Silent No More

The End of the Hoop Dream: A Journey to the Extreme Fringe of International Basketball

Elias Stein

Follow the Bouncing Ball

A behind-the-scenes trip to the Euroleague, with Andrei Kirilenko and U.S. imports Sonny Weems, Kyle Hines, Aaron Jackson, and Demetris Nichols, during the stretch run of Russian basketball powerhouse CSKA Moscow’s season

“Everyone. You’ve seen everything.”

Dimitris Itoudis is frustrated. By “everything,” he means that all the evidence of what’s wrong with his team was out there on the court earlier that night. It’s a damp Friday near the end of March, and Itoudis grimaces behind a microphone in a press room tucked in a corner of a converted hockey arena in Nizhny Novgorod, a military-industrial town 250 miles east of Moscow. In a navy suit, purple tie, and monogrammed white cuffs, the head coach of Russian powerhouse basketball club CSKA Moscow clenches his teeth and then lets loose.

Even though CSKA (pronounced chess-ka) just beat Nizhny 86-82 in the late-season Euroleague match,1 Itoudis is unsatisfied. His team, considered one of the best in Europe and fighting for first place in its group, struggled to defend pick-and-rolls, trailed by 13 at the half, and relied on its bench to salvage a win. “With small words, we were a disaster defensively,” says Itoudis, a 44-year-old Greek national in his first year as CSKA’s coach. “And this is not a time to risk such things.”

Before long, Itoudis is yelling: “We don’t lie over here, and I have no problem with that. Hey! We have talent offensively. But the point is to go over there and bend your knees and play defense, sacrifice your body. [Whether] you’re a starter, the third rotation, it doesn’t matter.”

Lately, that rotation has been in flux. A month earlier, Andrei Kirilenko, arguably the greatest Russian player of all time and a former NBA All-Star, rejoined CSKA for a national farewell tour after starting the season with the Brooklyn Nets. Kirilenko played only 36 total minutes during the two months he spent in the NBA and is out of playing shape. Itoudis has been easing him in, and against Nizhny, Kirilenko clocked just six minutes and didn’t attempt a field goal. Predictably, a Russian journalist asks why he didn’t play more.

“It’s obvious [Kirilenko] needs the time to make adjustments, and he will help us, I’m convinced of it,” Itoudis says, annoyed at the question. “He’s a great professional. We tried [him] today; it didn’t work. There’s decisions we’re going to make, because now is the period that CSKA needs to win.”

Despite appearing in 12 of the past 13 Final Fours, Russia’s most storied sports club  “CSKA” is a Russian abbreviation for “Central Sports Club of the Army” hasn’t won Euroleague since 2008, earning a reputation for choking in the playoffs. This season, led by American talent like Sonny Weems and Kyle Hines, CSKA went undefeated in Euroleague and domestic league play for the first four months of the season. They amassed a 30-game winning streak and inspired hope that the Euroleague  championship drought might finally end. Then the team opened February with three losses and has looked shaky ever since. On the road during Kirilenko’s final playing days, as the playoffs loom, there is an acute sense of urgency around the team, which sometimes feels like panic.

“Now is the time we send a message to ourselves, to everybody,” Itoudis says. “We gotta bend our knees, put our ass down on the floor, and play.” With that, the coach thanks his audience, leaves the arena, and smirks for a few pictures on his way to the team bus.

CSKA coach Dimitris Itoudis talks to Andrei Kirilenko on the sideline.

Rodolfo Molina/Getty Images CSKA coach Dimitris Itoudis talks to Andrei Kirilenko on the sideline.

Earlier that week, the tension and stakes feel much lower four time zones east in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, a dusty mining city on the Yenisey River. In a concrete wrestling arena, CSKA warms up to play Enisey, a middling opponent in Eastern Europe’s VTB United League. Above the building’s front entrance, a banner advertises the night’s main attraction with a large picture of Kirilenko’s face. Bobby Shmurda blares through the loudspeakers as families file inside.

The place is nearly sold out but quiet as an office, and the fans in Krasnoyarsk don’t seem terribly passionate. Other than a young Kobe Bryant fan in a Lakers jersey, no one dresses in basketball gear. Feeble noise greets both teams’ introductions, though Kirilenko pulls some extra applause. A tuxedoed Siberian Ryan Seacrest, courtside with a microphone, fails all game to coordinate chants and other basic fan behavior like reacting to fouls or yelling during the visitors’ free throw attempts.

The game stays close but never feels competitive. CSKA, the United League’s highest-scoring team, sports a balanced attack led by three NBA-caliber perimeter creators: Weems, Milos Teodosic, and Nando de Colo. Russians Andrey Vorontsevich and former Kansas University big man Sasha Kaun lead the frontcourt. The bench is deep and the offense disciplined, heavy on pick-and-rolls that generate a multitude of looks from beyond the 3-point line. Enisey can’t match CSKA’s talent, so it resorts to ex–Ohio University point guard D.J. Cooper dribbling in circles and trying to dish drop-off passes to his plodding teammates. CSKA heads into the final period up 69-59.

The crowd comes to life briefly in the fourth, when Weems throws a punch in the direction of an Enisey big man who shoved fellow CSKA import Hines, but enough teammates intervene to snuff out the squabble, and the visitors coast to a 93-79 win. This could be these fans’ last chance to see Kirilenko in action, even if he played only eight minutes, with four rebounds, two assists, and a single missed shot. After the game, children of all ages jockey for space outside the locker room, on the stairs, in the lobby, and outside the doors. They open their camera apps and hold out their smartphones. For many in the crowd, the basketball was an afterthought. The kids want selfies.

Kyle Hines during an interview.

Francesco Richieri/Getty Images Kyle Hines during an interview.

Two days after Krasnoyarsk, the night before the trip to Nizhny, Kyle Hines crams into a black leather booth at a steakhouse in central Moscow. He hunches forward, snapback pulled low, his hands enveloping an iPhone. At 6-foot-6, the bruising former UNC-Greensboro star was deemed too small to play power forward in the NBA, but our corner table is still a tight fit.

Chicago Prime Steakhouse & Bar, a haven for English-speaking expats, sits on the second floor above a burger joint in Moscow’s theater district. Classic Chicago sports photos line the walls: Jordan’s Bulls, the Toews-Kane Blackhawks, and possibly the only framed picture of Jay Cutler in Russia. The owner, Ken Frost, a Boston native, moved from Rancho Mirage, California, 19 years ago and has been here ever since. His 17-year-old son plays quarterback for Russia’s national American football team and catches for the national baseball squad. This is where CSKA’s American players gathered at 2:30 a.m. local time to watch Super Bowl XLIX.

Hines, 28, joined the club two summers ago from the Greek team Olympiacos. After having one of the most statistically productive careers in NCAA history,2 Hines went undrafted in 2008 and bounced from Italy to Germany before emerging as a star in Athens, where he helped lead the team to back-to-back Euroleague titles (the first against CSKA). In 2013 he appeared shirtless on the cover of the Greek edition of Men’s Health. He has found success in Europe with his rebounding and toughness, which sounds clichéd except that once, before a game at Panathinaikos, he got hit in the head with a flare fired from the crowd and played through it.

“The hardest part about this job sometimes is that it’s lonely,” Hines says. Keeping in touch with Stateside family and friends is a challenge, with Moscow running eight hours ahead of Eastern Time. Hines typically goes to sleep around 3 a.m., after staying up to talk with his parents in New Jersey and his fiancée in New York City. CSKA’s Americans spend time together, but mostly on the road.

Hines says this CSKA team is the most talented he’s ever played on, but there’s work to be done. “We had a tough February, extremely tough,” he says. The team went 4-4 after its winning streak ended. “You could kinda feel it coming,” he adds. “We were playing really well, then we had some injuries. We kind of just hit that wall. I think we’re starting to reach that peak again.”

A dark-haired, middle-aged Greek man approaches and interrupts, greeting Hines with a warm handshake and broken English. He says something about CSKA, something about Barbados. Hines thanks him and says, “Small world.”

He’s surprised. In all his travels, Russia is the place he gets recognized the least. Hines met the stranger, whose friend apparently works CSKA’s scorer’s table, two years ago on a cruise ship. “Sportsmen here aren’t superstars,” Hines says. “They aren’t celebrities. Maybe besides Kirilenko.”

In barely a month, Kirilenko’s homecoming has already brought CSKA more national attention than the team received all season. Along with veteran power forward and former Portland Trail Blazer Viktor Khryapa returning from ankle surgery, AK’s signing makes CSKA the favorite to win Euroleague. Even though the new additions could affect his playing time, Hines tells us he’s not worried.

“If we end up winning Euroleague, everybody will get everything they want,” he says. “Contracts, the opportunity to make more money in the future, all the respect and accolades that come along with that. If you have to sacrifice minutes, your points, your individual stats to get that goal, why not do that?”

Aaron Jackson against Nizhny Novgorod.

Gregory Sokolov/Getty Images Aaron Jackson against Nizhny Novgorod.

Itoudis is so angry with his team after the near loss at Nizhny that he calls an unscheduled practice the next day, starting with a 90-minute film session. Aaron Jackson sums up the players’ attitudes as he walks into the gym: “I can’t believe I’m here right now.”

After another hour and a half of drills and sprints, Itoudis gathers the players at center court and opens the floor for discussion. The coach harps on pick-and-roll defense, singling out Kaun, who was victimized by Nizhny Novgorod’s screens and probably by Itoudis in the film session, too. “It’s time to work it, not to talk it,” Itoudis says. His defensive schemes worked last year in Turkey and for 13 seasons before that as an assistant at Panathinaikos, and the problem, as he sees it, stems from effort. “Either history’s wrong, or I’m wrong,” he says. “Stop bitching and stop talking about things that aren’t necessary.”

Kaun speaks up to defend himself. A third voice comes from Kirilenko, suggesting Itoudis listen to his players’ opinions if he truly welcomes them. “I don’t feel comfortable,” Kirilenko says. They argue for a minute and neither backs down.

Eventually, the bickering quiets and practice ends. Everyone files out to the locker room save for former Syracuse forward Demetris Nichols and his 7-year-old daughter, Gabby, who shoot around on the far basket (from where they share a laugh as Nichols lets out a loud fart).

“We’re dealing with a lot of egos,” Jackson says, taking a seat in the stands after practice. “We’re headed for disaster.

“I think right now we’re having a tough time adjusting to new players and healthy bodies,” he continues. “I think Coach is trying to find a way to manage the team. It’s taking heat right now. But I think he realized he did a good job in the second half [against Nizhny] of sticking to what got us here.”

Jackson, 29, grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, and played college ball at Duquesne. After going undrafted in 2009, he began his professional career overseas, playing in Antalya, Turkey; Bologna, Italy; and Bilbao, Spain, before joining CSKA in 2012. Tattoos canvas his upper body: the blue-and-green Hartford Whalers logo; a favorite quote: “Fate loves the Fearless.”

“Then there’s a bunch of bullshit,” Jackson says, pointing to a bit of script on his biceps — “The world is mine” — that encircles a basketball doubling as a globe. He has a gently receding hairline, a beard flecked with gray, and a Ukrainian photographer girlfriend whom he met at a game in Kiev and later tracked down over Skype.

“It’s crazy that you guys come when we’re playing our worst basketball,” he says. “I swear, a month ago it was unbelievable. We could have beat, seriously, six NBA teams. Now, new players coming in, everyone’s fighting against each other.”

Itoudis speaks with Demetris Nichols during a game.

Ahmet Dumanli/Getty Images Itoudis speaks with Demetris Nichols during a game.

The next day, we meet the Nichols family for lunch at an Italian restaurant near the arena. Demetris, 30, a soft-shooting 6-6 forward, is the team’s only American player not living alone in Moscow. After a year in secluded Samara, Russia, where he led Krasnye Krylia in scoring, the former NBA second-round pick earned a one-year deal with CSKA after a two-week tryout last August. His wife, Stacey, a communications consultant, flew out from New York with Gabby in December. They planned to stay only through Christmas, but now it’s the end of March and they still haven’t left.

“I got ’em hostage,” Nichols says. Stacey, wearing a zebra-patterned turtleneck and huge gold hoop earrings, laughs in agreement. Last season, the family saw each other just at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was the longest the couple, three years married, had been apart since college. This year, the separation proved too much to bear. “We weren’t happy that way,” Stacey says. “So we came out.”

Nichols has been waiting years for an opportunity like CSKA. After brief stints with the Cavs, Bulls, and Knicks, time in the D-League, fruitless summer league bids, and a scattered international career, he finally landed with a club that offers top-tier money and an opportunity to compete at an elite level. Nichols doesn’t play heavy minutes, especially with Kirilenko back. But he’s been shooting the ball well, and for a family man six years removed from his last 10-day contract in the NBA, Moscow is a breath of fresh air. “We win. We travel well. They treat us like professionals,” he says. “If I weren’t at home, I would want to be here.”

After the meal, the family fetches matching black down jackets from coat check, next to a wall lined with photos of Russian celebrities posing with the restaurant’s owner. Elton John has eaten here. Nichols points out another notable: a smiling, younger AK47. Leading the way outside, Gabby doesn’t recognize him at first. “So that’s Kirilenko?” she asks. “Wow, he’s famous.”

 Milos Teodosic, Sonny Weems, Kyle Hines, Vitaly Fridzon, and Aaron Jackson at CSKA Moscow Media Day.

Mikhail Serbin/Getty Images Milos Teodosic, Sonny Weems, Kyle Hines, Vitaly Fridzon, and Aaron Jackson at CSKA Moscow media day.

CSKA’s sports complex includes an ice rink, a gymnastics hall, a basketball arena, an indoor tennis facility, a swimming and diving center, a martial arts and weightlifting gym, and a soccer arena, all erected for the 1980 Olympics, which the United States and 64 other countries boycotted to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Down the block, construction workers manning heavy machinery hurry to finish a new Dynamo Moscow soccer stadium before the 2018 World Cup.

At the basketball arena, a stained concrete relic named after legendary Soviet coach Alexander Gomelsky, we’re invited by CSKA’s 68-year-old physiotherapist, Asker Barcho, to a room in the rafters where club employees go to hang out, drink, and watch Euroleague games. The hideaway is large enough to hold two desks, a dirty couch, a small TV, and two double-stacked mini-fridges full of snacks and booze. Hundreds of photos of CSKA history cover the walls, a collection that Barcho has been building for the past 40 years.

Barcho, an ever-smiling old-timer, is famous within the team — like a Russian Don Zimmer. He is a beloved prankster to the American players, known to fake and dodge handshakes and lean a shoulder into those walking past him. Everyone on the club calls him “Deda,” for grandpa. He promised earlier in the week to show us the room, but first we had to buy him a bottle of Johnnie Walker.

Gomelsky, who coached CSKA and the national team for decades, recruited Barcho to join his staff as a trainer in 1976. Before then, Barcho had been a sprinter, the third leg of the 1969 Soviet champion 4-by-100-meter relay team. For four years, Barcho lived at CSKA’s Moscow campus, the heart of the USSR’s military-funded residential facilities, where conscripted Soviet athletes resided and trained during four decades of Olympic dominance.3

Bald and with a wrinkled brow, Barcho, still light on his feet, darts from photo to photo, telling stories. Vasiliy Kozlovtsev, the club’s 28-year-old manager, translates. Back then, the life of a Soviet athlete was modest. Barcho says they lived four to an apartment, with no money to move elsewhere and no time for a second job. Open professionalism was illegal. Working for Gomelsky meant a better salary, better food, and a future beyond the track.

Deda’s walls are home to a basketball history exhibit worthy of Springfield. There’s a photo of a smiling, retired Scottie Pippen from the time he visited Moscow and drank vodka in Deda’s shrine. By the fridges, a teenage Kirilenko poses in front of his first car. “It was always, ‘He’s going to play in the NBA,’” Barcho says of Kirilenko, who came to CSKA from Spartak St. Petersburg at the age of 16. “He didn’t have any fear.” Other photos display great Soviet and Russian players from over the years: Arvydas Sabonis, Sergei Belov, Vladimir Tkachenko, Pavel Podkolzin, Khryapa. There’s some space for CSKA’s notable American imports, too: Marcus Webb, Victor Alexander, J.R. Holden, David Vanterpool, Trajan Langdon.

Fringe NBA players started signing overseas in the early 1960s, but not in Russia until after the Soviet Union dissolved. Mississippi State point guard Chuck Evans and 6-11 Ole Miss center Patrick Eddie became CSKA’s first two U.S. imports in 1994. They’re not on the wall, Barcho says, because once, before a European championship playoff game, they refused to play. There had been a dispute over the players’ bonuses.

Barcho loves talking about Webb, who joined CSKA in 1996. He recounts in intricate detail the time the power forward flew Italian tailors into Moscow to fit him for two suits in CSKA’s locker room. Barcho grins at his multiple Michael Jordan posters and proudly points out a picture of Holden walking through the Kremlin with Sergei Ivanov, at the time Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deputy prime minister and now his chief of staff. Holden, who became a naturalized citizen so he could play for the national team, led Russia to a European championship in 2007. “It depends on the person,” Barcho says, explaining what kind of import has success at CSKA. “If he wants to play, he has to help the team.”

After an hour of reminiscing, Barcho gets to the point. He opens the fridge and lines up shots of homemade vodka with pickles and Kazakh horse sausage. Barcho still has to attend the team’s practice that afternoon, so he doesn’t partake, but he pours like it’s a party — four rounds in 10 minutes. He toasts to safe travels home, tells us to come back soon, and asks that we “say hello to Jordan” for him. We toast to the rest of CSKA’s season.

Sonny Weems at practice.

Emilio Cobos/Getty Images Sonny Weems at practice.

Late that night, back at his 29th-floor penthouse in northwest Moscow, Sonny Weems, 28, snacks on Spanish donettes and explains why he doesn’t like the new Kendrick Lamar album. “I like to hear the real shit,” he says. While Weems lounges on a black leather sectional, two female friends from America puff from a 3-foot-tall hookah. A spiral staircase leads upstairs, where a third friend is asleep. Underneath the staircase, resting on the top of a cabinet, there is a painting of him in an Arkansas Razorbacks jersey. “Girls paint me,” he explains. Famous Amos cookies, Oreos, Air Heads, and Patrón are all at the ready; Weems asks only that we take off our shoes as we enter.

The girls head upstairs as the Duke-Gonzaga game from this year’s Elite Eight begins, streaming through Weems’s Cyrillic-keyboarded MacBook and beamed onto a 60-inch flat screen. He watches as Jahlil Okafor catches the ball and is guarded by Domantas Sabonis, son of Soviet and Lithuanian hall of fame center Arvydas. “Really, that’s his son?” Weems asks. “He’s big as fuck.” Then, referring to Okafor: “Who’s that dude on Duke?”

Weems received a one-game suspension for his role in the Enisey brawl, so he won’t dress for the next day’s home date with Nymburk. He regrets nothing. “We’re Americans,” he says. “We don’t take that shit. Where I’m from, if someone gets that close to me, I don’t know what they’re going to do.”

The shooting guard, born with cleft feet, grew up in West Memphis, Arkansas, right across the Mississippi River from Tennessee. He played two years of junior college ball, led Arkansas to two NCAA tournament appearances, and was selected by the Chicago Bulls with the 39th pick in the second round of the 2008 NBA draft before being traded to Denver. Weems was the lone rookie on the Carmelo Anthony–led Nuggets team that made the Western Conference finals in 2009. Besides Anthony, he spent his first NBA season around Allen Iverson, J.R. Smith, and Chauncey Billups (who was acquired for Iverson after three games). “My rookie year, can you imagine walking in the locker room?” Weems says.

Weems ended up on the Raptors, where he played from 2009 to 2011, earned rotation minutes, befriended DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson, and saw Chris Bosh split for Miami. “Chris is different,” Weems says. “He’s the type of dude, you’ll walk into his house and he’ll be listening to Erykah Badu and drinking tea or some shit.” Weems’s 1-year-old daughter, Sienna, nicknamed Ladybug, lives in Toronto with her mother. They visited a few weeks earlier, and Sienna’s marker and crayon drawings are still taped to a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the northern edge of Moscow’s darkened urban sprawl. “I just want to make enough money to take care of my daughter,” he says. “That’s all I want. Make sure she has a good life.”

After the 2011 lockout began, Weems was the first NBA player to sign overseas, with the Lithuanian club Zalgiris. A foot injury hurt Weems’s prospects of returning to the NBA, so he opted for a more lucrative opportunity with CSKA. “I was scared as shit,” Weems recalls of his initial decision to play in Russia. “In the U.S. we just see the bullshit. [But] it’s safer here than anywhere in America.”

Weems re-signed with CSKA before this season, and his three-year deal, reportedly worth $10 million, made him the highest-paid American player in Europe. He says he misses the NBA. Still, he turned down an offer from the Atlanta Hawks to stay in Moscow. “[Teams] can talk to us about minutes,” he says. “But at the end of the day, it’s all about the money.”

CSKA has plenty of the latter. The club’s $43 million budget outpaces even its richest Euroleague rivals. According to team president Andrei Vatutin, 45 percent comes from the team’s corporate owner Norilsk Nickel, a mining and smelting giant that was once led by Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. Vatutin doesn’t provide a breakdown for the other 55 percent but says he tries to decrease ownership’s burden through sponsorships.

The club, which was under the direct management of the Soviet military until the fall of the USSR, has been formally independent for more than 20 years, but in many ways it remains the Kremlin’s team. In a statement written for the club’s 90th anniversary in 2013, Putin wrote: “I am pleased to note that today representatives of the red and blue club are among the recognized leaders in Russian and international sports.” Ivanov, the president’s chief of staff, sits courtside in sunglasses at almost every home game and occasionally stops by the locker room to give pep talks. “You-gotta-win-type shit,” Weems explains. “He’s a cool guy, though.”

As we watch Duke pull away in the second half against Gonzaga, Weems admits to feeling frustrated after the previous day’s practice. He says he recently started to “care about legacy more,” but right now there’s a divide in the locker room. “I’m not gonna name any names,” he says about rifts within the roster. But he grants that the team felt different earlier in the season, during CSKA’s winning streak: “Everybody bought in. There weren’t any egos. Now we’re not having fun. If we get back to where we were, we’ll definitely win the Final Four.”

Kirilenko dunks against Panathinaikos.

Angelos Tzortzinis/Getty Images Kirilenko dunks against Panathinaikos.

Three nights earlier, on the eve of the Nizhny game, Andrei Kirilenko sits in the lobby of a four-star hotel across the street from the Volga River, directly below a Kremlin fortress that’s been inactive since the 1500s. Kirilenko, his angular features hollowed by age and his bangs still meticulously trimmed, leans forward in a beige leather love seat and explains how he vanished from the NBA.

“I was talking with Prokhorov and said, ‘Look, with all due respect, this isn’t going to work,’” he says. “We’re just wasting our time.” Kirilenko left the Nets in November to be with his wife in the final trimester of her pregnancy. Brooklyn dealt him to Philly, where he never reported, to the Sixers’ chagrin. He cleared waivers on February 23. The next day, he signed with CSKA for the rest of the season. “Andrei is an important part of our club’s history and he is my good personal friend,” Vatutin wrote in an email. “As soon as the waiver period ended, we immediately contacted and quickly set all the details of his move. It was a very long, sleepless and intensive night.”

Kirilenko joined Spartak St. Petersburg at 15, made the Russian Super League All-Star Game as a rookie, and signed with CSKA the following year. He led the club to domestic championships in his first two seasons. Earning the nickname AK47 — a portmanteau of his initials and jersey number, as well as a nod to his hometown of Izhevsk, where the Kalashnikov rifle was first manufactured — Kirilenko starred for the national team, was drafted by the Jazz in 1999 and moved to Utah in 2001, beginning a 13-year NBA career. Kirilenko returned during the 2011 lockout, carried the team to the Final Four, and won the tournament’s MVP award, but CSKA lost the championship game by one point.

Now, back with CSKA, Kirilenko admits that all the mileage over his career has taken its toll. “I feel like I don’t have enough durability,” he says. “I wish my body was different, but I am who I am.” Returning home for one last Euroleague run made sense, not just because CSKA gives him the royal treatment — Kirilenko is the only player who gets to fly first class, and the team, which is sponsored by Nike, allows him to wear Adidas, with whom he has an endorsement deal — but also because playing in Moscow feels like the perfect denouement. “I wanted to finish my career in Russia,” he says. “In front of my family, my friends, the people I grew up with, the fans who have never seen me. It’s the right decision.”

In the game after Nizhny, with Weems suspended, Kirilenko logs 21 minutes off the bench against Nymburk and leads the team with 14 points, including several dunks. Despite the team’s internal struggles, this is its ninth straight win. “It’s probably my best game back,” Kirilenko says in the locker room after the game. “But very rarely, when you’re coming off the bench, do you start blossoming.”4 He also describes the pressure he feels to go out with a Euroleague title. “CSKA is that kind of team where only first place matters,” Kirilenko says. “It’s a great responsibility, but at the same time it’s not impossible.”

Weems and Olympiacos guard Vassilis Spanoulis at the Euroleague semifinal.

Rodolfo Molina/Getty Images Weems and Olympiacos guard Vassilis Spanoulis at the Euroleague semifinal.

After CSKA’s Nymburk win, we meet Itoudis, his wife, and two assistant coaches for dinner at a pub. The coach acknowledges the challenges facing his team heading into the playoffs. “We have to add two new players into the system,” he admits. “Kirilenko and Khryapa — the team got used to winning without them. It’s not easy. But at the same time, I gotta give them the opportunity.”

The coach uses Nizhny as a reference point. “That instability, inconsistency, I told you in the [press] conference, that can’t be us,” Itoudis says. “Players, they can’t stand another failure. Who can stand that? I’ve been in eight Final Fours; I have won five. It’s not easy.

“But I think we’re in a good way now,” he says, sounding like he means it, not long before CSKA would finish first in its Euroleague group and then dispose of Itoudis’s former club, Panathinaikos, in the quarterfinals. “After the storm, there will come sunny days. It’s impossible to be only storm.”

Spanoulis shoots the game-winning three over CSKA's Nando de Colo.

Francesco Richieri/Getty Images Spanoulis shoots the game-winning 3 over CSKA’s Nando de Colo.

On May 13, a Wednesday, CSKA’s players, coaches, staff, administrators, cheerleaders, junior players, and all manner of family members and friends squeeze into a Boeing 767 headed to Madrid for the Final Four. The team enters the weekend with Europe’s highest-scoring offense in 10 years, confidence renewed after its March rough patch, and having lost only three Euroleague games all season. One of those came in February — the defeat that snapped their 30-game winning streak — to their opponent in the upcoming semifinal, Olympiacos.

The matchup comes with baggage. The most heartbreaking of CSKA’s recent Final Four flops was its loss to Olympiacos in the 2012 championship, when the team squandered a 17-point third-quarter lead, missed two free throws when it led by one with 9.7 seconds left, and watched Georgios Printezis sink a game-winning floater as time ran out. The following season, Olympiacos blew CSKA out in the semifinal. The one-game elimination format advantages the underdog, and this year, among fans and reporters, there is talk of ghosts.

They tip off Friday evening at Madrid’s Barclaycard Center. CSKA sets the tone with ball pressure, staking its hopes to defense. A 36-35 halftime lead grows to 51-47 entering the fourth quarter, thanks to a seven-point scoring burst from De Colo and four third-quarter steals by Jackson (who would finish the game with a Final Four–record seven steals). With less than three minutes remaining, CSKA leads by eight.

Then Vassilis Spanoulis wakes up. The balding Greek sharpshooter is 0-for-11 from the field when he drains his first 3 with 3:30 left. Hines says that Spanoulis, his former teammate, told him in the hotel lobby the next day that the shot “opened the basket.” One frenzied minute later, Spanoulis sinks another trey off a dribble handoff, and shakes Vorontsevich with a head fake the next time down, adding two more on a jumper.

On an inbounds play with 31 seconds left, Weems drives baseline and flips one off the glass, tying the game at 66. Then, out of a timeout, Spanoulis begins to dribble down the clock. A lengthy series of right-handed hesitations leads to a step-back from deep on the right wing as he’s draped by De Colo. “I seriously was thinking, Fucking Spanoulis,” Jackson tells us over the phone a few days later. With 13 seconds left, it falls. The teams swap free throws and Kirilenko rims a flailing half-courter as the buzzer sounds. 70-68, Olympiacos. Spanoulis walks off with 11 fourth-quarter points.

“It was like searching for air, some type of oxygen, and you couldn’t get any,” Jackson says. On Sunday, CSKA beats Fenerbahçe in the meaningless third-place game and flies home without watching Real Madrid win the championship.

Back in Moscow, mentally drained, the team recovers enough to go undefeated in the VTB playoffs and earn CSKA’s 13th straight Russian league title. Then, there is change. Kirilenko announces his retirement, expressing interest in running for president of the Russian Basketball Federation (which was recently suspended by FIBA).5 Kaun retires from European play to sniff out a jump to the NBA and is spotted courtside at summer league with LeBron James and David Blatt. Hines, Jackson, and Nichols sign extensions; the club releases Weems from the final two years of his contract and he takes less money to join the Phoenix Suns. Deda will still be pouring shots in the rafters.

Itoudis, named the VTB’s coach of the year, will also return to Moscow next season. He remains confident and unsuperstitious. “Oh come on,” he says about the idea that CSKA is cursed. “I don’t believe in that shit.” 

Tosten Burks (@skrubnetsot) is a writer for Passion of the Weiss. He lives in Chicago. Jeremy Woo (@Jeremy_Woo) is from the South Side of Chicago and lives in Brooklyn. He writes for and has contributed to Complex and Slam. He knows five words of Russian.

Filed Under: International Basketball, Euroleague Basketball, Euroleague, Euroleague Final Four, CSKA Moscow, Russian Basketball, Andrei Kirilenko, Sonny Weems, Kyle Hines, Demetris Nichols