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First man in space Yuri Gagarin was a basketball player

April 12, 2012

As it would be impossible to watch global NBA broadcasts or to read basketball blogs if not for the development of space, it’s quite symbolic to learn that the first human to orbit the Earth was a baller.

On April 12, 1961 – 51 years ago today – Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to fly in space. But as a regular student a few years before he made history, Gagarin was a devoted basketball player, a certified ref and a coach.

Graduating school late because of WWII, in 1949 Gagarin moved to Lyubertsy, Moscow Region to attend a vocational school and get a profession. There, he also became a captain on the school’s basketball team.

After receiving his diploma and thanks to attending an evening school as well, Gagarin managed to enter a technical college and moved to Saratov. A few years later he would join an Aviation club in Saratov and that would eventually lead to his historic career. But one of the first things Gagarin learned upon arrival to the city in 1951 is that the college didn’t have a basketball team. So he set up a basketball class and headed the program.

Yuri Gagarin wearing his college team jersey

The website of Russian basketball federation lists Gagarin’s accomplishments on the hardwood during his student days: he was named a grade one basketball player and was approved as a first category referee. While Soviet sports grading system doesn’t mean much these days, it was impressive for a student athlete.

Ex-classmates recall that despite being short at 165 cm (5-feet-5), Gagarin always managed to be the best player on the court by being skilled, staying in amazing shape and playing in aggressive style.

Clip from 1961 issue of Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper

“He was a really good basketball player, always a team captain no matter where he played”, said daughter Elena Gagarina in an interview for Russia Today. Gagarina added that it was love for sports that helped Gagarin get through the hardships of cosmonaut selection.

P.S. Though after all these years we still can’t play hoops in space, one of the astronauts has already brought a basketball with him.

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