The most dominant player in history: she won 42 titles and lost only one game with her national team, but lives in misery because of the Soviet state

Uliana Semenova, the most important player of the 20th century, with 2.13 meters

The heaven and the hell. Or the story of Uliana Semenova. We are talking about the most important player of the 20th century, the most successful and the protagonist of glory and misery…

Born on March 9, 1952, in Medumi (Latvia), she lived as a child on the outskirts of Daugavlips, the second most populous city in the country located on the border with Lithuania and Belarus. She comes from a large, lower-middle class family, every day she had to walk four kilometers to go to school and her contact with sports was almost non-existent. Until the age of 11, he had never touched a basketball nor did he know the rules of the sport. “When they took me to see a game I didn’t understand anything. I was even surprised to see two men running freely without chasing the ball. They were the referees… ”, he recounted years later.

It was at 12 when she caught the attention of the sports authorities for her height (1m90) and was quickly admitted to a center in Riga, the Latvian capital, to work on her game and observe how her growth curve could be taking into account that none of his seven brothers exceeded 1m78. He was diagnosed with acromegaly, a disease generated by an excess of a growth hormone called somatotropic, the same that several giants of this sport suffered, such as the Romanian George Muresan (2m31) and the Argentine Jorge gonzalez (2m29).

Believing they could control her with medications, they set out to take advantage of Uliana’s prodigious physique. The pivot grew quickly, even in her game, since At the age of 14, he had already made his debut in the First Division, with Daugawa Riga, with whom he would win his first league at the age of 15. The first of 15 Soviet leagues, which would be added to 12 European championships, 11 of the current Euroleague and nine consecutively (from 68 to 75).

Semenova was 2m13 tall, wore 58 shoes and weighed 135 kilos.
Semenova was 2m13 tall, wore 58 shoes and weighed 135 kilos.

At the age of 16 he had already reached the Soviet national team, with which he would live the most successful and closed stage of that national team. With his team he won two Olympic Games (Montreal 76 and Moscow 80), three World Cups (Brazil 1971, Colombia 1975 and Brazil 1983) and 10 European Games (from 1968 to 1985). But the most impressive fact was that he only lost one match with the USSR: the last one, precisely, against the United States, for the 1986 Good Will Games.

We are talking about a player who he scored 56 points in a game, with an enormous capacity for dominance within a genre in which the average height is clearly lower than the male. A 2m13 woman was like a 2m30 man, to draw a parallelism… She usually faced rivals who did not reach 2m00 and who could not stop her when she received a few meters from the hoop. In the 1976 Games, for example, she averaged 20 points and 13 rebounds, without playing as much, and in the final she sank the United States with 32 and 19, with just 23 minutes on the court. In Moscow, her averages were 21.8 points and 9 rebounds. That’s how dominant and determined she was. And for that, in 2007, she entered the Basketball Hall of Fame located in Springfield. Yes, the same one that Manu Ginóbili has just entered.

The curious thing is that he hardly had an international career, since the opening of the USSR for its athletes came very late. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was created in 1922 and lasted until 1991. Uliana was only able to leave her country in December 1987, when the Soviet Sports Committee (Goskomsport) gave her permission to play in Spainpunctually in the Tintoretto of Getafe, after receiving a $50,000 deposit in advance. He traveled together with a trainer from Riga, Valdis Ozols, who was given only 5 dollars a day from the USSR.

Since her arrival in the country, Semenova generated a revolution in the city and the competition. First, because she was the winningest player in history and second because It was shocking that he was 2m13 tall, wore 58 shoes and weighed 135 kilos… A giant from a world of “normals”. To such an extent that they had to call the company that made clothes for Fernando Romay, the Spanish pivot who was as tall as her, and request the construction of an extra-large bed, 2m20 long by 1m35 wide, with six special supports under.

A 2m13 woman was like a 2m30 man.  The difference with the other players was impressive
A 2m13 woman was like a 2m30 man. The difference with the other players was impressive

“Before he came, parents, boyfriends, some friends and four or five schools in the area came to see us. When Semenova arrived, there were always queues at the entrance. They had to make us a corridor to let us enter all the places we went: in Barcelona, ​​in Lugo, in San Sebastián… We were protagonists: interviews, photos… It was the first big push that women’s basketball experienced ” , recalled Rocío Giménez, her partner in Getafe. “In Spain was where I really felt like a star,” admitted Ula.

This experience only came to him when he was 35 years old, already with some injuries in tow that further limited his mobility, but they did not prevent him from adding 22 points and 31 rebounds in his debut. The team, which seemed sentenced to relegation, ended up fighting for the championship and a popular and media revolution was generated. “I knew her from international matches with the Soviet National Team, a player who always made a difference. When she came to Spain she was at the end of her career and even so it was impressive how she helped us, ”said Jiménez, a Spanish figure who left some pearls on the B side of the pivot. “He was very humble… He even apologized to us when he missed a shot. She was also very open and very cultured. She was interested in everything around her. One day my husband and I took her to La Granja and she didn’t stop asking about the tapestries, about the paintings, she wanted to know everything”, she recalled about that player who, they say, was “very flirtatious and really liked necklaces”.

Ula only spoke Russian. “At first she had a translator who knew a little bit of English. Later, they put a Russian girl who was married to a Spaniard as a translator. We laughed a lot with her because she had no idea about basketball and we have many anecdotes from those dialogues…. For example, the coach told her to remind Semenova that she couldn’t be three seconds in the zone and she answered ‘and why can’t it be four?’ And we all asked him to please translate it for us, because there was no time. Uliana learned a few things about Spanish, even insults that we said to her meant other things to laugh for a while. In the end we already understood each other without the help of the interpreter, ”she explained.

After his basketball career, he began working for the local Olympic Committee.
After his basketball career, he began working for the local Olympic Committee.

The sad part was that she could not have the salary they paid her in Spain, because at that time the Soviet socialist state forced her to deposit most of her salary. “When I arrived in Spain I had no money and the salary could only be received at the end of the month. I have collected 480 dollars a month, out of a total of 10,000, an amount with which I can live very well in Moscow, but poorly here”, she said to the point of admitting that sometimes she was hungry. According to her account, the president of the Tintoretto gave her extra money for her support and her companions covered her expenses, even taking her to restaurants so that she could eat better.

He retired a year after his Spanish excursion, after playing another season abroad, this time in the Valenciennes Orchids from France in the 1988/89 season. At that time he already had numerous health problems, such as diabetes. It was when he decided to return to his native country, where he set up a little basketball school for girls from economically deprived homes and began working for the local Olympic Committee.

Today, at 70 years old, they say he has health problems that make it difficult for him to walk and he lives in the greatest humility. To such an extent that 14 years ago a charity game was organized to be able to pay for a coccyx operation that they had to do. It is clear that she was not able to take economic advantage of an extraordinary career, but she remained in her memory as the most dominant player who has ever walked this world.

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The most dominant player in history: she won 42 titles and lost only one game with her national team, but lives in misery because of the Soviet state


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