For years the soviet union has been absorbing American basketball by degrees. It has won an Olympic gold medal by beating the U.S. in a bizarre game in 1972; it has played—and on a goodly number of occasions beaten—a cross section of American college teams; and all the while it has listened intently to lectures by American coaches. This summer six Soviet players even got the chance to play against NBA competition as members of a touring Atlanta Hawks contingent.
Still, the Soviets wondered, What would it be like if their national team played an NBA team? Exactly how far, they wondered, were they beneath the highest level of basketball? Was there perhaps a chance their national team could stay with an NBA club the way their hockey team does with representatives of the NHL?
The answers came on Sunday afternoon at the Mecca in Milwaukee during the historic McDonald's Basketball Open. In order they were: not pleasant; far; and no.
Playing without four of their best players—Sidney Moncrief, who recently underwent knee surgery, and Ricky Pierce, John Lucas and Craig Hodges, all of whom are trying to iron out contract hassles—the Milwaukee Bucks ran the Soviets, who also were missing two of their better guys, off the court, 127-100. One might have wished for a better game—the score was 98-50 in the Bucks' favor with 4:20 left in the third period—in the first pairing of the best U.S.S.R. team and an NBA club, but it was not to be.
November 2, 1987
"Sympathy?" said Jerry (Ice) Reynolds, who led the Milwaukee scoring with 24 points. "I didn't feel any sympathy for them at all. In this league, you can't have sympathy."
But, Jerry, they're not in your league, figuratively and literally.
"Well, if we were playing over there, they would've tried to crush us just as bad." They wouldn't have succeeded.
Tracer Milan of Italy, the reigning European champion, whose top player is former NBA star Bob McAdoo, also participated in the round-robin event. And it was Tracer's surprisingly strong showing against the Bucks in the first game of the series, a 123-111 Friday-night loss to Milwaukee, that fueled speculation that the Soviets could beat the Bucks in the finale. The Soviets added fuel to that sort of speculation by handling Tracer 135-108 on Saturday.
But the Milwaukee-U.S.S.R. game was no contest from the start. Playing with a ferocity never seen in normal preseason games, the Bucks trapped all over the court, crashed the boards and ran the Soviets ragged. Even the most rabid red-baiter would've wished that coach Del Harris had gone to his bench earlier than he did, which was late in the third period. But even then there was enough of a talent gap that John Stroeder, an immobile 6'10" free-agent center with Continental Basketball Association written all over him, dominated the U.S.S.R. with 14 points and seven rebounds in 16 minutes.
"My boys and I witnessed professional basketball today," said Soviet coach Aleksandr Gomelsky. "It is the best in the world. This is chance for me to study. I can go home and improve my team after this."
Pity that he could not leave behind his two best players, Aleksandr Volkov, a 6'9" forward, and Sharunas Marchulenis, a strong, 6'4" lefthanded shooting guard who looks as if he had walked off a Southern California playground. They were two of the Soviet players who participated in last summer's tour. After playing with Marchulenis, Atlanta star Dominique Wilkins said that Marchulenis could start for the Hawks. But, as Sunday's game showed, he couldn't. Not yet, anyway.
From the moment they stepped off the plane in Milwaukee, on the night of Oct. 21 after an eight-hour flight that followed a 26-hour fog delay at Moscow International Airport, the Soviet players were the focal point of the tournament. International competition and increasingly open news coverage of all things Soviet have demystified them somewhat, but an air of the unknown still swirls around any U.S.S.R. team.
Had the Soviets perhaps discovered a new phenom to replace their celebrated center, 7'2" Arvidas Sabonis, who has been dogged by frequent injuries—most recently to an Achilles tendon. Would their other oft-injured giant pivotman, 7'2" Vladimir Tkachenko, who has a bad back, make the trip? The answer to both questions was no.
But the Soviets did bring along another 7-footer, 30-year-old veteran Aleksandr Belosteni, who had reportedly been prohibited from leaving the country because he was in disfavor with Soviet authorities for an improper customs declaration. Backing up Belosteni would be potbellied, twig-armed 6'11" Victor Pankrashkin, the owner of perhaps the worst body in the history of international hoops. He is something of a cult hero in the U.S.S.R., in the same sense that 7-foot Henry Finkel of the Celtics was once a cult hero in Boston while backing up Bill Russell and Dave Cowens.
As it turned out, Belosteni went down with an ankle injury in the first two minutes of Saturday's game against Tracer, and Pankrashkin played reasonably well with 11 points and seven rebounds. He was outmatched against the Bucks, however, and played only 22 minutes before fouling out with six points.
While the Soviets didn't exactly revel in the attention given them by the promoters and the press, neither did they find it distasteful. Strange, perhaps, but not distasteful. Following their practice one morning, they took center stage at the obligatory feeding frenzy at McDonald's and then visited Kohl's, the department store owned by Bucks owner Herb Kohl. There they were given sweatshirts—red, of course—jean jackets and teddy bears (Gomelsky politely refused his). That night they saw Fatal Attraction at the West Point movie theater.
Only once, when loud talking disturbed him during a Friday practice, did Gomelsky lose his patience. "Quiet! Please!" he shouted in irritation. And for just a moment Dick Vitale actually lowered his voice. Later, Vitale, who did color commentary on ABC's telecast of Sunday's game, interviewed Gomelsky. Talk about new Soviet openness!
The only coach who closed a practice to the media was Del (No glasnost) Harris, who was more than a little uptight as he prepared for Tracer. One could hardly blame him, because he was being asked to carry the Stars and Stripes with a second-string lineup. "It will be perceived as a giant game if we lose and just another game if we win," said Harris.
The Italians, meanwhile, seemed resigned to their third-class status in the tournament. "The Bucks are the Bucks, of course, and we know that everyone in America is interested in the Soviets," said Dino Meneghin, Tracer's 6'9" center, who is considered the best Italian player ever. "So we are just glad to be here. It's like a dream come true for us to play the Bucks." Meneghin, 37, whose best years are behind him, has met several NBA players and once even scrimmaged against Moses Malone—"He did not talk very much," said Meneghin—but this would be the real thing. Italians follow the NBA closely—50 of the league's games were televised last season in Italy—and Milwaukee center Jack Sikma is a popular player there (he's known as l' angelo biondo, or the Blond Angel), particularly in the Meneghin household. "My son told me I should learn to take that jump shot like Sikma," said Dino.
McAdoo was taking the game more in stride, as befits a former NBA Most Valuable Player (1974-75 season) and three-time scoring champ (or goal king, as they say in Europe). At 36, McAdoo seems happy with his life in Milan, where he lives with his wife, Charlina, and four-year-old son, Ross, while reportedly collecting the equivalent of $300,000 a year from his employer, Phillips Electronics, the parent company of Tracer, which markets razors. McAdoo doesn't have to speak Italian—most of his teammates speak English—and Lord knows that in the Tracer offensive system he doesn't have to pass the ball once he gets his hands on it. McAdoo is still a master at getting off the jumper with a hand in his face, and, sure enough, he scored 37 against the Bucks on Friday and 41 on Saturday against the Soviets.
Tracer's second-leading scorer is Rickey Brown, who played five NBA seasons with the Warriors and the Hawks before going to Italy three years ago. While in Atlanta, Brown had such a reputation for sizzling in training camp and fizzling in the regular season that his teammates took to calling him Mr. October. Brown had 26 against Milwaukee and 32 against the Soviets.
Mike D'Antoni, 36, is a third former NBA player on the Tracer roster. A second-round draft choice out of Marshall University in 1973, D'Antoni played for Kansas City, St. Louis (ABA) and San Antonio before leaving for Italy in 1977. D'Antoni, born in Mullens, W.Va., now has dual citizenship and is probably Italy's most popular player, not to mention its most realistic. "I just hope we don't embarrass ourselves," he said before the game with the Bucks.
Until midway through the second period the Milwaukee-Tracer game was frightful in its one-sidedness as Milwaukee opened up a 56-26 lead. Paul Pressey looked as if he were a man playing against children as he drove the lane at will and trapped the beleaguered D'Antoni—who's still a clever passer and dribbler—all over the court. Harris must have felt a weight lift from his chest when it became evident that Tracer could not stay with his starters.
But there were other Bucks to look at, and to Harris's disappointment, they weren't much to look at. Tracer's conditioning (the Italians are two months into their season) and zone defense—all of Milwaukee's half-court plays, naturally, are designed to work against the man-to-man played in the NBA—unraveled the Bucks in the second half. Down the stretch, Harris had no choice but to reinsert Pressey, Sikma and Terry Cummings to preserve a lead that had shrunk to 107-97 with 6:07 left. To most American observers, accustomed to the wild ebb and flow of NBA games and expecting some preseason raggedness on the part of the Bucks, the final 12-point margin was perhaps a little surprising but certainly not astonishing. However, it positively stupified European journalists, who thought that the Bucks would win by at least 40. "Tomorrow morning, when people pick up the paper in Paris, they will simply not believe it," said Didier le Corre, who writes for Maxi Basket, a French monthly. "This is a real date in European basketball history."
All in all, it did bear a slight resemblance to an NBA game, thanks to McAdoo's jumper, Pressey's court savvy, the 24-second clock and the inevitable Wave that swept through the stands midway through the fourth period. Seated together at the baseline, the Soviet team looked on in bewilderment at first. But assistant coach Ivan Edeshko, the man who threw the length-of-the-court pass to the late Aleksandr Belov that beat the U.S. in the controversial 1972 Olympic final, had seen the Wave before, and implored his comrades to participate. When they did, albeit sheepishly, the Mecca exploded.
The following afternoon, a tired Tracer team had fallen behind the Soviets 74-49 early in the third period. It rallied to cut the lead to 88-79 by the end of the period, however, and the Soviets had to summon the lefthander from the bullpen—Marchulenis—in the fourth quarter. It was arrivederci, Italia after that. Marchulenis finished with 24 points, 14 in the final period, four rebounds, six assists and four steals in 25 minutes.
After the game, several members of the Soviet team jammed into Valeri Goborov's room at the Hyatt Regency to watch the sixth game of the World Series. Later most of the Soviet players tramped over to Radio Doctors, the all-league music store across the street from the hotel, to practice consumerism. A couple of the older players searched for Russian folk albums that aren't available in the Soviet Union—not Radio Doctors' strong suit—but Volkov (Michael Jackson, Sting, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston) and Edeshko (U2, Neil Diamond's The Jazz Singer) had more luck. The Russians made their selections with much care and calculation, the style that they would have to employ to beat the Bucks the following day.
It didn't work out that way. Instead, they were nervous and edgy, shooting 3 of 25 from three-point range. Even Marchulenis was only 4 of 15 from the floor, though he made 11 of 16 free throws en route to scoring 19 points. The vast difference between the teams could be seen in a player like swingman Reynolds, who makes too many mistakes and is struggling to become a good NBA player. Yet he is much quicker and much more acrobatic than the best of the Soviets. All that, and he stands 6'8". The Soviets simply have no one like Reynolds, much less anyone to match such Buck stars as Pressey, Sikma and Cummings.
Nevertheless, NBA commissioner David Stern wants the tournament to be an annual event. And so does the Federation Internationale de Basketball (FIBA), the game's worldwide governing body. In fact, FIBA's secretary general, Boris Stankovic of Yugoslavia, is a vocal proponent of open basketball competition, even if that means that the U.S. gets to use Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the Olympics.
After Sunday's wipeout by the Bucks, the thought of an open Olympics should be enough to unnerve the Soviets. Asked if he could play in the NBA, Volkov replied, "It would be hard for a small soldier to become a general."