The Atlanta Hawks banked one off the glasnost in an unusual visit to the U.S.S.R.
August 07, 1988

Members of the first NBA team to tour the Soviet Union returned to the U.S. Monday afternoon with fatigue in their bones and a split decision in their record book. Not surprisingly, that team was the Atlanta Hawks, owned by broadcasting mogul Ted Turner, a hero in the vast country that for nearly two weeks in July ogled the Hawks with a mixture of awe and confusion.

Atlanta wound up its 13-day odyssey on Saturday night in Moscow's V.I. Lenin Concert and Sports Complex by getting whipped 132-123 by the Soviet national team. The Hawks played like a club in a hurry to get home, which indeed they were. Their own draft pick, Aleksandr Volkov, a 6'9" forward with a Howdy Doody face and a James Worthy attitude about driving to the basket, burned Atlanta for 35 points in an obvious audition for the NBA. He passed easily, as did another national team player with NBA potential, guard Sharaunas Marchulenis, who had 23 points in 26 minutes.

The Hawks had previously edged the Soviets 85-84 in a July 25 game in Tbilisi, the capital of the Georgian Republic, in the southern part of the country, and 110-105 in overtime in a July 27 game in Vilnius, capital of the Republic of Lithuania, near the Polish border. Most Soviet fans and journalists were surprised and delighted that the home team was so competitive, but the results were understandable. The Soviets have been playing together for months and were using the tour, as Marchulenis put it, "as the very best school for the Olympics." The Hawks, by contrast, were not in fighting trim—they last played together on May 22, the day they lost the seventh game of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals to the Boston Celtics—and in the U.S.S.R. they acted as if they were never quite sure why they had traveled some 11,000 miles to play three games.

The NBA and the Turner Broadcasting System were sure, though. Commissioner David Stern and the network's Bob Wussler met extensively with the highest ranking officials of Goskomsport, the Soviet sports federation. Television and franchising rights were discussed, as well as the movement of players, the latter topic being the reason for the presence of Atlanta general manager Stan Kasten and Portland Trail Blazer president Harry Glickman at several of the sessions. The Trail Blazers own the draft rights to the Soviet Union's best-known player, 7'3" center Arvydas Sabonis, while the Hawks seem to be in the catbird seat to sign Marchulenis, who may be the Soviets' best player, as well as the aggressive Volkov.

Marchulenis was chosen by Golden State in the sixth round of the 1987 draft, but the pick was voided on a technicality—a foreign player has to be drafted in the calendar year of his 22nd birthday, and Marchulenis was six months too old. So the 6'3" lefthander, who can do everything an NBA coach asks of a guard, is free to sign with any NBA team, pending, of course, the compliance of Goskomsport. And in this era of glasnost, the federation is not only able, but apparently willing, to send forth its top athletes to other nations. Sabonis, Marchulenis and Volkov could sign pro contracts and still play for the Soviet Olympic team in Seoul, provided, of course, they did not get any money. No signings had taken place as of this writing, but they could happen soon.

Away from the boardroom, meanwhile, the tour was an eye-opening experience for the American pros, whose concept of roughing it during the NBA season runs along the lines of, say, staying in a hotel that does not have 24-hour room service. Irritations that might be considered minor for the average tourist are major for athletes who are expected to beat a world-class basketball team such as the Soviets. But the Hawks could draw strength, or at least solace, from their stoical Soviet counterparts, whose patience and good spirits greatly exceeded those of anyone in the 60-member Atlanta party. The teams did much of their traveling together, and the Soviets invariably waited longer for the bus, or settled for the less desirable mealtime, or took the seats toward the back of the plane—no small sacrifice considering the rest-room problems that existed on the flights.

Even after their joyous win on Saturday, the Soviets seemed willing to surrender the stage. "We would like to thank the American coaches and players for helping us," said Sergei Tarakanov, a veteran Soviet player with offensive skills—he had 29 points Saturday—evocative of the Trail Blazers' Kiki Vandeweghe. "Please," he said, clutching a reporter's arm, "write this." As Marchulenis walked off the court, an American congratulated him on the victory. "I am sorry," said Marchulenis.

"These guys [the Soviet players] are something special," said Atlanta forward Cliff Levingston. "You see how they look at things differently than we do. I was one of the few players who wanted to come on this trip from the beginning just for the experience, to look at their culture, their people, and, for me, it was really worth it. It makes you realize how easy we have it in the NBA, and it makes you appreciate what you have a little more."

The differences between what the Hawk players got out of the tour and what TBS got out of it warrant inspection. "You can be cynical or idealistic about it," said Hawk guard John Battle, "and I come down a little on the side of cynical. Truthfully, the tour had much more to do with TBS than it did with us. But, hey, that's business."

TBS prides itself on its Soviet connections. Joined by Gosteleradio, the Soviet State Committee on Radio and Television, the network coproduced the first Goodwill Games in Moscow in 1986 (losing about $26 million in the process) and will also coproduce the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle. "Sure, there are business considerations," said Wussler. "But this tour was about a lot of other things. I think most of the players realize what we were trying to do. Certainly they'll never experience anything else like it."

The Hawks arrived in Moscow at about 7:30 p.m. on July 20 and flew the next day to the Olympic Training Center in Sukhumi (sa-HOO-me), a resort town on the Black Sea. Among the activities available to the Hawks, according to the trip itinerary, were yachting and waterskiing, but the closest the players came to water sports were the icy showers in their hotel rooms. Wussler skipped this part of the trip and later conceded that in previous trips to the Soviet Union he had not visited Sukhumi nor checked out the facilities at the training center, which did not measure up to those of a world-class athletic power. But the Soviet athlete, as Levingston has said, is something special.

Certainly Marchulenis is. There he was on the Hawks' first evening in Sukhumi, inviting the Americans into a snack bar and buying everyone ice cream. There he was on the final night in Sukhumi, strumming Lithuanian waltzes on his guitar and trying, albeit awkwardly, to follow Levingston's dance steps at an impromptu beach party. When the vodka ran out, Marchulenis, who does not drink much himself, broke everyone up when he said, in his halting English, "Is no problem. I call room service for more."

Before the Hawks' visit, the only American professional basketball team ever to have appeared in the Soviet Union was the Harlem Globetrotters, so the Hawks were truly noteworthy. Fans packed practice sessions and looked on reverently. They mobbed the players for autographs or just to touch them. They were ecstatic when they latched on to Hawks souvenirs, literally clutching them to their bosoms.

The Soviet players seemed content with their bit-player status. By night they stared wide-eyed at NBA instructional videos rigged up by Atlanta trainer Joe O'Toole, and by day they hung on every word of instruction offered by the Atlanta coaches. After one joint practice session, Hawk head coach Mike Fratello, who throughout the tour was introduced as "commander" of the Hawks, spent 20 minutes demonstrating to Georgi Rezcovas, a young Soviet center, the rudiments of the jump hook. Wouldn't it make certain Americans happy, like U.S. Olympic coach John (No Detente) Thompson, if a last-second jump hook by Rezcovas gave the Soviets a victory over the Americans in the gold medal final at Seoul?

After three nights in Sukhumi, the Hawks were more than ready to move on to Tbilisi, where they played the first game on Monday, July 25. An Atlanta defeat was not only possible, but likely. Previous commitments in the U.S. had forced guards Doc Rivers and Spud Webb, forward Kevin Willis and center Jon Koncak to miss the training in Sukhumi—"Sometimes you just live right," said Koncak—and they didn't join the team until Sunday evening in Tbilisi. And Dominique Wilkins, delayed by a benefit game, wouldn't arrive until Game 2 in Vilnius. But Battle's jump shot with 5.7 seconds remaining—the game clock ran in 10th-of-a-second increments—changed the scoreboard lights to XOKC (Hawks) 85 CCCP (U.S.S.R.) 84.

The Hawks flew to Vilnius on July 26. As they walked into the Palace of Sport for that evening's practice session, they were astonished to see a capacity crowd of 5,000, utterly silent and almost deathly still. It was as if the fans had come to worship and, in a way, they had. Lithuania, home of both Marchulenis and Sabonis, is basketball-mad.

Wilkins, meanwhile, was just plain mad when he dragged his weary carcass into the Hotel Lietuva at 1:45 a.m. on July 27, the morning of the game. He had spent six hours in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport awaiting a connection to Vilnius, with no food, no Soviet money, no knowledge of the language and no companionship. "My goodness, my goodness, what am I doing here?" said Wilkins, face in hands, as he headed up to bed. It became obvious the next night—he was there to play. He scored 29 points, including a slam dunk with 35 seconds left in overtime that drove the crowd crazy and put the game out of reach. Incredibly, Lithuanian officials had wanted the game to end in a tie—"Is just exhibition, no?" said one—and the Soviet team was willing to comply, until Bruce Alexander, an NBA referee who accompanied the Atlanta delegation, got everyone back on the court. One of the first questions Fratello was asked in the postgame press conference was why he had not been "willing to accept tie."

"Let me get this straight," said Fratello. "We fly halfway around the world, go from Moscow to Sukhumi to Tbilisi to Moscow for a connecting flight to Vilnius, and we're going to tie?" The translator must have done a good job of communicating Fratello's incredulity, if not his New Jersey accent, because the place erupted in laughter.

And it erupted in joy on Saturday night, a date in the history of Soviet basketball that will rank with the best—including Sept. 10, 1972, when the U.S.S.R.'s Olympic team won the gold medal in a controversial victory over the U.S. For the Hawks, of course, the loss was not so big a deal, considering the rocky nature of the 13-day journey.

"We had to pull through a lot of adversity on this trip, and maybe that will make us closer," said Battle. "It'll certainly give us something to talk about during a long season." Then he smiled. "But if TBS plans another tour for next summer." he said, "I'd just as soon they make it in the Bahamas."

PHOTOSCOTT CUNNINGHAM/RAND + EZORThese fans in Tbilisi left no doubt which team they backed. PHOTOSCOTT CUNNINGHAM/RAND + EZORIn a battle of the boards in the Moscow game, Valery Goborov outdueled Atlanta's Koncak. TWO PHOTOSSCOTT CUNNINGHAM/RAND + EZORAtlanta coach Fratello, playing chef, stirred a huge pot of spaghetti and got a hand from a Sukhumi admirer. PHOTOSCOTT CUNNINGHAM/RAND + EZORThe Hawks may have been weary by Game 2, but Willis still had a slam dunk left in him. PHOTOSCOTT CUNNINGHAM/RAND + EZORAs the tide turned against them in Tbilisi, rooters for the Soviets put on unhappy faces.