From Russia, with pros

I love James Bond movies and one of my all-time favorites is “From Russia with Love.”

How apropos that I recently watched Bond battle the forces of evil on my portable DVD player on a long plane ride to Moscow. I am actually writing this week’s column as I overlook Red Square. I’m here with the NBA to attend the Los Angeles Clippers’ exhibition game against a top Russian club team and take part in the many ancillary activities associated with the game. This is my third visit to Moscow and, wow, have things changed.

My first experience took place back in the 1970s. I was working for ABC and broadcasting a track and field meet between the USSR and the USA. At the time, communism was in full swing and I was struck by how much I felt like a prisoner. We weren’t permitted to go to certain areas of the city, we always had a government escort with us, and we couldn’t just jump in a cab, go to the airport and leave if we wanted to. We were invited guests, but definitely captives of the state.

My second journey to Russia was in 1986 for the Goodwill Games. This time, I was there with Bill Russell and Anne Meyers covering the U.S. women’s basketball team. We still couldn’t go around unescorted, but the overall atmosphere was more relaxed and not quite so intimidating. The opening ceremony for those games was the most spectacular I have ever witnessed.

Fast-forward 20 years and Moscow is a different city. First of all, I’m staying in a five-star hotel, unheard of in the earlier days. I have high-speed Internet access, can come and go as I please and can even stop by McDonald’s if the urge for a cheeseburger strikes me. The Russian people look happy and are truly excited to be hosting an NBA event.

The fact that there are now five Russian players in the NBA has significantly increased the interest in basketball in this country. If you count players from countries that used to be part of the Soviet block, there are 15. Arvydas Sabonis led the way in the ’80s and Andrei Kirilenko of the Utah Jazz is probably the best of today’s Russian imports. He has established himself as an outstanding all-around player known as “The Communist Block” for his shot-blocking abilities.

The Russians are serious about basketball and we will no doubt see even more Russian players competing in the NBA in the years to come. And by the size of the exhibition crowds, there will be plenty of enthusiastic Russian fans to cheer them on.

Former Warriors star Rick Barry is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. E-mail him at rbarry@examiner.com.

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