Opening the Curtain
Twenty-five years ago, Ted Turner and Bob Wussler answered an emergency call from the Soviet Union.
On the other end were Kim Bohuny and Mike Fratello, pleading from inside a lightless cement bunker, deep behind Soviet lines. They had a simple request.
“I heard Ted Turner in the background saying 'What’s going on out there?' Bohuny said with a laugh last week.
The call was coming from a Black Sea town called Sukhumi, where Bohuny – then a TBS employee, now the NBA’s Senior VP of International Operations – was leading the Atlanta Hawks through the first-ever NBA excursion behind the Iron Curtain.
Wussler, who’d later co-found CNN, had engineered the trip in tandem with the Soviet Union’s Goskomsport – its bureau on sports. Approved under the USSR’s new, open-air policy of Glasnost, the trip aimed to both spread the game (and TV rights), but to negotiate with Goskomsport leaders to bring the recently drafted Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis to the States. Wussler asked fourth-year commissioner David Stern if he’d approve the Hawks’ trip from the NBA side.
"I said not only would we look favorably, but I would be happy to accompany the team because I thought this was a real opportunity for the NBA. He said great, they made a series of arrangements for the Hawks and I said ‘Let’s go."
NBA Commissioner David Stern
It was a 13-day trip that would change the global face of the league. But at that point, the power was out, the phones were coughing up static, the water had parasites and it was late July in the Republic of Georgia.
“It was billed as the highlight of the trip,” said Terry Lyons, former NBA VP of International Communications.
Twenty-five years after that journey, the NBA’s poised to send more teams abroad in 2013-14 (12) than it ever has in a season. By and large, to places with functioning lamps. Eight will travel internationally for the preseason. Four will follow during the regular year, pushing the league’s total to 148 games held outside the U.S. And after a record 19 international players were drafted in June, rosters look like a lock to shatter last year’s high mark of 84 international players when training camps break.
And so much of the light of 25 years comes from those days of darkness.
"We had a little bit of pioneer in us," said Fratello, then the Hawks' head coach.
“It was a very interesting time,” Bohuny said. “I think it was the beginning of the NBA going global.”
First, the memories.
Even now, a quarter of a century later, those who went still find themselves bound by the trip.
“Everybody who tells the story of the trip has great, smiling memories,” Lyons said. “Not like, ‘Oh God, this is awful.’ More like, ‘This was unbelievable.’”
"I remember the relationships that were created -- particularly at that time, with relationships being what they were internationally. Who could say, at that time, they’d been to Moscow? And not only do you get to visit the country, but you're playing there in games where it's supposed to be a friendly, but we know they wanted to beat our brains in."
TV Analyst and former NBA coach Mike Fratello
Longtime Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum wrote about calling Doc Rivers ‘comrade’ a quarter-century later. Lyons said that Cliff Levingston would “break my back with a hug” the next time they saw each other.
"We say we’re bonded forever for being on that tour, because it was precedent-setting," Bohuny said. "It was historical."
“There were so many funny things that happened, but you realized the Soviet Union team wanted us to enjoy ourselves so bad – this was just the way it was at the time,” Bohuny continued. “You couldn't get upset with anyone. We just laughed together, and you just dealt with whatever hand you were dealt that day. Honestly, there are 100 stories from that trip.”
And most of that comes from what happened in Sukhumi.
The US traveling party landed in Moscow to start the trip, then took a charter flight – the late-80’s Soviet version of a charter flight – to what was then the USSR’s Olympic training site, in Sukhumi, Georgia (now the capital Abkhazia).
Sukhumi, Republic of GeorgiaA pre-competition trip to the Spa. Sort of.
Everybody piled onto the bus, which clattered to life, pulled out of the spot, made a few loops around the tarmac and finished right back where it started.
“Fratello took the microphone and said ‘Can you imagine what’s going on in the control tower?” Bohuny said.
“It was maybe a 30-second walk from where the bus started,” Lyons said. “Stuff like that would happen every time we did something. It became one comedic episode after one another.”
But at least it was a charter flight. Bohuny, who’d worked with Goskomsport in her Goodwill Games capacity, had made sure of that.
“I remember having these meetings with the Olympic committee,” she said. “We kept saying ‘We’re gonna charter – you know what a charter is?’ And all the people were like, ‘Yes, Kim, we know.’ We’re like, ‘You sure? When we get to Moscow and go to Sukhumi, we’re gonna charter?’ – ‘Yes, Kim, we know what chartering is, don’t worry.’”
"We go to get on this plane, and all the guests are in the window seats, players on the aisles and I’m looking off on the tarmac. I see this group of peasants. I’m thinking this is gonna be it – live animals, the whole thing. Sure enough, right on the plane in the middle seats"
From there, it was just open skies and a solitary warm bowl of water for each seat to Sukhumi. Which John Sterling -- now the radio voice of the Yankees, then of the Hawks -- put to good use.
“I see John dipping his fingers in it like it’s a finger bowl before a meal, and I say, ‘John, you just put your hands in the only thing you’re gonna eat or drink for the rest of the flight.’”
Said Stern, who didn’t arrive until a few days later: “Terry Lyons and Kim can speak more to the deprivations at Sukhumi on the Black Sea.”
Sukhumi!But they landed.
“The pictures they showed us in the magazine and the pictures when we got there were quite different,” Bohuny said with a laugh. “It was on the Black Sea. But what they didn’t tell us is that part of the Black Sea was polluted with oil slicks, floating tires and dead carcasses.”
"There were goats running around on the outside," Lyons said.
"I remember the casino and resort area that never was. It must've been a mirage to somebody."
The buildings looked like college dorms in the 50’s or 60’s, Lyons said. Cement everywhere. The tennis courts were busted and sloped like a piece of folded paper and there wasn’t much going on in the village, at least for non-goats.
But it served its purpose. Until a summer storm struck a tower and knocked out all the electricity and running water for the whole compound.
“There was no fixing that,” Lyons said. “So it was a day and a half of darkness.”
Hawks and Soviet players mug for the camera.
Everybody ended up just hanging out at the pool – the training pool for the Soviet water polo team, which, in fairness, was pretty nice, Lyons said – by day, and making do by night. Luckily, The crew had some wine on hand, too. And Marciulionis had a guitar.
“There was a place with a little lounge at the end of the hall – like a college dorm," Lyons said. "You’d go over there, and we literally had to make a rope and follow it down the hallway. It was pitch-black, and you had to hold onto the rope. They had a candle down there, and Marciulionis was playing guitar.”
They lived off orange Fanta. And Fanta, most agree, tastes better cold. Which becomes a problem when the A/C is out. Marciulionis had a solution for that, too.
“Marciulionis and Volkov, knowing people were thirsty and it was hot and not an ice cube in site, they were holding Fanta bottles under a running stream to cool the Fanta and bring it over to the players,” Lyons said.
"That gesture ... these are two decorated players, the equivalent of Michael Jordan and Chris Mullin over there. That told you a lot about the hospitality of these two guys."
“The Soviet players felt so bad,” Bohuny said. “They pooled their rubles and they went out and bought us ice cream and soda and played guitar and sang, and we appreciated what they did.”
So both teams would tell stories deep into the night, then stumble back to their rooms in absolute darkness.
“We went back at night and it was almost like a conga line – you put up the pen light, like ‘here’s Antoine Carr’s room. Cliff Levingston’s room,’” Bohuny said. “How can you ever forget that?”
And when the light came back, things didn't always get much better.
"The mosquitoes were bigger than you and I," Fratello said. "And it was so dark that we walked into walls. But [when it was light] I remember seeing these red splotches on the walls and wondering what they were. Until the mosquitoes started eating us and I realized it was the mosquitoes people had hit up against the wall."
Front-Page NewsJeff Denberg, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer who's since passed, came along to document the trip. And the AJC, for its part, gave him a platform, running a front-page story about the Soviet Union trip, complete with a map of all the tour stops. Denberg filed from Moscow, writing about the charter flight to the world-class spa town of Sukhumi.
Then the power went out.
“They didn’t hear from us for days,” Bohuny said. “We’re like, ‘People are gonna think we’re dead.’”
"You couldn’t use ice cubes because of the parasites in the water. So whatever we drank was warm, and we were eating cucumbers and tomatoes." Steve Holman
"It was such a culture change for all of us. It was still very much Cold War and Iron Curtain-type Soviet Union." Stan Kasten
"I remember every detail. It was a great memory." Alexander Volkov
“We were there right on the edge of that whole changeover. We went to Red Square one time, and everybody sang God Bless America. They came over and said ‘you can’t do that – no!’ And they chased us off.” Steve Holman
Tbilisi, Republic of GeorgiaHawks 85, Soviet National Team 84
To Russia, With SpudSpud Webb snuck into the Soviet Union long before the plane ever landed.
He came via Turkey, and he came in VHS form.
So when the Hawks picked up a win in the first game of the series, it was the smallest player on the court who got the biggest reaction from the Georgian crowd -- a memory that still stays with Stern, who joined the tour when it hit Tbilisi.
"They were cheering for Spud Webb the loudest," Stern said. "I learned that they saw Spud Webb on tapes, TV shows, that were pirated from Turkey, and they saw him win the Slam Dunk Contest."
The TamadaIf you’re looking to get into hospitality, you could do worse than Georgia, the land of the tamada. It’s a profession that falls somewhere between toastmaster, waiter and dictator. In charge of everything that goes on a table and everything that goes-on at a table, it’s a job not to be taken lightly.
“I was trying to explain to the coaching staff, when we go, we cannot leave,” Bohuny said. “And they were like, ‘yeah yeah, OK.’ We were there for four hours, and 120 toasts later, to everything, we left.”
Dominique meets fans he didn't know he had.
‘Nique at the AirportDominique Wilkins couldn’t make the Sukhumi swing because of obligations in the States, so he flew a few days later to make Game 1 in Georgia. He was all set to make it to Tbilisi until it turned out that Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport had two separate terminals: international and domestic. And nobody told him.
Well, that’s not entirely true. He just couldn’t read Cyrillic.
“I’m laughing because I can picture him,” Bohuny said. “The organization on the Soviet side lacked a little, so they got him to the airport but they left him there. No one speaks English in these domestic airports – no one – and all the signs are in Cyrillic, so he’s sitting there thinking someone’s gonna come get him, and no one ever did. Finally a guy comes along and recognized him, and he’s like ‘You gotta go – you already missed your flight.’ He’s in the middle seat against a Russian babushka, jammed in the middle all the way to Lithuania.”
"12 hours – with no basketball representatives or anybody I knew at the airport. So I sat there for 12 hours by myself, but it was fine. Looking at machine guns, guys 12 years old looking at your ID, and all that stuff. It was fun."
Dominique Wilkins, to Hawks.com
The Cave TourBefore Wilkins got there, the hosts treated the guests to a cave tour. Which smelled just like you’d imagine. And at about 125 degrees Fahrenheit and a few hundred feet below dirt level, Mike Fratello couldn’t resist a crack.
“Man, I bet Dominique’s sorry he missed this trip,” he said, in McCallum’s account.
Not that McCallum – known then as now for his wit – held his peace, either.
"I was standing right next to [McCallum]. To say the smell was bad was an understatement,'" Lyons said. "You couldn’t even believe it. So McCallum, on the way down, goes, ‘I can see the headline now: Spud, ‘Nique, Avoid Cave Tragedy."
“And the one thing you don’t do when you’re in a cave, when you’re a couple hundred feet under, is you don’t make noise,” Lyons said. “We had a group of 100 people laughing, and our tour guide was like ‘NO!,’”
The GameWilkins still hadn’t arrived by start time of Game 1, and Webb, Doc Rivers, Kevin Willis and Jon Koncak -- all of whom were held up by their own obligations -- barely made it, so a depleted Hawks team nearly fell in the opener, but a John Battle jumper in the closing seconds gave the guests an 85-84 win.
And at that point, Fratello said, it wasn't technically the Atlanta Hawks who won.
"We brought over a piecemeal team," Fratello said of the club before Wilkins and the rest arrived. "We had to borrow a couple guys. We borrowed Antoine Carr's brother and Cliff Levingston's roommate and put them in uniform. We kind of slapped this group together so we had the bodies.
"You're not gonna go over there with your best team with a guy's brother," he continued with a laugh. "Who knows what he did. He could've been a welder or auto mechanic. Add in another guy's roommate. Who knows their backgrounds. I just thought these guys were nice enough to put on uniforms to help us play, knowing reinforcements were on the way."
After connecting back through Moscow to get to Vilnius – capital of basketball-crazed Lithuania (see: The Other Dream Team) – the Hawks headed to practice at the Palace of Sport. And found 5,000 fans, staring and silent, waiting for them.
Vilnius, LithuaniaHawks 110, Soviet National Team 105 (OT)
“It was as if the fans had come to worship,” McCallum wrote. “And, in a way, they had.”
What Car?For all the miscues, the Goskomsport envoy made sure to keep their guests safe.
If not a little spooked.
"When we were in Lithuania, we were trailed by another car," Stern said. "And our guy, when we asked what that car was, said he didn’t see any other car."
KaunasWhile in Vilnius, the US envoy took a trip to Kaunas, Lithuania – home of both Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis. Looking to help negotiations to get the players Stateside, a few other key figures shared their opinion on the holdup.
“I got heat from the head of Kaunas communist party because the Trail Blazers didn’t have room to give Sabonis a big contract because of cap restrictions,” Stern said. “They thought it was almost un-American not to be able to pay Sabonis.”
The EatsFood was scarce in Sukhumi, and it didn’t get much better over the week.
“Cucumbers and tomatoes,” Hawks radio play-by-play announcer Steve Holman told Hawks.com. “That’s what we ate for 15 days."
“Jon Koncak, who everybody called ‘John Contract’ because he just signed a new one, told McCallum he’d pay him a thousand dollars for a Snickers bar,” Lyons said. “Jack looked at him and cut it into six pieces to share.”
The GameA weary Wilkins made his presence felt, dropping 29 points in the win-that-almost-wasn’t.
(And the Almost-Tie)
The teams tied at the end of regulation, and in McCallum’s account, Lithuanian officials were fine just calling it a draw and leaving the court with everybody intact. “Is just an exhibition, no?” one of them said within earshot of McCallum.
But a combination of Fratello and NBA ref Bruce Alexander got the teams back onto the floor for overtime, where the Hawks pulled ahead for a 5-point win that included a big dunk from the Human Highlight Reel.
Said Fratello postgame, when a scribe asked him about why they turned down the tie: “Let me get this straight. 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?"
Moscow, RussiaSoviet National Team 132, Hawks 123
Pasta MoscoviaRemember that call Bohuny made to Atlanta?
The shipment came soon after. It included Ted Turner, Bob Wusstler and a crate of pasta and sauce.
Which Fratello knew something about.
“My most enduring memory was Fratello cooking pasta in the kitchen of the hotel in Moscow,” Stern said.
“Mike put on the chef’s hat and cooked up the pasta for everyone – it was tremendous,” Lyons said. “And it was an industrial-sized kitchen, cooking for 100 people.”
"It was crazy. [Fratello] took over the whole kitchen."
How'd it turn out?
"The pasta was great because it was prepared by an outstanding chef," Fratello said. "Chef Fratello."
“I don’t think I helped. He was really too much in charge of the kitchen,” Stern said.
Billy Joel, Live from the Front SeatIvan Desko – known better as the guy who threw the full-court inbounds pass that beat the U.S. in the 1972 Olympics (yeah, that one) – spoke English better than most behind the Curtain. So he got close, quick, to the U.S. envoy. Close enough to receive one of the copied cassettes that Lyons made of Billy Joel’s recent concert in the Soviet Union.
“His eyes lit up,” Lyons said. “They all told me the next day that they piled into his car that night at his house. Of course he was one of the few people who owned his own car. They piled into his car, because that was the only cassette player they had, and all four of them listened to that rock show.
“Now and then you’d get hit with a 2-by-4 in the forehead with the reality of what we had and what we took for granted.”
The GameAt last, the home team won.
Playing at Moscow’s V.I. Lenin Concert and Sports Complex, Marciulionis and Volkov – so busy playing the role of host for two weeks – combined for 58 points to lead the National Team to one of the biggest wins in its history. Without Sabonis in the lineup, as the big man was still recovering from a torn Achilles, the Soviets sent their home crowd into a frenzy with a 132-123 win in the finale.
“They went on to win that Olympics that year in Seoul. They were good,” Stern said.
The Hawks didn't take it too hard.
"We'd won two of the three games we were playing," Fratello said. "And my guys were like, 'Let's Go.' Now we were like, 'you can't go -- we gotta play the third game.' So we went back to Moscow, in front of the largest crowd -- which Ted Turder decides to put on TV. And there we were, after winning the first two, our guys have no interest in being there and now we're gonna be on television bringing it back to the States. They crushed us.
"When I'd run into Sasha Volkov later, I always say 'You guys beat us by 100 points," he continued. "He goes 'it wasn't that bad.' And I say it sure seemed like that. They ran us outta the place."
Fratello and Volkov -- who'd go on to play for the Hawks -- would have time to chat down the line. Years after Vokov retired, he moved into the role of president of the Ukrainian Basketball Federation and elected Fratello -- who else? -- to coach the Ukrainian National Team in the Eurobasket Tournament. Fratello rewarded him by coaching Ukraine to its first-ever berth in the FIBA Worlds.
"It's just an interesting cycle, how it all happened, continents away," Fratello said.
The UnionEven passing through, cracks in the Soviet veneer were evident.
“We were struck by the fact that there were lines at stores in Moscow – there was very little food at that time,” Stern said. “And when we got to Soviet Georgia, the food and certainly the produce was plentiful. It was clear that the transportation system in the Soviet Union was not in workable shape.
"We knew that there were going to be changes in that country."
Now, the meaning.
Mere months after the trip, those changes started to happen.
The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The Soviet Union crumbled soon after.
“Players were able to start coming over because they were free to make their own choices,” Bohuny said.
Bohuny? She joined the NBA two years after the tour.
“When I spoke to David, he said, ‘Look, I’m getting ready to go global in a big way. I’ve got big plans,’” she said.
Meanwhile, longtime deputy commissioner and 2013 Basketball Hall of Famer Russ Granik was busy lobbying FIBA to allow professionals to play in the Olympics. “Remember,” Lyons said, “every human being on earth could play in the Olympics except the NBA.”
Then, in April 1989, FIBA finally ruled that professional players could play in the Olympics. Which meant that no matter if you played for Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow or the Portland Trail Blazers, you could represent your country on the international stage.
“It was the early beginnings of globalization and we were very much a part of it. I’d been earlier with the Suns in 1984 and you could begin to see the stirrings in the context of basketball, but I think those were actually taking place in the context of everything. And it was the beginning of something that came to be called globalization.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern
The rest of the pieces started to fall after that.
The FIBA partnership led to the McDonald’s Open, which, after debuting in 1987, sent the Celtics to Madrid in October 1988. And from that first McDonald’s to the finale in 1999, the tournament crowned nine champions – all NBA teams.
It wasn’t perfect, sure, but it got things going.
“I think the partnership with FIBA and the movement into the game in Madrid was a really important step,” Stern said. “It may not have been the exact first, but it was a broadening of our relationship, the actual staging, jointly, of a game. It was the actual playing of a tournament in Madrid, and we began to see that there were real players out there, real venues and real opportunities.”
Quickly, the games got more frequent.
Japan came two years after McDonald’s, when John Stockton and Karl Malone’s Jazz opened the 1990-91 campaign in Tokyo in the first of five season-starting series in Japan.
Latin America followed shortly after, although the Caribbean had a moment in the – well, sun – when Ted Arinson, then a managing partner of the Miami Heat and father of current Heat prez Mickey Arinson, arranged a Heat preseason game in the Bahamas in 1991.
And by 2004, when a towering Chinese center named Yao Ming became an NBA star, the league made its biggest leap yet when it staged its first preseason game in China – a place of 1.3 billion people where it’s returned five times since (with another pair of games this fall).
“We had people literally stopping traffic to take a picture of Yao and the Rockets,” Lyons said. “Here we are, with the blessing of the authorities and help of security police, stopping everything to get a picture of these guys in front of Tiananmen Square.
"There were so many times where I told David ‘pinch me did that just happen?"
Above all, the message.The message being simple: you, too, can do this. If Dominique Wilkins and Spud Webb come to you, you can come to them, too.
“[The 1988 McDonald’s Open] was a bunch of European fans, blessing themselves and saying ‘I can’t believe this is happening, that I can see Larry Bird in my town,” Lyons said.
When the Hawks played in Lithuania, 11-year-old Zydrunas Ilgauskas was there.
And it wasn’t just the spread of the game that attracted international talent. It was the spread of a certain style of game, too.
Marciulionis stood out, Lyons said, because of the way he played. At that point, Europeans still had a reputation as perimeter-dwellers, happy to hoist threes and collect a check. Then Volkov, Marciulionis and Sabonis entered the league, not to mention Drazen Petrovic and a long series of Eastern European stars.
“You saw the tide changing with the style of play,” Lyons said. “They could jump. They were strong. Volkov was pretty freakin strong, and Marciulionis was a tank. That had been lacking with guys, and that’s what changed. Then the scouting kicked in, like ‘Jeez, these two guys can play, and you know damn well there’s gonna be more.’”
“That was in the late 80’s, early 90’s,” Bohuny said. “In the mid-90’s, it was like ‘are they good enough? Will they be accepted by only a couple renegade teams?’ Then you saw it in the late 90’s and going into 2000-1-2-3, not only were they coming but they were very good and dominating. Suddenly every NBA team had a European scout. Then they had scouts in Latin America. Then they some looking everywhere. Africa. Asia. Australia. New Zealand.”
Over time, the players have followed suit. This summer, 127 players, coaches, legends and execs from the NBA and WNBA traveled to 40 different countries.
“In fairness, it’s not just player attitudes,” Stern said. “I think all of us, team personnel, owners, have come to totally understand that there is enormous opportunity out there for the growth of basketball and the spread of the values of our game on and off the court, and for the business opportunities that exist for the league and the players.”
Factor in the countries served by Basketball Without Borders, among other NBA programs, and the NBA’s served players and communities in more than half the countries in the world.
“It’s one beautiful quilt of patches of opportunity and experience,” Stern said. “I had the opportunity to travel to Bhutan where the king of Bhutan was a big Celtic fan. He used to play in the public square before he stopped playing. The one internet café in Timpu, the capital of Bhutan, I walked in and there was a youngster who was on NBA.com looking at photos of the Lakers. “
Before October’s over, the league will add three more countries to its list of international hosts, when the Thunder head to Turkey, the Rockets and Pacers travel to the Philippines and the Bulls and Wizards make their ways to Rio, to bring the total to 22 countries.
“There’s been an evolution and now it’s just amazing to me 20 years later that we’re a global league,” Bohuny said. “It’s a global game.”
The 2013 Global Games tip off in Istanbul on Oct. 5.