By Sarah Cohen
Lea Hakala remembers the first time she played against basketball great Uljana Semjonova. It was 1981, shortly after the European Championships, and the Soviet Union had once again won its way to a European Championship gold medal — its eighth since Semjonova joined the national team in 1968.
After the initial intimidation felt by Semjonova’s 213 cm, Hakala, then a player on the Finnish National Team, recalled Semjonova’s basketball skills.
|TTT Riga center Uljana Semjonova is presented with the 1969 European Cup for Womens Champions clubs trophy by former FIBA President Robert Busnel. Riga defeated German side SC Chemie for the title, their 6th in a row.|
“She was an excellent shooter because she was left-handed,” Hakala said. “She used that hook-shot at the basket and she dominated all the rebounds. All the players around her were so good, that it was complicated for us to stop them because you could hardly stop her. But, of course, it was kind of hard because she was big and so tall. If someone would pass to her, everyone was [cheering].”
And so they should have. Semjonova is heralded as the woman to have revolutionised women’s basketball. As a towering 13-year-old, Uljana first joined TTT Daugawa – Riga Latvia as a junior professional in 1965. She competed with Riga for 22 years, winning 15 USSR Championships and four USSR National Tournaments. The team also won the European Cup 11 times.
She helped lead the Soviet National Team to two Olympic, three World Championship and 10 European Championship gold medals. Her junior career for the nation also reeked of success: two World Student Game Championships and three Junior European Championships. A loss never marred her 18 years competing with the team, and had politics not entered the picture, her total number of medals could and probably would have surpassed the 45 she has to her name today.
“When I later on began to work at the national federation and travel with the national team officers, I learned that many of her victories were because of her height,” said Sergey Chernov, Semjonova’s assistant coach on the Soviet national team for the 1986 Goodwill Games. “I remember she was an excellent player, excellent center, very clever on the court, understood the game perfectly. She worked hard individually on her performance.”
Her hard work did not go overlooked. From 1970 to 1985, her native country of Lativa named her its most popular athlete 12 times.
In short, Semjonova was loved and has continued to be loved since her retirement in 1989. Chernov said that four years after Semjonova had retired, Adidas was still sending her complementary pairs of special-request size 53/54 shoes.
Yannick Souvré, marketing director of FIBA Europe Properties GmbH, also recalls being an awe-struck fan even after Semjonova’s playing career concluded. Although the French player never had the opportunity to face Semjonova in competition, she had the opportunity to meet Semjonova at a pre-season tournament in Latvia in the summer of 1991.
“I saw her and thought, ‘I have a legend right in front of me, right there,’” Souvré said.
Souvré hadn’t forgotten the numerous defeats she had witnessed at the hands of Semjonova, who racked up 15,000 points during her career. Seeing those hands in person made a different impression.
“I went to her and said, ‘May I just see your hand?’ so I could put mine in hers,” Souvré said. “It was like a baby’s hand in my hand. After the first time meeting someone and having this legend in front of me, I wanted to learn more about the person. I remember her as a very, very nice lady.”
Souvré is not the first to have such an impression of Semjonova.
Former Canadian national team star Bev Smith was a fan of Semjonova since the first time she saw her play on television during the 1976 Olympics.
“She really represented to me the best that women’s basketball had,” said Smith, who later had her chances to face Semjonova on the court, both in the United States and in Europe. “She became for me an idol to emulate and become as good as she is. She was the first woman player I saw as dominating – [7 feet], getting out there and barking at her teammates.”
In 1993, Semjonova was the first European woman to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, USA. That honour was followed in 1999, as she was included in the inaugural induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.
Nan Elrod, director of programs at the WBHOF, welcomed Semjonova, when she arrived in Knoxville, USA, for the induction. She said she knew Semjonova’s name long before the induction from her performance in the 1976 Olympics, as well as the various stories American players and coaches had shared, including one told by Billie Moore, who coached the U.S. Olympic team that year. Moore said that after the first half of the game, Semjonova was already in street clothes because she had put the Soviet Team so far ahead in the first half.
Elrod and her assistant accompanied an exhausted Semjonova from the airport to her hotel.
“When she got into her room, she lay down on the bed, and her poor feet were hanging off the bed,” Elrod said. “We offered to get her a new bed, but she [said], ‘No, no. Fine, fine.” I [said to her], ‘Uljana, this bed is not going to work for you,’ but she insisted. She was just so gracious in accepting this bed.
“She definitely was one of the stars for the weekend. We had 25 people who were all worthy of that honour, but Uljana just took centre stage.”
Though Semjonova’s height made her unbeatable in women’s basketball and revolutionised the sport for recruiting tall women, it also posed various problems on the court. Everyone wanted to play rough with the “gentle giant.”
Hakala remembered how the referees even treated her unfairly.
“I think that anyone could play roughly against her,” Hakala said. “The referees didn’t call anything against her because she is so big. I think they thought, ‘She is so big, so let the others hit her a little bit more.’ I don’t remember her complaining too much. I guess she was used to that.”
Coach Chernov remembered tears from such incidents. He recalled how other players would push and hit Semjonova, but she never responded in kind.
“In all the opening games, the opponents wanted to stop her under the basket and play rough," Chernov said. “She was sometimes upset or cried, but she didn’t want to respond in a physical way. She was a very kind person.”
Today she serves as chairwoman of the Latvian Olympian Social Foundation, which she has led since 1991 and through which she can continue to use her gifts of sportsmanship and integrity to serve athletes of all sports as she has served European and worldwide basketball.
“She was really a gentle woman,” Smith said. “She raised the standard for women’s basketball.”
A story of success
In 18 seasons of international competition Uljana Semjonova never lost a game in national team competition, a record that will almost certainly never be repeated. Here is the list of her achievements.
|Competition ||Titles ||Years |
|European Cup For Women's Champions Clubs ||11 ||1968 - 1975 (8 consecutive), 1977, 1981 and 1982 |
|European Championship for Women ||10 ||1968 - 1985 (10 consecutive gold medals) |
|Olympic Games ||2 ||1976 and 1980 |
|World Championships ||3 ||1971, 1975 and 1983 |
- Won the championship of the former USSR 15 times
- Won a total of 45 medals
- From 1970 to 1985, named the most popular athlete in her native Latvia 12 times
- Scored more than 15,000 points in her career
- Scored 54 points in the European Championship Cup game against Geas (Italy) in 1975
- Scored 46 points in European Championship Cup game against Sparta (Prague)
- In the 1976 Olympic gold medal game, she scored 32 points against a team featuring Hall of Famers Ann Meyers and Lusia Harris-Stewart; all three were enshrined in 1993