The role of center is the most iconic in basketball. The big man, at the center, embodies the extraordinary aspect of the game, in which men who would struggle to find a place in the society, become the centerpiece of the teams in which they play.
Dimensions, though, were not so important at the beginning. Coaches thought basketball needed small and fast men. A “tall” man in the 30s, in the US, would be Joe Lapchick, a “giant” standing at 1,98 cm (6-5).
As the game improved, height became more important. A big man could score easily from near and defend the basket against the guards. Nevertheless, he had to be able to move and not only occupy the space, but also go to the offense and lead the game.
So, when Alexander Gomelsk found the biggest possible man in the woods of Latvia, his work was half done. Janis Krūmiņš, a boy of about 23 years, stood at 2,24 meters, and worked as a resin collector. He could reach higher so he could get the best resin from the trees.
Rumors spread in Latvia about the boy. Some sports had already tried to lure him, but he seemed unable to perform in them. Gomelsky undertook the task to educate him and, above all, to feed him at the local Red Army facility, which probably helped to attract the giant after the tough war years.
Janis struggled at the beginning. He did not defend because he feared he’d killed the opponents with his gigantic arm. Smaller players treated him badly and he cried, sometimes. But he was a kind man, a good boy raised in the woods of Latvia, which helped his body frame acquire a natural strength and a relative agility.
In a short time he became a decent player, with a good hook and a deadly free throw shot from the waist. Gomelsky made him the “totem” of the ASK Riga team that won the title in 1957 and progressed to the first edition of the Euroleague in 1958.
Far from being the competition now famous all over the world, that 1958 edition put for the first time against one another the teams from the main leagues in Europe. In the final, Janis played against the Sofia’s Radev, standing at 1,96cm, about thirty cm (1 ft) less than him. Thanks to his height, he could score 32 points in game 1, played at the Riga stadium, in open air, given the requests for tickets.
In the return game Janis scored other 13 points in an easy victory for ASK that secured their first title.
In 1959, ASK found Academic Sofia again in the final, playing game 1 at the Daugawa Stadium in Riga. Janis scored 27 points in an easy 79-58 victory, followed by another victory in the return game in Sofia, 67-69, which sealed the second title.
1960 saw the Rome Olympics and the first great American team made of the best NCAA players. Before that, though, ASK played for the third time in a row the Euroleague final, facing the 1959 Soviet Champions of Tbilisi.
Game 1 in Tbilisi saw the ASK’s victory by 61-51, in a defensive battle, in which the Latvians avenged the loss in the USSR championship the previous year. In the return game ASK resisted Dinamo’s assault and won the third Cup in a row.
In the summer of 1960, Rome welcomed USSR and USA as the two powers clashed in almost every sport. Basketball saw one of the best teams in American history, one that would be enshrined collectively in the hall of fame. Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, with Pete Newell on the bench.
In a recent interview, Jerry West remembers that when Janis entered the game, suddenly his steps made the parquet tremble, because he was so heavy and slow.
USSR made second in Rome, making the USA score the lowest number of points in a game against them.
In that same year, Riga’s academy of arts chose Janis to be the subject of a sculpture to celebrate the 20 years of the Latvian Soviet Republic, i.e. the Molotov-Ribbentropp deal, that delivered the Baltic countries to USSR in exchange for their lack of action in Poland’s Nazi invasion.
Though it’s a controversial anniversary for Latvians, when Janis met Inessa, the artist in charge of the work, the two fell in love. Janis was a sort of hero of the nation, the most celebrated sportsman, but at the same time he was a delicate man, introverted, a solitary, who found in Inessa’s art a way to express himself.
Janis played for another ten years, in ASK until 1964 and in VEF until 1969, when he gave up his sporting career.
As a player, Janis Krūmiņš was a strange kind. The biggest player of his generation, chosen and developed by the most astute strategist of USSR basketball, Gomelsky, who always commended Janis’s kindness and brightness, Janis remained within himself the lonely boy grown up in the woods.
He disliked crowded places, enjoyed family life and later in his life he became and accomplished metalworker, giving life to his wife’s sketches. After all, he was an artist, a nice and benevolent man who hated to hit his opponents, though the appearance seemed to convey a different character.
Like many big men, the biggest in European basketball had a frail heart, that abandoned him in 1994 at only the age of 64.