lost just one game the entire season, is the heavy favorite to win its first European title since 1971.

For years, CSKA's team was, essentially, the Russian national team – the same one that used to go toe-to-toe with the United States in the Olympics every four years. CSKA stands for the Army Central Sports Club and its general, head coach Dusan Ivkovic, coaches this team with an iron fist.

Ironically, CSKA's best players aren't Russian. American guard Marcus Brown has been one of the top players in Europe over the last five years. Brown was the team's leading scorer, and ranked second in assists and steals. Americans J.R. Holden and Antonio Granger are also dominant players on the roster.

Australian David Andersen (who was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks three years ago) is the squad's best interior player. Anderson, who is just 24 years old, is long, bouncy and great on the glass.

Moscow Dynamo basketball
Chad Ford/ESPN InsiderRussia might be producing some of tomorrow's NBA stars, but a local pro game recently drew little interest.

CSKA's best Russian player, forward Sergey Monya (who was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers last season), plays just 13 minutes a game and averages 5.4 points per game.

Even the coach, Ivkovic, isn't Russian. He's from Belgrade, Serbia.

That's not to suggest that Russia isn't producing NBA prospects. Far from it. It's just that most scouts aren't adventurous enough to travel to Russia to find them. Scouting Russia is almost impossible for non-Russians. The clubs are small and spread out and there aren't reliable schedules to narrow down who is playing where.

"I think Russia is producing the best basketball players of any European country at the moment," said one scout who spent more than a month in Russia this year. "People just don't know about them. The basketball clubs are so disorganized it's tough to keep track of who's who and who's where. But there are NBA-quality players over here, scouts just don't know how to find them."

At the Euroleague junior tournament in Moscow, NBA scouts were blown away by CSKA's junior team. A 7-foot, 17-year-old center, Anatoly Kashirov, came out of nowhere (I only met one scout who had ever seen him before) to score 25 points and grab eight rebounds in just 24 minutes for CSKA. Kashirov's fundamentals and poise in the post are staggering for someone his age.

Afterwards, scouts were a little disappointed to hear that Kashirov had the game of a lifetime, and he's normally less impressive.

Another 17-year-old, Yaroslav Korolev, looked like a young Tayshaun Prince out there. The 6-9 forward with long arms was as complete a player as you can find at his age. The son of a former CSKA player, Korolev is off the charts fundamentally. He can handle the ball and shoot the 3-pointer, and made a couple of perfect no-look passes.

Almost every Russian on the junior team was quicker, stronger and more athletic than your typical European prospect.

"As Russia continues to mature, they have the potential to make a major impact on the NBA," said Ronzone, who's done extensive scouting in Russia. "Andrei Kirilenko is just the beginning. He was found by accident, too. As the Russian league gets more sophisticated and scouts start coming here more, I think you'll start seeing a lot of Russians in the NBA. There's just too much talent here to ignore."

Kirilenko, who is in Moscow for the Final Four, agreed.

Sergei Monya
Monya is a Blazers' draftee who sees little action with CSKA Moscow.

"The NBA is just now discovering Russia. There are many good players here," he said. "They just have to keep focused on getting better, and not on the NBA. We still have room for improvement, but you can see that the raw talent is there."

Tapping it has proven difficult. Russian teams have been reluctant to let scouts see their young players and even more reluctant to let them go to the NBA.

But they aren't the only ones.

Insider had breakfast on Friday with Euroleague president Jordi Bertomeu and a small group of international journalists. One area of major concern was the growing influence of the NBA abroad, the strip-mining of European junior leagues by scouts, and the influx of Americans that could be coming to Europe this summer if the league imposes another lockout.

Several international journalists were outspoken about their beliefs that America and the NBA was diluting the sport in Europe.

While Bertomeu and the Euroleague have had a long and prosperous relationship with the NBA, he doesn't sound particularly enthusiastic about the league's plans to eventually plant franchises in Europe, nor was he thrilled that so many of Europe's youngest prospects are leaving early for the NBA.

However, Bertomeu is a realist. The NBA has helped generate interest in the sport, and he pledged to keep working with the league on its newest initiatives to start holding training camps and more preseason games in Europe. He's also lifted Euroleague restrictions on the number of Americans who can be on a Euroleague roster. Before, each team was limited to two. Now, in what Bertomeu calls an "open border" policy, there are no restrictions. In theory, CSKA could have a team of 12 Americans if it desired.

That's unlikely. But it's clear the Euroleague is changing and adapting to the challenges and opportunities of globalization.

And so is Russia.

It seeks to have large international sporting events held in Moscow and worked for several years to get the Euroleague Final Four played here.

"This is more than a sports competition full of tension," Bertomeu said. "It is is also the moment to get together to talk and share our ideas."

Alexander Gomelskiy, the president of CSKA and a legendary Russian coach who led CSKA to its last European title in 1971, has an even bigger goal in mind – the 2012 Olympic Summer Games.

"I think this is confirmation of the sporting significance of our capital," Gomelskiy said. "I am very glad for the changes that have occurred over the last few years. … Everything has changed [in Russia]."

And the Euroleague and the world has not let it go without notice.

Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.

Chad Ford

Senior Writer, NBA Insider

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