When the Commies Came to Play

The year, I’m guessing, was 1973.  And it must have been late in the year because I remember the threat of rain throughout the day; Brasilia’s dry season had come and gone.

At the Summer Olympics the year before, the USA men’s basketball team had suffered a controversial and ignominious defeat at the hands of the USSR during the final match in Munich.  The Soviet players went home with gold medals and the Americans went home with…nothing: they refused to attend the medal ceremony or even accept their silver medals which, nearly 45 years later, are still being held by the International Olympic Committee, awaiting a change of heart by Team USA.

But the early 1970s was also the height of détente, the slow thawing of Cold War relationships, chief among them those nations which held nuclear arsenals.  Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the USSR, and US President Richard Nixon met in Washington in June 1973, one of the high-water marks of the process.

In that spirit, with the Americans still bruised and sulking about a basketball game, and yet both nations looking for opportunities for gestures of good will, someone at the US Embassy in Brasilia came up with the idea of challenging the Soviet Embassy to a friendly basketball game.  A rematch.  Our embassy staff against yours.

Surprisingly, the offer was engaged.

The capital city of Brazil, Brasilia, was largely built in the 1960s, and among its planned oddities – a city of half a million people laid out in the pattern of a giant airplane and having no traffic lights? – was the fact that the embassies were allocated space based on the perceived importance of each nation to the people of Brazil.  So the closest embassy to the centre of government is that of the Vatican.  The second closest is Portugal, the mother country.  Third and fourth are toss-ups:  the USA and USSR.  It would have been easy enough for the one group of diplomats to walk to the other embassy after work – the embassies are literally just across the street from each other – but of course that would mean playing the game on partisan soil.  What was needed was a neutral venue that came with a decent basketball court.

And so it was that the compound of SIL – the Summer Institute of Linguistics, where my father had his print shop and where we lived – came to host the USSR v USA Basketball Rematch, Diplomats Edition.

The Americans arrived first, mid-afternoon, filling up the parking lot with their Chevy Suburbans and spilling onto the lawns around the basketball court.  Their team was far from the pencil-pushers we had generally expected; instead, it seemed populated almost entirely with young US Marines, no doubt the security detachment at the embassy, led by a particularly tough and foul-mouthed officer.  They warmed-up with the regimental discipline so typical of American sports teams, doing exercises and drills in unison, looking for all the world like winners.

Time ticked on.  The USSR didn’t show, and the Americans grew both impatient and undiplomatic.  “Those Ruskies, they ain’t nothing but no-good, lying chickens; make a gesture of good will with them and see where it gets you….”  (These are only the more polite of the many comments which were vented.)

In the end the Commies did come.  Late in the afternoon, I and some of the other neighbourhood boys acting as scouts as we stood with our feet on the bottom strand of the wire fence at the edge of the compound, spied a single ZiL limousine stopped on the street below.  Soon a long line of similar ZiLs eased slowly up the street, pulling in behind the first car, and parking where they stood.  Up the pathway came the Soviet team and their supporters, and what was immediately obvious to all was that their security detachment had been left at home; to a man, these men really were middle-aged pencil-pushing diplomats.

The game was a farce. In no time the young American team was winning by double digits, running circles around their Soviet opponents.  But even in winning the Americans could not help but let the unsettled score of the Olympics goad them on to bad behaviour, the brash Marine officer repeatedly picking fights for no apparent reason, glad to have an excuse to let loose another stream of expletives.  One by one, red-faced, huffing and puffing, the Soviet diplomats allowed themselves to be substituted by the SIL men who stood watching from the sidelines, my father – an American – included.

The teams shook hands at the end, the Americans exulting in their victory, high-fiving each other enthusiastically as they threw their gear into the Suburbans, driving off with horns honking in triumph.  The Soviets waited until the Americans were gone, thanked their hosts, and withdrew to their ZiLs, going as they came, disappearing around the corner in a long, dark uniform rank.

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