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SO NEAR, SO FAR

Oct. 17, 1988
Oct. 17, 1988

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Oct. 17, 1988

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SO NEAR, SO FAR

Three Soviet hockey and basketball stars are hoping to play for U.S. pro teams

Waiting for Viacheslav Fetisov, Arvydas Sabonis and Sharunas Marchulenis has become, for the three American pro teams that are wooing them, a little like waiting for Godot. One moment these extraordinary Soviet athletes are coming, the next there's no chance, the next there's a possibility. Yes, no, maybe, maybe not: So the pendulum swings, back and forth, back and forth.

This is an article from the Oct. 17, 1988 issue

"You are optimistic and pessimistic, clearheaded and confused, all at the same time," says Atlanta Hawk general manager Stan Kasten, who would love to have the services of the 6'4" Marchulenis, the star guard of the U.S.S.R.'s Olympic basketball team. The Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA and the New Jersey Devils of the NHL, who own the draft rights to Sabonis, the 7'3¼" center who's the top Soviet basketball player, and Fetisov, the Bobby Orr of the Soviet Union, respectively, know the feeling. To be sure, Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika have brightened the prospect that athletes from the U.S.S.R. will be allowed to ply their trade in the U.S. Still, the idea of sending top athletes to the NHL and the NBA, in which they would be under the world's microscope, is clearly a ground-breaking one for the Soviet sports hierarchy. Will it happen?

Marchulenis, 24, a southpaw with moves that inexplicably look as if they were learned on an American playground, isn't the property of any NBA team. (His selection by the Golden State Warriors in the sixth round of the 1987 draft was voided on a technicality.) But Marchulenis has spent considerable time with Atlanta players, coaches and executives over the last two years as the result of arrangements made with the Soviets by Hawk owner Ted Turner, and it's a foregone conclusion that Atlanta will get him, if any U.S. team does. The Hawks' position on the inside track is enhanced by the extensive business dealings that Turner has had with the Soviets.

But Marchulenis's move to Atlanta is hardly a sure thing, because Statiba, his club team in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, wants to lose him about as much as the Los Angeles Lakers want to lose Magic Johnson, and club officials are putting on a full-court press. "Stay with us for the coming year" is the plea that Statiba coach Rimas Girskis made personally to Marchulenis last weekend.

Fetisov, whose trophies include two Olympic gold medals, was the Devils' sixth pick in the 1983 entry draft. Though he's still an excellent player, he's 30 and will soon be past his prime, at least as far as the powerful Soviet national team is concerned. Fetisov is by all reports a well-respected, mature individual who would make an excellent representative for the Soviet hockey, sports and political pooh-bahs.

His status with the Red Army team, with which he plays in the Soviet major league, is a possible roadblock to his departure for the New Jersey meadowlands. Fetisov resigned his commission as a major in early August, but the army may still forestall his departure. "I'm not sure the generals think that a Soviet army officer playing in America is such a good idea," says Vladimir Gheskin, an editor and columnist for the newspaper Sovietsky Sport.

Lou Lamoriello, the general manager of the Devils, who had been negotiating with the U.S.S.R., made three trips to the Calgary Olympics to meet with officials of Sovintersport, one of several agencies that govern sports in the U.S.S.R. "I felt there was a sincere effort being made to have Fetisov play in the U.S.," Lamoriello said. Then, in June, Sovintersport officials contacted Lamoriello and made arrangements for him to come to Moscow. "Money was never a problem," Lamoriello says. "And Fetisov has been given permission to leave from everyone except the Red Army. Some generals from the old school still haven't given approval. Once that is cleared up, there should be no problem."

The Trail Blazers drafted Sabonis in the first round in 1986, and he spent from May 1 to Aug. 15 of this year in Portland, rehabilitating his injured Achilles tendons under the care of the Blazers' medical staff. Though Sabonis complained privately in Seoul that he was still experiencing a lot of pain, his performance in the Soviets' 82-76 semifinal Olympic win over the U.S. removed any doubts that, at 23, he is still, at the very least, as good as most NBA pivotmen.

Sabonis, like Marchulenis, is from Lithuania. His team, Zhalgiris, which is based in Kaunas, is much stronger than Marchulenis's Statiba. Even if Sabonis were permitted to absent himself from the NBA to play for the Soviet national team in future Olympic Games—a vote of basketball's international governing body, FIB A, in April 1989 is all but guaranteed to erase the distinction between professional and amateur basketball—the Lithuanians wonder if he would miss the European competitions, which are so important to them. Would he be able to play in the world championships? In the Goodwill Games? The fact remains that he is a strong and graceful 265-pound center, a breed of cat that's all but impossible to replace in Lithuania, Los Angeles or anywhere else.

The three American teams face many common difficulties in trying to get the players signed. Differences in language, culture, currency, time and negotiating methodology all slow the talks. "Part of the problem is that the Soviets don't have lawyers," says Kasten. To which NBA commissioner David Stern, himself an attorney, adds, only half in jest, "And part of the problem is that we do."

Overseeing all of Soviet sport is the Ministry of Sports and Physical Culture, a branch of the government with thousands of employees. "If it sweats or wears Adidas, the ministry has a hand in it," says Bob Wussler, a Turner Broadcasting System executive who often travels to Moscow to negotiate deals for Turner. Below the ministry are the subsidiaries Goskomsport and Sovintersport. Technically, the former is responsible for sports and sports marketing within the U.S.S.R., and the latter handles those matters outside the country. But in practice, American teams must deal with both organizations, and neither has a shortage of officials to deal with. "You go from one person to another, and you're never sure you're making headway," says Bucky Buckwalter, Portland's vice-president of basketball operations.

Negotiating with Moscow is only the first of the bureaucratic hassles for the NBA teams. In Lithuania there's also a local sports ministry and a basketball federation, each with a full complement of paper movers, pencil pushers and decision makers.

A final factor damming up the negotiations—as of Sunday, the three Soviet athletes were unsigned—is internal Soviet wrangling over which agency gets what percentage of the players' contract money. (It's estimated that the Soviets have been offered $200,000 for Fetisov, $300,000 to $350,000 for Marchulenis and $800,000 to $1 million for Sabonis.) The Hawks, for example, understand that their contract would be not with Marchulenis but with Sovintersport, which would in turn divvy up the pie as it sees fit. "That's their business," says Wussler, "but obviously we want certain guarantees: that the player receives enough money to get a home, a car, enough to eat, English lessons, those kind of things." These matters have come up in discussions with the Soviets.

And they will come up again Oct. 23, when Wussler and Turner travel to Moscow for a week of business meetings, Marchulenis being "at the top of the agenda," according to Wussler. "In the Soviet Union there's never a shortage of people to say no. What we need is someone to step in and say yes."

Marchulenis was thinking the same thing. "Everyone is afraid to accept responsibility," he said last week from his home in Vilnius. "I hope someone does. I want to go to Atlanta. And I want to go soon."

PHOTOPAUL BERESWILLFetisov is waiting for the Red Army team to give him the green light.PHOTOJOHN BIEVERWorried Lithuanian basketball officials want to keep Marchulenis.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERSabonis's Olympian contribution in Seoul boosted his NBA stock.