sports blog by andy shenk

Basketball on the Pacific: Lokomotiv Kuban vs. Spartak Primorye

In Lokomotiv-Kuban, Russian Basketball on March 30, 2012 at 7:12 AM

Early this morning, 3 am for Minnesotans, Lokomotiv Kuban tipped off against Vladivostok’s Spartak Primorye in the Russian Professional Basketball League (PBL). The game was held in Spartak’s home gym, Olympiets (capacity 1100), located on the eastern shore of the Amur Bay in downtown Vladivostok. Vladivostok is Russia’s largest city on its Pacific seaboard and most famous for being the end of the line for the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Lokomotiv’s opponent, Spartak Primorye, was only just promoted to the PBL this season, after winning Russia’s second-tier league last year. Their participation in the PBL undoubtedly led to much consternation amongst those responsible for determining the league’s schedule, considering that Vladivostok is separated from Moscow by seven time zones and nearly 4,000 miles. Lokomotiv Kuban, based in Krasnodar, resides in the same time zone as Moscow, making a mid-week flight to Vladivostok an exhausting affair. As a result, the PBL clusters Spartak Primorye’s home and away games in order to minimize travel. From the end of October until early February Spartak did not enjoy a single home game. Now, however, with less than a month left in the regular season, Spartak will be spoiled with a stretch of six home games, broken up by only one road game.

Lokomotiv came into the game riding a two-game winning streak. The most recent victory, against Khimki in the quarterfinals of the EuroCup, was played in Krasnodar in front of a passionate home crowd of 4,000. Despite a hard-fought comeback from a double-digit deficit, Lokomotiv’s four-point margin of victory proved insufficient to book passage to the EuroCup Final Four, due to Khimki’s nine-point win at home a week earlier.

Still smarting from Tuesday night’s disappointment, Lokomotiv embarked on the 9-hour flight to Vladivostok and prepared to take on Spartak Friday evening (a Friday noon tip-off for the fans back in Krasnodar). In the PBL standings, Lokomotiv sat in third with a record of 8-6, with Spartak in seventh at 6-7. With only 4 games remaining for Lokomotiv and 5 for Spartak, the stakes were high for each team and their hopes of making the 4-team PBL playoffs.

From the beginning Lokomotiv showed no ill effects from their cross-continent travel, racing to a 35-19 lead at the end of the first quarter. PBL games feature 4 10-minute quarters, so the offensive output was pretty astounding. In the second quarter Lokomotiv only scored 16 points, but nonetheless led at halftime by a score of 51-38.

Apart from a push early in the 3rd quarter from Spartak, which cut the deficit to 5 for a few minutes, Lokomotiv’s second-half lead floated between 10 and 20. The away team’s offensive efficiency, 55% from the field and 47% from beyond the arc, to go with 19-24 shooting from the free throw line, were too much for Spartak. The game ended 92-80 in favor of Lokomotiv, who now hop back on a plane, bound for the southern Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, where they play league doormat Yenisey on Monday afternoon.

I watched this game online at 3 am, in the kitchen of my small Minnesota apartment, thanks to the PBL’s free online video streaming. I’m surprised that I woke up this early on a weekday to watch a Russian basketball game played in front of 1100 fans, but, then again, games like this are what drive my obsession with sports. Why in the world do professional basketball players from around the world compete against each other in Vladivostok, in a gym smaller than Bethany Christian High School’s, the 200-student Christian school I attended in northern Indiana? With average ticket prices of $15, Spartak Primorye’s front office probably brought in about $15,000 tonight. With no more than 15 home games in a season, the team will be lucky to net $200,000.

Clearly, Russian basketball is not a money-making enterprise. The gulf in finances between the NBA and the PBL is gigantic. Nonetheless, Russian basketball fans are lucky that wealthy Russian businessmen have seen to fit to import high-quality basketball players to their country and pay them hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Where else could a star like Lokomotiv’s Jeremiah Massey (formerly of Kansas State and Real Madrid) earn around $1 million/yr to play in front of 1100 fans?

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