CSKA's Bazarevich Awaits Ruling

Baptism by fire is an expression used in the sports world to describe a young athlete who learns the tricks of his trade the hard way.

But CSKA playmaker Sergei Bazarevich's baptism by fire has not come on the basketball court, where he has steadily developed into one of the top point guards in Europe. Rather, he has learned the hard way the harsh reality of free market economics in the world of sports.

Bazarevich, 32, helped the Red Army team capture the Russian Superleague championship title two weeks ago, using his up-tempo style of play and solid composure.

But even though he led his team in assists throughout the season and was clearly one of the best point guards in the Euroleague, he -- like the rest of his fellow players -- has not received his promised salary. Nor has he received his salary from last season when he played for Dinamo.

That means the former guard for the National Basketball Association's Atlanta Hawks could do what many have done since the free market opened up here six years ago -- leave Russia to play in another country next season.

This week members of FIBA, the governing body of the Euroleague, will vote on whether to lift a two-foreign-player restriction on East European and former Soviet basketball clubs to mirror the Bozman ruling, which allowed the free movement of European Union players. If the vote favors lifting the two-player restriction, Bazarevich said he will have to leave.

"I would like to play here but it's the money problem," he said. "It's a difficult thing, but we'll see."

Bazarevich's mother, who played for the Soviet Union's national women's basketball team and was an MVP world champion, first introduced her son to the game of hoops when she first took him along to the gym at the tender age of 2.

His skills eventually earned him a spot as the captain of the junior national team and the youngest member of CSKA's prestigious senior team. In its Soviet days, CSKA always fielded the top teams because the army was able to recruit every Soviet adolescent.

In international competition, Bazarevich helped the Russian national team take the bronze medal at the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle, and in 1992 was named to the Olympic all-tournament team along with NBA superstars from the U.S. "Dream Team."

It was in the United States where he learned his first painful lesson about the role of money in the world of sports. In 1991 he played in the Houston Rockets' summer league where several NBA teams had their eyes on him. Only three months later did he find out that if he had had an agent, he would have landed a juicy NBA contract.

"I had no agent and I couldn't speak English," he recalled with a smile. "I had a chance to sign, which I found out three months later. I was like a kid in the forest. I didn't understand anything."

His impressive play against the Dream Team earned him another chance in 1994 to play in the NBA. But the Russian point guard had already signed with an Italian club and the Golden State Warriors refused to buy out his contract. That season, the Atlanta Hawks chose to sign Bazarevich but he said it was not the right team for him. He only played 10 games before getting cut.

"The West Coast is more my style of run and gun," he said. "[Atlanta Hawks] coach Lenny Wilkins had promised me he would do this but he kept to defense."

Nonetheless, the NBA was a dream come true for Bazarevich. He said he was especially impressed with how well organized the league was.

"I didn't have to think about anything and could just concentrate on basketball," he said.

That changed after he returned to Russia to play for Dinamo during the 1995-96 season. Dinamo offered him a good contract and Bazarevich welcomed the chance to return home.

"I didn't expect to play in Russia again," he said. "But I had a good offer and there was good competition and a new team. I was really happy."

But perhaps like the hope all Russians once had when the communist state fell and a democracy took its place, Bazarevich would find his happiness turn sour once the unpleasant realities of Russia's shaky first steps to a free market settled in.

Despite claiming its sixth title since 1992 and landing big sponsors such as Nike and Hersheys, CSKA has not paid its players or coaching staff for nearly six months.