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.”
There was a chilling silence in that room.
“Do you want to go home?”
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.
Tom 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!