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Baltic-American team put a scare into Red Army machine

  • 2015-02-05

TBT contributor Victor Shestopalov reports from Moscow, where Kalev/Cramo (Tallinn) lost to CSKA – 81:102 in a VTB United League regular season game.

The basketball game in Moscow against CSKA is by far the most important business trip during the season for most VTB United League teams. And not just because of the chance to stroll on Red Square, visit the Bolshoi Theater or get stuck in Moscow’s infamous traffic jams. Not even for the opportunity to play in the old, almost dilapidated, Soviet-era-style basketball gym – one that looks down at you like a giant monster. Not at all! It’s all because of the chance to compete against the best.

Never feeling ill-affected in the midst of the recent economic crisis afflicting Russia, CSKA Moscow is still boasting top notch basketball talent from top to bottom. Estonian champions Kalev/Cramo (Tallinn) came to Moscow this January to try to be a fair game for the leader of the United League standing. Old gym or not, beating the “Red Army” team in its own domain is a long shot for any opponent. But let’s not forget that it was none other than Kalev that won the last Soviet Union basketball championship over Spartak Leningrad back in 1991.

Compared to the legendary Tiit Sokk-led-squad of the early 90s, this Kalev team of 2015 is not that good, talent-wise. But it has got one of the brightest young head coaches in Alar Varrak, who himself played for Tallinn’s top basketball club from 1999 to 2005. Nowadays, this 32-year old is trying to make his mark as a basketball strategist and tactician. As they say: even an average playmaker can make a very good basketball coach.

On the other hand, the coaching staff can only do so much – it’s players who make passes, set screens and ultimately put the ball in a basket. That’s why the topic of talent is coming up big-time. In the case of Kalev, the main question is: who have they got to match CSKA’s all-around game down on the court? Kalev have several young Estonian players, a couple of Americans, a Lithuanian centre and one decent Latvian forward, named Rolands Freimanis, and that’s basically it.

And, surprisingly, this Baltic-American squad of basketball journeymen looked pretty legit against CSKA in the first quarter. Eric Keedus, the 24-year-old Estonian national team member,  fearlessly went to the opponent’s hoop, then tried to lock down the best Moscow player, Sonny Weems, in defence. The whole Kalev team played good transition defense, getting back and limiting Moscow’s opportunities for fast breaks. And, of course, Freimanis was shooting from all over the field. With 23 points he ended up as a top scorer from either team.

What complicated the mission further for Kalev is the fact that you don’t win a basketball game after just one quarter - you’ve got to persevere until the final buzzer. That’s where CSKA’s experience and its long bench took over. Moscow’s head coach Dimitris Itudis has so many talented players that his intra-squad games during practices are broadcasted on national TV, because they get such high ratings. And the team still doesn’t include captain Victor Khryapa, who is recuperating after the injury.

This time against Kalev it was the bench play that helped CSKA to make a strong run in the second quarter. Plus, of course, the talent of Milos Teodosic, who is arguably one of the best guards in all of European basketball. His sleight of hands and knack for so-called “blind” passes are so amazing, he would be welcomed into a Harlem Globetrotters showmen-style team any day of the week. His 22 points and half a dozen of “wow” assists helped CSKA to secure a big lead in the final quarter and wrap up a game with a score of 102:81.

Even though for the Estonian basketball champions this business trip failed to bring victorious joy, it still fulfilled a purpose. They say you grow as a professional after just such a loss. You just go back, soak it all in, make the adjustments, forget all about it and move forward. The season is too short to reminisce. To be a good player you have got to have a short memory. And mad basketball skills. A good team needs 12 of a kind plus a coach. Preferably a young, ambitious one to glue it all together. What is missing from this Kalev team? I don’t see much.

Even though some of the Kalev players weren’t even born in 1991, that victory in the last Soviet basketball championship can and must be an example of overcoming challenges for many generations of Estonian basketball players to come.