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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Scout Scours Eastern Europe in Talent Hunt

WASHINGTON -- Rob Meurs, a middleman, attends more than 250 basketball games a year, from Moscow to Minsk to Madrid, looking for talent to send to the United States.


The Dutch army pays Meurs, 40, as a full-time physical training manager and his travel expenses are paid by the San Antonio Spurs as a scout.


"I have 40 days off a year," Meurs said, "and only one lieutenant colonel above me, and he's far away, so I can make my own schedule."


Just one school, George Washington University in Washington, D.C., is counting on four Meurs imports next season, including Belarussians Yegor Mercherikov, 7-foot backup center Andrei Sviridov and Meurs' favorite, Alexander "Sasha" Koul.


"I look at Sasha as my own child," said Meurs. He saw Koul, the son of a factory electrician, when he played for the Soviet junior national team in 1990.


Officials from the Belarussian basketball federation were still opposed to athletes leaving their country.


But Meurs was an old hand at dealing with the Soviet world: In 1989 he had helped Sarunas Marciulionis, a star of the Soviet Union's 1988 Olympic gold-medal team, become the first Soviet athlete to play in the NBA.


"In Eastern Europe it takes a little work because you have to build a really good relationship with everybody -- the federation, the government, all the coaches," said Meurs. "But if a kid wants to leave, there's always a way."


The way to Koul was through his coach at the Belarus sports institute in Minsk. Koul had moved to the institute at 13 from his parents' home in Vitebsk, a six-hour bus ride away.


"In the beginning, the coach, Mikhail Taits, was very suspicious of me," Meurs said. "You know, Taits is a real old-fashioned guy from the old communist system."


Their relationship warmed in early 1993 when Meurs brought his father to Minsk on a scouting trip. "My father speaks some Russian, and somehow or another he connected with Mikhail Taits," said Meurs, who speaks English, German and Dutch. "We were sitting in a sauna and we all became real friendly."


But soon, Meurs said, other Belarussian coaches became suspicious of Taits.


"Coach Taits has never received anything from me or any college coach that I know of," Meurs said. "But wherever Taits went, the other coaches were behind him, following him, not wanting to miss anything.


"It's a very poor country. So you have a prospect like Sasha who'll probably be one of the richest people in Belarus someday and everybody wants to have a piece of the cake."


In April 1994, a Meurs associate arranged a meeting between Koul and GWU assistant coach Scott Beeten in a car on the Lithuania-Belarus border.


Several months later Koul quietly boarded a train to Warsaw -- the first leg of a two-day trip to GWU.


"I hadn't told many people I was leaving," Koul said. "So before I got on the train, I picked up the phone and called the president of our basketball federation. I said to him, 'Oh, I'm leaving right now. Thanks for everything. See you later.'"