A tale of two teams

Basketball?m We didn't know they even had that in Moscow. We were American students here for a serious cultural exchange. And we thought we had found the perfect place to exchange culture seriously - a mezhdunarodnaya shkolam, an international school where students specialize in foreign languages, as well as chemistry, math, and literature.

But we had barely got off the Intourist bus and stamped the gray February snow off our boots when the principal asked us to play basketballm. Against his own team. As soon as our tour of his school was over.

Well, we didn't have the right shoes.

Well, they would provide them.

Well, ok!m then.

How to play our best game? Hurried consultations during the tour. We had to be good guests. Our opponents were several years younger. They were Russians playing an American sport. It was important that we not overwhelm anybody.

Chet would play outside, Duncan would be in the middle. And the rest of us would jet around, find the open man under the basket, and feed the ball to him. Everyone talked about feeding the ball.

Finally we get to the gym and are immediately ushered into a locker room. Dressed for the cold, most of us strip to the bare, modest essentials. In his bright red underwear, stretching from head to toe, Duncan looks like a slender Santa. Chet wears his coarse leather trousers. I've got on wool suit pants and the thermal undershirt my uncle went through Army basic training in.

A box of tennis shoes is plopped down in front of us. They are a bit large. Two of us could row across the Volga in one of the smaller sizes. But we burst out of the locker room and dance onto the gym floor as if back at the high school prom.

On the other side of the gym, the other team is looking very tall. They have uniformsm, and they are going through a drill that is unexpectedly impressive. We grab a couple of balls and gawk around under the basket, sneakers flapping.

On their side - determination. Cultural exchange? Not so. They are warming up form us, not tom us.

The principal, now out on the court, is beaming and talking and translating about five languages at once. The head of our exchange program is with him, beaming, too.

No one seems to say the obvious - how incredible it is that only two days earlier we were in Illinois typing college papers on Solzhenitsyn, and now suddenly we are right here in Moscow, during the Afghanistan crisis and the Western boycott of the Olympics, about to bounce around a basketball with kids from the other side of the planet.

How did they regard us? I couldn't tell. But it was certain this was not to be a relaxed game between old cultural friends. These businesslike faces meant business. This was going to be some serious basketball, though how they could stand there with straight faces across from this United States ''team'' that looked like refugees from Gilligan's Islandm was beyond me.

They looked at us, and we looked at each other. And we assured ourselves that we would surely ''feed the ball'' whenever possible.

We almost scored immediately. Duncan was tall enough to outjump their center, and we neatly moved the ball down the court. Someone made an exceedingly passable inside shot that rimmed the basket. It was closem. We looked around confidently. It seemed evident that with a bit more practice we would be able to feed the ball right in there and score with regularity.

Well, the Russians recovered the ball, marched downcourt, and this fellow - No. 48 - made a pretty nice 15-foot jumper. A swish. Doubtless he couldn't do it again, but it was nice. We buzzed right back, yes sir, looking for the open man ready to be fed. But a white uniform floated into the fray and intercepted a zinging-hot pass at midcourt. This time their center made good on a rebound and tipped the ball in for their second score. We lost the ball again (c'monm, guys) and No. 48 made another of his clean 15-foot jumpers, except this one was from 20 feet. One minute later, he did it again.

Our spirits waned. Our buzz broke. We finally scored, but it wasn't a very solid score. Nobody said anything about feeding the ball anymore. Instead, we clomped downcourt to watch No. 48 effortlessly launch another perfect, arching swish.

I distinctly remember when we got behind by 22 points. It was then that Chet, in his leather pants, deliberately collapsed into a spread-eagle position on the gym floor, and we all followed suit. It was 28 to 6. We huddled. We caught our breath. And we talked.

Who knows what we said? At this point, we just wanted to do something right.

So far, the game had taken place in a furious silence. As play began again, the Russians maintained this silence. We didn't.

We talked. We questioned. We analyzed out loud. We pointed, shouted, improvised, changed things. We double-teamed No. 48. Chet flicked inside, and Duncan stayed outside. We began to come back.

Walt Frazier, that great guard, says, ''A team that has momentum has a sixth man on the court.'' That was how we felt.

The Russian boys weren't ready for this. They had apparently learned the game of basketball as a team technique, as a machine-like process. As such, they had it down cold.

But we were starting to play as individuals on a team. Duncan, with his great strides, driving downcourt in his red underwear, long after the rest of us had become too tired to run, made us run. Chet wheeled and dealed, and so did we. No. 48 seemed so confused that we didn't need to double-team him anymore. I even stopped thinking about him as No. 48. I saw him instead with his mother that morning, telling her at breakfast that this was the day the American team was supposed to come . . . .

Anyhow, the score closed to within a point. 45 to 44. But as we started dribbling downcourt, sure to forge ahead for the first time, the ref blew his whistle and said the game was over. No official clock, you see.

We couldn't believe it. Several of us chorused, ''Naaaoooo!''m

Everyone finally calmed down, and we shook hands with the Russian players. Did they know what happened? Did they really believe they won? Looking at them, I thought I saw a twinkle of recognition.

In the end, maybe we did exchange some culture.

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