Recalling the 1988 Hawks' Trip To Russia

Twenty five years ago this summer, the Hawks traveled to the then-Soviet Union and became the first NBA team to ever play there, beating the Soviet All-Star team 85-84 in an exhibition match.  Atlanta went on to play several games in the world's largest country in the summer of 1988 during which political tension between the U.S. and the Russian Federation was high.

Hawks Radio play-by-play legend Steve Holman was on the trip and provided photos of the journey.  Click here to see them.

Steve Fall recalled the trip in a 2003 article featured in Hawk Talk called "Behind The Curtain."  Here is Fall's piece in its entirety:

Behind The Curtain
Steve Fall

Fifteen years ago, the Hawks ventured to the Soviet Union for a goodwill basketball tour. It’s hard to believe now that it’s become such a global league, but no NBA team had ever been there before. 

Even with Perestroika – Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic, political, and social restructuring program – taking hold, the team entered a strange new world for 15 days. 

“It was such a culture change for all of us. It was still very much Cold War and Iron Curtain-type Soviet Union,” said Hawks President Stan Kasten, then the team’s General Manager. “So it was difficult for many of us. But for players, who are used to first class this and first class that, it really was quite a culture shock.” 

Hawks Team Photographer Scott Cunningham said that every request was met with the same response. “No matter what we asked for, they said it would take 20 minutes – ‘20 minutes, no problem’.” It usually took more like two hours. 

What stands out about the trip? “Cucumbers and tomatoes,” said Hawks radio play-by-play man Steve Holman. “That’s what we ate for 15 days. It was pretty rough as far as the food goes. It was the best they had, but the milk had lumps in it, for example.” 

Dominique Wilkins thought even less of Russian cuisine. “It was terrible, like it had radiation in it.” 

Holman explained how their hosts tried to accommodate, but had little else to offer them. Fortunately, they had a few alternatives. 

“Jack McCallum from Sports Illustrated brought some miniature crackers and peanut butter, and everybody ate those like crazy,” said Holman. “Antoine Carr brought a whole suitcase full of food. He kept that door barricaded to his room, and wouldn’t let anybody in. Also 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.” 

“When we got back to Frankfurt to change planes for the U.S., everybody ate at McDonalds like they were ready to go to the electric chair,” Holman quipped. 

Wilkins, who two months earlier dueled Larry Bird in a dramatic Eastern Conference Semifinals loss to the Celtics, joined the team during the tour. After the Russians failed to book him on a connecting flight from Moscow, their sports official abandoned him instead of waiting there for the next connection. That left Wilkins marooned at the Moscow airport without Russian money. One of the game’s greatest players sat there alone and unrecognized without anything to eat or drink. 

“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,” Nique said facetiously. 

In addition to the spectacular Wilkins, Mike Fratello’s Hawks had Doc Rivers, Kevin Willis, John Battle, Spud Webb, Jon Koncak, Cliff Levingston, and Carr make the trip. They had gone 50-32 the previous (1987-88) season with Wilkins scoring a career high 30.7 points per game. 

The following year they added Moses Malone and Reggie Theus, but a potentially awesome starting lineup never took the court. The 7-0 Willis missed the entire season with a fractured bone in his foot. They still went 52-30 before losing in the first playoff round. 

The Soviets played the three-game series without 7-4 center Arvydas Sabonis, then recovering from his second torn Achilles tendon. Even without Sabonis, an unbelievable performer until the injuries hit him, they fielded an impressive squad. 

“That Soviet team was very solid with (Alexander) Volkov and (Sarunas) Marciulionis. They were tough,” said Wilkins. “The games were fun.” 

“I remember every detail. It was a great memory,” said the 6-9 Volkov, who later played two seasons with the Hawks in 1989-90 and 1991-92. “It was great for my basketball career and for Soviet basketball.” 

Marciulionis, a sweet-shooing 6-5 guard, later played several NBA seasons with Golden State, Seattle, Sacramento and Denver.

The teams first squared off in Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia. Not surprisingly, given the cultural differences, controversy swirled before the opener. The NBA wanted one league referee included for each game. The Soviets balked initially, but later agreed. 

Then a Soviet official, after learning he couldn’t obtain tickets, reportedly tried to move the game from a 10,000-seat arena to an outdoor soccer stadium that held 50,000. That never materialized, and Atlanta edged the Soviets 85-84 without Dominique. 

They moved on to Vilnius, Lithuania for the second confrontation. “That was by far the best crowd that we had,” recalled Cunningham. “They were loud and appreciate for both sides.” 

The game ended (or nearly ended) in bizarre fashion. The regulation buzzer sounded with the score knotted at 92. At that time, one Soviet official asked that the game end in a tie and their players left the court. 

The Hawks argued that the game should continue, based on international rules forbidding ties. They won their case, and prevailed 110-105 in OT. The sleep-deprived Wilkins, fresh from his travel nightmare, rallied his team. 

With just three contests in 15 days, the Hawks had opportunities to tour the country. That also proved adventurous. 

“We were there right on the edge of that whole changeover,” recalled Holman. “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.” 

By the time the Hawks reached Moscow for the final game, most longed for home. 

“It was just a hard trip. It was a nice experience. It made me appreciate this country,” said Wilkins. “It was a fun experience, because you had all your teammates with you. But it was a rough trip as far as the food and the travel.” 

“At the end of the trip, they knew that the players weren’t eating right,” said Holman. “So they had spaghetti and real marinara sauce sent into Moscow. Mike Fratello and David Stern did the cooking for the whole group.” 

The Soviets also attended that event. In fact, the two teams bonded well from the very first day, according to Volkov. Though Fratello warned the players not to try to match drinks with their counterparts. 

The Soviets broke through for a 132-123 win in the finale behind Volkov’s 35 points. 

The weary Hawks headed for home. “Looking back at it now, it was a tremendous experience for my wife and I,” said Holman. 

Although the Hawks took two of three, Volkov believes the Soviets gained confidence from their performance. Two months later, with Sabonis back in the fold, they knocked off the U.S. Olympic Team in Seoul. 

The following spring, FIBA eliminated the distinction between professional and amateur status. It made all players eligible for international competition, including the Olympics. That change laid the groundwork for the first Dream Team. 

It also enabled foreign players to join the NBA and still represent their countries in the Olympics. That prompted the first flow of Eastern Europeans to the NBA. Volkov and Marciulionis became the first Soviets to play NBA ball in the 1989-90 season. The league started going global. 

The political landscape was changing also. The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. The Soviet Union broke apart in 1991. The barriers preventing Soviet Bloc athletes from playing NBA ball were finally eliminated. 

“I idolized the NBA,” said Volkov, who now lives in the Atlanta area. “I was the happiest guy in the world that moment when I put on a Hawks uniform and put my shoes on the floor for the first game. It was a dream come true.” 

Unlike today, when 66 international players from 34 countries perform in the league, few foreigners made the NBA in the 1980’s. Most that reached the league – like Detlef Schrempf and Hakeem Olajuwon – played college ball here. 

Kasten and the Hawks still sensed the game going worldwide in the mid-1980’s. They spent nine draft picks from 1985 through 1988 on foreign players. All other NBA teams used just six in that stretch. In 1985, they drafted Sabonis. That pick was later voided because the Lithuanian giant hadn’t turned 21. Portland selected him the following year, though he never wore their uniform until the 1995-96 campaign. 

“We thought they could make the NBA if they were given the opportunity,” explained Kasten. “Remember, back then and even today, if you’re not a first round pick, your chances of making the league are virtually nil. So we spent all this time drafting neighbor’s kids, and friends of other people in the seventh, eighth, ninth round. What was the point of that?” 

“So we decided to draft world-class players. All of whom were on their national teams, and represented the best of all these countries. They had played successfully in international competition. So we had a much better chance with any of them than what we were doing here.” 

The Hawks nearly landed Sabonis with a fourth round selection. Volkov only cost them a sixth round pick. 

Last year, five international players went in the draft’s first 16 picks. Times have certainly changed. Although they didn’t realize it then, the players that met on that goodwill tour started something big.

Click here for Steve Holman's photos 

Story photo of Holman in front of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.