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Have You Ever Heard of: Sergei Belov?

Associated Press

Have You Ever Heard of…? is a series of articles written to recognize some of the lesser known Hall of Fame inductees whose contributions to the game are underappreciated and who deserve the “fame” that comes with enshrinement.

Sergei Belov never scored a point, grabbed a rebound or played a minute in an NBA game, but make no mistake about it, he could play with NBA players if he’d had the chance. He was, however, the first great European player.

The 6’ 2” guard weighed 185 pounds, per his profile page at Sports-Reference.com. When FIBA announced its 50 greatest players in 1991, the top man on the list was Belov.  So who was this guy, and why did he warrant such attention?

His Naismith bio details his accomplishments:

Sergei Belov is widely considered the greatest international player of all time. Regarded as a magician with the basketball, Belov’s playing skills were advanced for the international game. The “Jerry West of Russia” used his significant court presence to make the Soviet National team a force in Olympic competition, winning four bronze medals and the historic Olympic Gold Medal in 1972. Belov, who also led the Russian National team to four European and two World Championships, was the first international player to be elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

And his Wiki article provides more information:

As player:

As coach:

He won one Olympic gold medal in 1972, and three bronze in ’68 ’76 and ’80. He won two FIBA gold medals in World Cup play in ’67 and ’74 as well as a bronze and a silver. He won four golds, two silvers and a bronze in Eurobasket.

To wit: he was considerably accomplished. That’s 14 medals hanging in his trophy case.

He also played professionally and successfully in the USSR, according to The Independent:

Starting his career with Uralmash Sverdlovsk, he moved to CSKA Moscow in 1967 and went on to win 11 USSR League titles in 13 years with as well as the USSR Cup twice (1972, 1973), and the Euroleague twice (1969 and 1971). He later coached the team for three years, leading them to two titles. In 1992 he became the first international player inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and he was inducted into basketball’s international Hall of Fame in 2007.

It’s harder to find more about what made the man tick, or about his life, but there’s one site that appears to either have been translated from Russian or written in English by someone whose first language is not English. But I find this oddly appropriate.

A man who’s somewhat obscure to the American public had obscure roots, even for Russia. Like, literally, they don’t get more obscure:

Sergey was born in Siberia. It so happened that his father just before the war was in the Far East Expedition. The mother and brother remained in Leningrad. They survived the most difficult days of the blockade. The family was reunited only in 1943 in the Tomsk region, which then served as a father. Before the birth of Sergei’s father had been sent to the front, and Sergei saw it only in 1947, after demobilization. In 1950 the family as a whole moved to Tomsk. My father worked in government establishments, Executive Committee, Executive Committee, Economic Council, in charge of the forest industry of Tomsk region.

As you can see, it takes some effort to try and parse out what’s being said. What I can glean from this is Sergey was born in Siberia, and his father was off fighting the war until 1947 (Sergey was born in 1944) and then moved to Tomsk in 1950.

I’ll just paraphrase more of it and save you the trouble of trying to figure out what it means.

Belov’s initial dreams were of being a soccer goalie, but because he’d have to play for the Siberian team, he decided to concentrate on basketball, where he excelled. His coach saw his potential and so allowed him to play with older kids, and he gained some notoriety in the city.

After winning a championship for his school, he gained the attention of the Ural Yekaterinburg, a professional team. After leading the “Urals” to a first-place finish, he caught the attention of the national team in 1967, where he led the Russians to prominence.

When not competing with the Russian team, he still played with the Urals, leading them to 11 more championships in the next 12 years. He was known for being a “fighter” who always wanted to take on the best player on the opposing team. That’s what you’d expect from a man from Siberia.

And in the historic 1972 Olympics, he scored 20 points against the USA, but he was not the Belov who made the game-winning layup (that was Alexander, no relation).

For his contributions, he was asked to light the Olympic torch for Russia in the 1980 Moscow games.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992; the first European player to gain that distinction. He passed away on Oct. 3, 2013.

He was representative of the era he played in, not in terms of basketball, but politics. He was a great player — the Jerry West of Russia (which at the time would be like saying the Michael Jordan of Russia). But because of the political situation, Russian players weren’t able to compete in the NBA.

Arvydas Sabonis is a man whose legacy was denied by those same politics, but at least he had the chance to play at some point in his life. America never knew Belov, but if he’d been allowed to play in the US, the European invasion to the NBA could’ve started 20 years earlier. Thus he remained, in some measure, obscure, even in greatness.

And now you’ve heard of Sergei Belov.

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