Champion who disappeared. Franco's Spain, alcohol, and longing for Lithuania

Rytis Kazlauskas, LRT.lt
2020.11.29 10:00
Mykolas Ruzgys

Mykolas Ruzgys, an American-Lithuanian basketball player, hoped to find peace in Lithuania and later in Western Europe. But fate brought him back to the United States, where his life ended mysteriously.

In 1940, Ruzgys was forced to flee to the US, while his pregnant wife Danutė stayed in Lithuania. Five years later, he returned to Europe to fight in the Second World War with the US army. After the war, he led a perplexing life in France, Monaco, and Spain.

LRT.lt presents the newly discovered tragic life story of Mykolas Ruzgys, an American-Lithuanian basketball player and a European champion. The third and final part of the story covers Ruzgys’ work in Western Europe, a brush with Franco's Spain, fears of communism, and his death in the US. Read part one and part two of the story.

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In the second article of the series, I mentioned a woman called Bettina who was looking for Mykolas Ruzgys in the Little Lithuania online forum 15 years ago. She told me about the second family and four kids that the American-Lithuanian basketball player had in Spain.

“After the war, he stayed in France. There, he met a French lady – my husband’s mother,” she said.

Bettina and her husband Michel – Ruzgys’ son – tried to look for the basketball player not only online, but also in Chicago. Unfortunately, the couple could not find Ruzgys’ grave or any other useful information about his life in America.

But after our first conversation on the phone, Bettina sent me a surprising email.

“My husband decided to write a memoir about his father. We are trying to gather information from Michel’s brothers and sisters, but you have to understand that this is a very sensitive story,” the woman wrote.

A few weeks later, I was holding the memoir in my hands. I promised Bettina not to use any personal details from Michel’s and his relatives’ lives in this article.

Career in France

Ruzgys finished his military service on January 26, 1946. He had a clear career plan and decided to share his basketball expertise in war-ravaged France.

“After France’s liberation, an American who stayed in the country contributed to teaching locals about basketball and improving their training technique,” French basketball history book Le Basketball wrote about Ruzgys’ work.

He coached the French national basketball team in 1946–1947 and also lectured at a sports institute and introduced locals to various novel basketball tricks.

In 1947, Ruzgys’ second wife Andree gave birth to their first daughter. In the same year, Ruzgys went to the European basketball championship in Prague as the head coach of the French national team. Much was expected of him.

But after a good start, the French players lost several games in a row and finished fifth in the championship. After the disappointing result, Robert Busnel replaced his teacher Ruzgys as the head coach of the French team. The American-Lithuanian athlete, meanwhile, continued his career in Monaco.

Short stop in Monaco

Ruzgys’ son Michel wrote that, in France, his parents were friends with a famous painter Jacques Boussard and his wife Janine.

“In Paris, my parents lived next to the French Institute. In the evenings, mom’s best friend Janine Boussard was accompanying them to Montparnasse restaurants, where they listened to jazz music,” Michel said.

“Intellectuals, sportsmen, celebrities, journalists, and musicians were all part of the same group that lived in the atmosphere of freedom. [...] Thanks to the Boussard family, my dad fell in love with Paris and the French culture,” he added.

But Ruzgys was forced to leave France after the disappointing European championship. In 1948, he started coaching Monte Carlo basketball club in Monaco. There, Ruzgys was quite successful. His team played in the final of the French basketball league and his wife gave birth to their second child, Michel.

Together with Raymond Offner, he even wrote a basketball manual, entitled Le Basket Ball.

The following year, Ruzgys got acquainted with Raimundo Saporta, who later became the head of Real Madrid and popularised club basketball across Europe.

Saporta, who became a vice president of the Spanish basketball federation at the age of 22, noticed Ruzgys’ work while he was still coaching in France and invited him to come to Spain.

Politically motivated move to Spain

While Ruzgys’ relation with Saporta influenced his decision to move to Spain, there was also a political side to it.

“We can ask why Mykolas Ruzgys agreed to move to Spain in 1950, even though he was greatly respected in France?” Michel wrote in the memoir. “Of course, there must have been some circumstances that justified such a risky career step.”

As Michel explained, Ruzgys’ family would not have left France if it were not for the American government.

In 1939, after the civil war, far-right General Francisco Franco rose as the leader of Spain. Franco openly declared his hostility to leftists and communists. In 1945, Spain was denied membership in the United Nations. The country was sanctioned and isolated.

But during the post-war years, the US became concerned about containing the expansion of communism. Berlin blockade, the Korean War, and the communist threat in Europe forced Americans to reconsider their relationship with Spain.

In 1950, US President Harry Truman provided 62.5 million dollars in grants to Spain and established military bases in the country to prevent Franco’s overthrow.

The American government also sent its prominent citizens to Spain to make friendly connections. One of them was Ruzgys who was given an important position in the Spanish Basketball Federation.

Basketball was not popular in Spain at the time. There were only a few professional players and no understanding of training techniques. Since the civil war in 1936–1939, the development of the sport had stopped.

The new basketball era had to begin in Spain after the arrival of the American–Lithuanian expert, as the country’s national team was preparing to participate in a major international tournament for the first time since 1935.

Disappointment in Buenos Aires

The first World basketball championship took place in Argentina in October–November 1950. Ruzgys had a Sisyphean task of putting together a national team in Spain that did not even have appropriate basketball courts.

According to Michel, his mother Andree travelled to Buenos Aires together with the Spanish national team. She often remembered the difficulties experienced during the trip.

“It was impossible to organise the championship in Europe, as the continent was still recovering after the war. So they had to travel to Argentina. [...] French and Spanish players spent 36 hours on the flight and endured multiple landings,” Michel wrote.

In fact, the Spanish and French teams travelled on the same plane that stopped in Madrid, Lisbon, Dakar, Natal, and Rio de Janeiro.

“During the trip, the plane was shaken by storms and lightning. When they reached Argentina, the players were very weak and sick,” Ruzgys’ son said.

The tournament itself was not successful. The Spanish team lost all matches and was given a technical victory against Yugoslavia that refused to play against the team representatiing Franco’s regime. With this single victory, Spanish players came in second to last in the first-ever world championship.

Leaving Spain for good

During their time in Madrid, Ruzgys’ wife Andree gave birth to their third child, a second son. After the world championship, Ruzgys stayed in Spain and continued coaching, but his contract with the national team ended in 1952.

His fate in Spain was again decided by the American government. In 1953, Ruzgys’ family was sent to Ferrol, a small but strategically important town on the Atlantic coast that was Franco’s birthplace and home to a large naval shipbuilding company Bazan.

In Ferrol, Ruzgys started training the local team, also called Bazan, and made sure that a proper basketball court was built in the town.

“Together with my father, I was going to Bazan training sessions in the Arsenal territory, which was a massive guarded military complex,” Michel remembered. “My dad made sure that a basketball court with a wooden floor was built there.”

Together with the Bazan team, Ruzgys achieved many important victories. In 1954, a second daughter was born to the family. Andree was teaching French to local naval officers. For a few years, the family was living a careless life in Ferrol. But eventually, things started to change.

“In 1956, when I was eight years old, my father and I were met by three officers on our way back from Arsenal. One of them took me home, while dad got in the car with the other two. The one who was escorting me introduced himself as a representative of Franco’s political police and said that there was nothing to worry about,” Michel said.

“Dad came back home after a few hours and said that everything was fine. But he warned me not to walk close to roads from now on and scream to attract people’s attention if a car stopped next to me.”

Mysterious episodes continued. Soon after the encounter with the officers, Ruzgys’ family was visiting friends some 30 kilometres from Ferrol.

“While I was playing in the garden, a man started reading words from a notebook and asked me if I ever heard them at home. The words were ‘Leningrad’, ‘anarchists’, ‘secret service’, ‘Budriūnas’, ‘NATO’, ‘FBI’, ‘Kaunas’, ‘republicans’, ‘Vilnius’, and some others that I cannot remember. I recognised these words,” Michel wrote.

It is possible that the Spanish government accused Ruzgys of collaborating with communists, but no information could be found to back up this assumption.

Michel said that after these episodes, tensions rose in the family. Ruzgys started arguing with his wife who wanted to go back to France.

“His [Ruzgys’] mental health deteriorated. Doctors advised him to spend some time in a clinic. When he came back, he was healthier, but depressed,” Ruzgys’ son wrote in the memoir.

“The atmosphere at home was worsening. Dad started talking about the wonderful country Lithuania,” he added.

Ruzgys was considering going back to the US and starting a new life. He wanted to bring his family along, but soon they were separated.

“I don’t remember when exactly, but officers came to our house and took Ruzgys with them. He kissed us and promised to bring us to the US,” Michel said.

The following day, Ruzgys’ wife and children were relocated to Santiago de Compostela, a town some 100 kilometres south of Ferrol. Andree started teaching French and literature in the local university.

“People at my school advised my mother to introduce herself by her maiden name so as not to cause any problems because of the American one,” Michel wrote.

Champion who disappeared

Dosuments in US archives reveal that Ruzgys left Spain on December 1, 1956, and arrived in Miami two weeks later, before going back to Chicago.

There is not much information about his life in the US except for a few photos and letters that he sent to his friends and family.

“The last letters from dad reached us in the 1960s. Before that, he was sending us letters for birthdays and Christmas,” Michel said.

Ruzgys’ first wife Danutė Vitartaitė-Ruzgienė was also trying to reach out to him. While visiting the basketball player’s grandson Tomas Preišagalavičius in Vilnius, I went through his collection of family photos and letters and found Ruzgys’ letter to his first wife sent from the US and dated 1964.

Here is what he wrote:

“As you know, after the war, I was in France, Monaco, and Spain and was their national teams’ coach. Now, I work here in Chicago. My health is good and you will be happy to hear [...] that I have not drunk alcohol in seven years. [...]

“I tell you this because I want you to know that I am not a beggar.

“I have no one to talk to in Lithuanian. [...] I have learnt a lot about life and people. One could say that I matured. I work every day and I go to many basketball matches. [...] I also read a lot of books and especially newspapers. I have a couple of friends that I sometimes meet, but I am always with you in my mind.

“My family is scattered all around. My mother and father are both dead. My sister Monika and her husband George also died. I do not meet with my sister Helen. She took all my belongings while I was in Europe.

“My brothers live in California. So I am all alone. [...] Kiss Lidija from me. I think she will be a very pretty woman. Make sure that she kisses you from me. [...] I think that is enough for now. [...] It is very hard to write because so much time has passed.”

Ruzgys was openly telling his first wife about his alcohol problems. Former Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, who had met Ruzgys, also said that the former champion tried to treat his addiction while in Chicago.

“I haven’t heard anything from him [Ruzgys] in a few months,” Aleksas Lauraitis, an American-Lithuanian, wrote in a letter to Vitartaitė-Ruzgienė in 1981. “I’ve heard he started drinking again.”

Lauraitis lives in Chicago and was able to remember a little bit about Ruzgys’ life in the US.

“In Chicago, he had a new girlfriend, who had a small restaurant. He worked as a shop assistant there. [...] When he was young, he liked being in the company of people and drinking. But at the end of his life, he overcame his problem and stopped drinking,” Lauraitis said in a phone interview.

Ruzgys died on December 15, 1986. No American-Lithuanian publications reported this. Many years after his death, Ruzgys was still considered missing.

End of the story

Ruzgys’ family in Spain faced many challenges after his departure. Left a single mother, Andree was not able to provide for four kids, so the family was separated. Two of the kids ended up in a children’s home.

Lidija, Ruzgys’ first daughter in Lithuania, won gold and bronze medals in athletics in 1957, when she competed in a tournament for the deaf. In 1965, she won one gold, one silver, and two bronze medals.

Lidija Ruzgytė died in 2019 at the age of 79. Her 86-year-old mother died in 2005.

Many questions about Ruzgys’ life remain unanswered. But as Michel remembered, his father often quoted Blaise Pascal: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.”

Read part one and part two of the story.

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