By Sarah Cohen
Sergei Belov’s average day is far from average.
“It’s basketball,” he said with a slight laugh.
More specifically, it is spent developing the Russian Club team Ural Great Perm, who recently defeated CSKA Moscow for the Russian Cup and competed in the Final Four of the FIBA Europe League.
“I have very little time without basketball,” Belov said. “Being a coach is very absorbing and takes up all my time.”
Though the club did not leave the tournament in Kazan victorious, Belov has good reason to celebrate his 40-year professional basketball career.
His playing career alone boasts four Olympic Finals four World Championship finals, seven European Championship finals, 13 USSR League Championship finals and four European Cup for Champion Clubs finals.
In 1992, he was the first international player to become a part of the Basketball Hall of Fame, and in 1991, FIBA named him the “Best European player ever.”
Now Belov coaches one of Russia’s top club teams.
One might say Belov is the jack-of-all-trades when it comes to basketball. But basketball miracles do not happen overnight.
Early beginnings, bright future
Much has happened since 1964, when Belov first stepped onto the court with Uralmash Sverdlovsk, his first professional team. His love for basketball began long before as a schoolboy in Siberia.
After playing throughout school, Belov was invited to compete with the club team Uralmash Sverdlovsk in 1964. The three-year stint ended in 1968, when Belov transferred to what would be his basketball home for the next 12 years, CSKA Moscow.
It was in the midst of this transfer that Belov received his first nomination to compete on the Soviet national team.
“[To play for the national team] was a huge honour and a great chance to see the world and meet people from all over the world,” Belov said. “It was a great honour to represent the country as a member of the team — and a great challenge.”
It was on this team that Belov made his international debut in the 1967 World Basketball Championship in Uruguay, where the Soviet Union won unexpectedly after the United States lost to Brazil in the Final Round. Though his first international competition, the pressure he put on himself was far greater than what the competition offered.
“It was my debut in the World Championships, and it was a difficult tournament,” Belov said. “But when you are a player and participant in the competition, you don’t focus on the event.
“We were playing for the national team, and it means more than playing against Russian teams because you are representing your country. After 1968, I had strange feelings because I was not satisfied with my playing, but I was satisfied with the win. It was a double impact.”
Work hard, play hard
This dissatisfaction with his performance helped motivate Belov to train intensely.
Belov was a “self-made man,” said Sergei Bashkin, assistant coach for the 1972 Soviet Olympic team in a 2002 documentary of the Olympic finals that year. Bashkin said Belov was the first player to focus on weight training and that he developed strong legs and endurance to be in top physical condition.
“There have been a lot of players, coaches and team-mates with whom I worked and against whom I competed,” Belov said. “The most important thing is to learn from everyone and apply it to your own style. I tried to take the best from other players and apply it to myself.”
Belov also applies to himself — and to Ural Great Perm — a philosophy of winning. Winning, he said, is the most important thing to a player.
Though Belov couldn’t pin-point the single greatest moment of his career, he could reflect on winning the 1972 Olympics as the greatest fulfilment of this philosophy.
“There is nothing greater than to win an Olympic Championship, but for me, my whole career was great,” he said. “I cannot find a few moments that I liked the most, but I enjoyed all of my career — training, national competitions, international competitions. But as I said before, winning is always the most important thing in the career and to win the Olympic Championships is very crucial and important in every sportsman’s career.”
During the 1972 Olympic finals, the Soviet Union competed against the United States, a team Belov remembers as one of the most difficult opponents he ever faced. His performance in the game earned him the international reputation of a powerful Soviet weapon, as his 20 points played a crucial role in the collapse of the United States’ victorious dynasty.
Though the USSR walked off the court with the gold medal on 9th September 1972, the past three decades have been full of debate and controversy about the win.
No doubt remains with Belov, however.
“We won the game,” he said. “For players, the most important thing is what happens on the floor. … The duty of the players is to play. So when we had the chance, we did it.”
Belov’s entire career echoes this same responsibility: to play hard and to take advantage of every chance to win.