Category Archives: Basketball

An American in Vilnius

On the Soviet Basketball Court

It was an age of suspicion. It was a time within the Soviet Union that all foreigners, especially an English-speaking foreigner and more so an “American” came under immediate suspicion by the NKVD. Americans and those who knew or had relatives in the West had to be shunned, after all, the USSR was surrounded by its enemies.

Stalin and his sycophants had spoken, and their words were sacred to the Soviet masses.

Enter this young, naïve, 19-year-old American-born, educated in Detroit, into the Soviet world to learn about the Soviet culture. Ah, the lessons he would learn. Old textbooks would not help; Soviets played by different rules, rules they made up as the game of life was played out daily. This was a world of dialectic materialism, of “he who works, eats”; of socialism where everyone is paid according to his ability, not yet of communism when everyone will be compensated according to his needs (and who would determine my needs, dear comrade?)

It would take time for me to digest this and the black, sawdust-stuffed, water-drowned bread to digest.

Despite the intense and increasingly aggressive anti-American propaganda and its omnipresent billboards, depicting Americans as rattle snakes or rats, parasites crawling and gnawing at the carcasses of the working class, the word “American” continued to carry some respect among those who somehow knew the truth. No amount of Soviet propaganda apparently could erase from the minds of the Russian people the fact that had it not been for the United States and its Lend Lease program, the geography of Europe may have been different.

In the summer of 1950 as a member of the Institute of Physical Culture’s basketball team, I took my first trip into the heartland of the USSR. I traveled by train from Erevan to Vilnius, a journey of more than a thousand miles. Vilnius is the capital of what was then the Soviet Republic of Lithuania and remains the capital today of a free and independent Lithuania.

When we arrived in Vilnius, the Soviet capital, our team was driven from the train depot by bus to what appeared to me to be once the stables for Nicholas II’s cavalry unit. My teammates accepted the accommodations without comment. Even if I had known the language, I would not have complained. One just didn’t complain in Stalin’s Russia.

I placed my duffel bag on a cot and sat down and waited for further instructions from our coaching staff. As I sat there wondering where the other teams would be housed. My thoughts were interrupted by my coach who ordered the team to gather our belongings for we were going to be moved to another site. I was told that maybe our coach, a decorated World War II hero, had complained and the Lithuanians decided to upgrade us to the university’s facilities.

A few minutes later, a bus pulled up and we boarded it. The driver drove to a newly-opened hotel, located in the central business district in Vilnius, and our players got off the bus, entered a beautifully decorated hotel and were assigned two to a room with all the modern conveniences including running water and a toilet. The food was edible.

I was stunned at the reception our team would receive during the next 10 days. Later, I asked one of the players what caused the Lithuanians to change their attitude toward our team.

The player responded, “You did.”

“Me?” I was speechless. I had done nothing and, in fact, had stayed out of sight most of the time. My teammate explained…one of our team members let it be known to the hosts that “There was an American on the team.”

And that one word “American” apparently commanded the respect of the Lithuanians. It was obvious to me that no matter what the Soviet propaganda machine churned out here, there were those who remained profoundly grateful and respected the people of the United States for what they have done for them over the years.

***

bookTom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess.  Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!

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A Phone Call from Paris

Soviet Basketball team
Some of the students that Tom coached

“A teacher may forget a student; but a student will never forget a teacher.” I found that to be true over the years, for many of my former Soviet students have continued to keep in touch with me thanks to the Internet.

One such student, who was on staff at the BBC in London, serving on the Russian Bureau until he retired, contacted me by phone from Paris to tell me how much he enjoyed the book.

“I knew all of the characters in the book, Mr. Tom,” he said. “I am so happy that you are alive and found time to write it. Do you remember who I am?”

I conceded that the four decades of separation had dimmed my memory.

“Do you remember when the Harlem Globetrotters came to Tiflis and you had picked ten players to go watch them play?”

I admitted that I remembered when the professional black basketball team visited the USSR, but I did not remember the incident of choosing my players to attend the exhibition game. “That was so long ago.”

“It doesn’t matter, of course,” my former student said, “But I was No. 11, and I didn’t get to go. And I cried all night and that’s why I remember it so well.”

I profusely apologized for the sadness I had inadvertently caused, and told him I was very sorry.

“Oh, I ready didn’t care…I was just happy playing for you.”

Curious, I asked, “Do you recall what the administration at the school said when I didn’t show up in the gym to conduct my class?”

“Oh, yes, yes, of course, I do. They said that Tavahrishch Tom was sick, and that you have been taken to a sanatorium to get some rest. And that you would soon come back.”

Interesting, I thought. “Did you and the others believe what they said?”

“Of course not, Mr. Tom.” There was a pause. “We knew better. We knew you were somewhere in Siberia.”

***

bookTom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess.  Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!

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Death of a Basketball Icon

Soviet Basketball

The death Sunday of basketball icon Meadowlark Lemon brought back memories of my life as a Soviet.

Meadowlark who, for more than two decades, was one of the shining stars of Abe Saperstein’s Harlem Globetrotters, dazzled millions of cheering fans across the continents with his deft ball-handling and pin-point passing. His hallmark shot was one from an incredible angle on the floor which would sink into the net, and the basket was made with his back to the board.

Meadowlark brought a glimmer of light into my life which had been drenched of hope of ever returning to my native land. An American-born, nightmares had tormented me for more than a decade, since I went into self-exile and became as one AP foreign correspondent would write: “The man without a country.”

By all accounts Stalin’s henchmen believed me to be a “sleeper”. Ironically, upon my return home in July 1960, for a time the FBI apparently considered me to be “sleeper”.

But, among the bright spots in my incredulous stay among the Soviets were these unforgettable encounters with men and women who were noted dignitaries and ambassadors of good will – groups who wanted to build bridges – not walls – between the USA and the Soviet Union.

One such group was Abe Saperstein’s Harlem Globetrotters. They truly were ambassadors of good will and mirrored the best that the USA had to offer.

Saperstein, the son of Polish immigrants, longed to take his team to the world-famous basketball team of the Soviet Union and for years the Kremlin replied: “Neyet! Neyet! Neyet!” But, for some inexplicable reason, in the summer of 1959 Nikita Khrushchev finally said: “Da.”

I had a front row seat in that standing room only Soviet crowd that packed the Lenin Sports Palace to watch the Globetrotters titillate the Soviets with their talented moves and charm that year. In that Globetrotter line-up were such phenomenal talents as Wilt Chamberlain, Bobby “Showboat” Hall, and Meadowlark Lemon.

Under unusual and unbelievable circumstances, I got to meet the players.

At the end of the game I strolled toward an exit but was stopped on the floor by one of the Globetrotters. He burst into smiles and said: “Aren’t you Tom Mooradian?” Startled by the knowledge that he knew my name, the Globetrotter introduced himself as Bobby Hall…a Detroiter. He went on to say that he played “…for Robinson and you guys beat us for the Detroit Metropolitan High School Basketball Championship back in 1946…” and then added…”You never remember the guys you beat, but you always remember the guys who beat you.”

As the Soviet fans, including a couple of KGB officers, gathered around us to listen in, I suggested we meet in a more private place and offered to take him to breakfast. I asked where he and the team were staying and he replied: “The Hotel Ukraine.”

The next day I took a taxi to the hotel and Hall met me in the lobby. Instead of heading for the restaurant, he said: “The guys want to meet you…” He led me to Wilt’s room where most of the players had gathered. And, of course, when most basketball players get together, I had discovered over the years, we don’t discuss our work, i.e., basketball,l but rather women. In this case, Russian women.

After a question and answer seminar on Russia, Wilt asked me the last time I had been in the States, I replied: “About 12 years ago.”

“Twelve years?!”

I nodded.

There was a chilling silence in that room.

“Do you want to go home?”

“You bet.”

I won’t detail Wilt Chamberlain’s plan to get me out of the Soviet Union during the arctic era of the Cold War, but I did refuse the offer. And thanked him. That most Soviet hotel rooms had listening and camera devices was common knowledge among the Soviet citizenry. I didn’t want to risk the plan not working because it was already suspected by the KGB and it’s discovery would have been embarrassing to everyone involved. But at the time, for one fleeting moment, my dreams of America were rekindled, my broken heart had been made whole and lit with a flame that gave me the hope that one day I would again be a free man in my homeland.

As you can see, the death of a Harem Globetrotter has returned me to a time and place where I knew hate and evil…but also revelations that no matter how distraught or traumatic the life experience, how unfulfilled the dream, the clenched fist is never …never the answer to the problem.

 ***

bookTom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess.  Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!

Save