Author tells a tale of love, hoops and U.S.S.R.

By Pat Murphy • ECCENTRIC STAFF WRITER • December 7, 2008

As a young man, Tom Mooradian was fascinated with Armenia and the Soviet Union.

Thus, in 1947 when the Armenian Progressive League encouraged young Americans to relocate in what was then part of the Soviet Union, Mooradian put his plans of playing college basketball on hold and headed for his parents' homeland.

Big mistake.

"I thought I'd go to Armenia for a couple of years and come home," he said. "Boy, was I wrong."

Mooradian didn't realize going to Armenia entailed renouncing his American citizenship and being a virtual prisoner in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

As imprisonments go, however, his was far from harsh or dreary. With basketball skills honed at Detroit Southwestern High School - where he was an all-state player - Mooradian earned a spot on the Soviet Armenian team and became a celebrated national sports hero. He enjoyed the perks and lifestyle of a superstar and traveled the vast Soviet empire.

"I had the opportunity to see what no journalist, diplomat or foreign correspondent was permitted to see," Mooradian wrote in a book about his experiences. "I also learned to love and respect the Armenian and Russian people."

The book, The Repatriate - Love, Basketball and the KGB, was published this year by Moreradiant Publishing in Seattle and distributed by Wayne State University Press. Mooradian will have a book signing at Borders Bookstore in Birmingham at 7 p.m. Dec. 12. A reception, open to the public, will follow at Hagopian's World of Rugs, also in Birmingham.

Prior to joining the basketball team, Mooradian, like the other 150 Americans who accompanied him, experienced culture shock and disillusionment that turned to despair. Food and other essentials were scarce. Freedoms, as he knew them in the United States, didn't exist.

Nor did the workers' paradise Mooradian expected to find.

Equally disturbing was the feeling of being watched - which might have been the case given the Soviet secret police (KGB) suspected Mooradian of being a spy.

But Mooradian adjusted. He overcame the language barrier and cultural differences. He quickly stopped giving teammates an encouraging pat on the backside in practice, for example, after it prompted some to suspect he was homosexual.

His life as a star athlete and a basketball coach was relatively good. He made some good friends and strong enemies. During his decade behind the Iron Curtain, the Soviets unsuccessfully blockaded Berlin, the U.S. and its allies fought a police action in Korea and the Cold War became nuclear.

Through it all, Mooradian longed to return to the U.S. and the life he enjoyed in Detroit.

It took some scheming - and some inexplicable help from the KGB - but in 1960, after 13 years as a Cold War prisoner, Mooradian managed to returned to a much-changed U.S.

"In the Soviet Union, if the average person got bread, he was lucky," he said. "Over here, the stores had an abundance of everything, including television sets."

After a two-week debriefing by the FBI in Washington D.C., Mooradian enrolled at Wayne State University, where he earned a degree in journalism. He became a sportswriter for suburban newspapers.

While working as a journalist, he met and married Janice Taracks, a 1962 graduate of Birmingham Groves High School. They have two daughters, Jennifer and Bethany, and have lived in Southfield for 25 years.