TORONTO, Canada (Globe and Mail) – While playing for the Soviet Union in the gold-medal basketball game at the 1964 Olympics, point guard Armenak Alajajian contested a loose ball, only to have a much larger American land on his back. At just that instant, a photographer caught the Soviet player being bowled over.
That image graced the sports pages of dozens, if not hundreds, of newspapers in North America, preserving a memorable if inelegant play involving one of the era’s best players.
The Americans won the gold medal in the match, while Mr. Alajajian and his teammates settled for silver. For a decade, the ethnic Armenian point guard was a standout athlete for two of the better basketball teams in the world – the Soviet Union national team and CSKA, the Red Army team based in Moscow. A brooding, beetle-browed figure of intensity on the basketball court, Mr. Alajajian’s great playmaking, including daring, no-look, behind-the-back passes at the Olympics, demonstrated less a flair for showmanship than a calculated deception to get a teammate in the open for a clear shot.
After winning European championships as both an athlete and a coach, Mr. Alajajian followed family members by immigrating to Canada, where he could only find work in Toronto as a parking-lot attendant. He was given entrée to the diamond and jewellery business after a fellow Armenian was startled to recognize so famous an athlete in so humble a position. At 44, he also became basketball coach of the Hawks at Humber College, where he registered in an English program to better communicate with his players.
Mr. Alajajian, who died at 86, played and coached amateur basketball in Toronto for two decades. The diamond merchant was known in the Armenian-Canadian community for his philanthropy. He was inducted into the Armenian General Benevolent Union Sports Hall of Fame in Toronto last year.
While his athletic prowess was little known in his adopted land, where he became a citizen, the athlete was honoured both in the former Soviet Union, where a high school in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, bears his name, and in the independent nation of Armenia, a former Soviet republic, where a postage stamp containing his likeness dribbling a ball was issued to commemorate the 2000 Olympics.
Mr. Alajajian was born on December 25, 1930, at Alexandria, Egypt, where his family settled in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide. According to a niece, his mother had been found by the Red Cross wandering the Anatolian countryside and was sent to an orphanage in Greece.
In high school, Mr. Alajajian played tennis, table tennis, soccer and racquetball, while also competing in track and field, though it was on the basketball court where he showed the greatest promise.
After the Second World War, his family heeded a call for repatriation, a movement known as nergaght, a “gathering in” of diaspora Armenians to a homeland, even if it was ruled by the Soviets and not the one from which they had fled. Later, disillusion would set in and many left again for foreign lands.
As a teenager in 1948, he enrolled at Yerevan State University in the Armenian capital, becoming captain of the basketball team. After graduation in 1951, he qualified for the club team SKIF Yerevan, which won the Soviet championship in Odessa that year thanks to his 43 points against Kiev.
After two seasons with Burevestnik Almaty in Kazakhstan, the point guard joined the Soviet Red Army, playing for its CSKA (Central Sports Club of the Army) team in Moscow. His determined play earned him a spot on the roster of the Soviet national team for nine seasons.
His club team won nine Soviet championships during his stint, while also winning four European championships. He wore No. 6 and was known as Alachachian, or Alachachyan, or Alatchatchan from the transliteration of his name from Russian.
Mr. Alajajian made his Olympic debut at Tokyo in 1964, scoring five points against Canada in a preliminary game. In the final against the United States, he sank three of eight shots, many of those coming from a distance in an era before the three-point shot. The United States maintained an undefeated record in Olympic play by prevailing over the Soviets, 73-59, in a chippy, physical game typical of such Cold War showdowns.
Afterwards, Mr. Alajajian, who spoke some English, told reporters the American victory was deserved, as they had “played a better game, with better rebounding, better shooting.”
“We played good, very good, for the first eight minutes,” he said. “But the Americans played good for 40 minutes. If we play bad for three or four minutes, that’s all they need. They rebound well, they come up with the ball and get to take lots of shots.”
The point guard acknowledged the physical play in the final. “Basketball is not tennis,” he shrugged.
The Soviet Union recognized the Olympic silver medals by naming him and his teammates to the Orden znak pocheta (Order of the Badge of Honour).
Mr. Alajajian’s stellar play, not to mention his command of English, at least as compared with the rest of the Soviet entourage, provided an opportunity for him to travel the world for exhibitions and competitions. He even got to tour the 1965 World’s Fair in New York.
After retiring as a player in 1967, he became coach of CSKA, a position he would hold for five years, winning three Soviet titles, as well as the Cup of Europe twice. His coaching record with CSKA was an impressive 130-40.
A student of the game, Mr. Alajajian wrote basketball features for the newspaper Sovetskii Sport and the magazine Sportivnye igry (Sporting Games). He also wrote two books – a memoir, Notes of a Basketball Player (1965), and a coaching treatise, Not Only About Basketball (1970).
In Toronto, he served as head coach of the senior Armenian General Benevolent Union team. The group also benefited from his charitable giving, as did the Holy Trinity Armenian Church, where his funeral service ultimately was held.
Mr. Alajajian died at Scarborough General Hospital in Toronto on December 4 from complications after breaking his hip in a fall. He leaves behind his son, Arthur Alajajian; daughter, Karina Alajajian; four grandchildren; and sisters, Rose Whitehorn and France Kandaharian. He was divorced.
The American player who landed on Mr. Alajajian’s back at the 1964 Olympics was Lucious (Luke) Brown Jackson, a 6-foot-9 power forward, who stood 14 inches taller and weighed 40 pounds more than the point guard he crushed. Mr. Jackson later played professionally in the National Basketball Association, winning a championship with Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967.
Despite the passage of more than a half-century, Mr. Jackson, now 76, remembered his opponent.
“He and I were going for a rebound, or a loose ball. It was a battle,” he said when reached recently at his home in Beaumont, Tex. He recalled Mr. Alajajian as a pesky rival. “He was a good player. He could shoot the ball.”
The accolade did not quite match the greatest praise the athlete ever received, which came courtesy of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, who once said of the speedy guard: “He blasts like a rocket!”
MORE FROM Armenia & Karabakh