Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: 25 years ago, five players changed the NBA forever

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

During the final, fitful days of the Cold War, the last time relations between the United States and Russia were this severely strained, five young men from the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia grabbed their basketballs and traveled to the other side of the world.

Vlade Divac. Drazen Petrovic. Sarunas Marciulionis. Zarko Paspalj. Sasha Volkov. They were NBA rookies in 1989, and though victims of the political upheaval that soon scarred and reshaped their homelands, they were beneficiaries, too, of a subsequent warming trend between Eastern bloc countries and the West.

“They were the precursor,” former NBA Commissioner David Stern said recently. “Twenty-five years ago. The walls were coming down. The world was coming together. Glasnost and perestroika had crept in. We were seeing the best of the European players, who in a sense represented the new breed who wanted to play at the highest level and were finally able to do so.”

Divac, the beloved former Kings center whose jersey hangs from the rafters at Sleep Train Arena, is an iconic international figure and head of the Serbian Olympic Committee. His countryman, Paspalj, who lasted just a year in the league, is his first lieutenant. Marciulionis, a recent Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, is revered in his native Lithuania, where he almost single-handedly created and financed a national basketball program. Petrovic is the tragic tale, one of tremendous potential and a horrific ending. The former New Jersey Nets star, a Croat who famously broke ties with his boyhood friend Divac during the Balkans conflict, died in an auto accident weeks after being named to the All-NBA third team in 1993.

More recently it has been the genial, thoughtful Volkov in the news, as a witness to the deadly crisis that threatens to divide Ukraine and further chill the relationship between Russia and the West.

The former Atlanta Hawks forward, who lives in Kiev, is a member of Parliament and president of the Ukrainian Basketball Federation. With the recent ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and developments regarding Russia’s incursion into Crimea changing by the day, Volkov’s political prospects are uncertain at best, bleak at worst. Of further concern, he said from his home earlier this month, is his fear for the national basketball program he has nurtured for 16 years.

With Mike Fratello, Volkov’s coach when he played for the Hawks, running the team the past three seasons, aided by longtime assistant Joe Wolf, the Ukrainians qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Spain – a first in the program’s history. Volkov also successfully lobbied FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, to select Kiev to host the 2015 European Championships.

Now, because of the deteriorating political situation, FIBA is considering moving the tournament.

“This is a very difficult moment,” Volkov said, sounding stressed and discouraged. “I’m a crisis manager. I have been trying to save basketball for so long, and we have made such progress. We have wins now over teams like Serbia and Italy. Can you imagine? Before this, I know who is financing what, who is rebuilding arenas. Now everything is back to zero. If we lose FIBA tournament, we have no credibility. It would be devastating to me personally.”

Hawks help break the ice

Before the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia split into independent republics or autonomous states in the early 1990s, the two nations routinely scrapped for gold medals in the most prestigious international competitions.

Comprised mostly of Serbs, Croats, Slovenians and Montenegrins, and coached by the respected Dusan Ivkovic, Yugoslavia was a brilliant ensemble, led by Divac, Paspalj, Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, Sasha Danilovic and Arijan Komazec. Russia countered with the formidable Arvydas Sabonis, fellow Lithuanians Marciulionis, Rimas Kurtinaitis and Valdemaras Chomicius, along with irrepressible coach Alexander Gomelsky, and Volkov, a native of Omsk, Russia, who keeps homes in Ukraine and Atlanta.

While the Cold War was nearing its final gasps, a number of adventurous NBA executives and coaches forged relationships with their counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe, none more aggressively than the Atlanta Hawks and their owner, Ted Turner, who also owned the Braves and created CNN, and who devised the Goodwill Games as a means of restoring cultural ties between Americans and Russians.

“That was a huge project,” said Dodgers president Stan Kasten, who was president of the Hawks and Braves during the inaugural Goodwill Games in 1986. “As part of that, we got entree to Soviet bloc athletes.”

Turner also approved the Hawks’ 13-day tour of the former Soviet Union that was scheduled two months before the 1988 Olympics and highlighted by exhibition games against the Russian national team in Tbilisi, Vilnius and Moscow. The 60-person American contingent included Stern, Fratello, Kasten, Portland Trail Blazers president Harry Glickman and several interesting combinations of Hawks players, family and friends; short of players one night, Fratello handed uniforms to Cliff Levingston’s cousin and Antoine Carr’s brother.

The stories of one-time strangers and adversaries traveling together, many of whom became lifelong friends, are legendary, if undoubtedly embellished with time. The smoke in the airplanes. The animals riding in seats in second class. One towel in the bathroom. One bottle of water passed down the rows and shared by the passengers.

Fratello, who had marinara sauce flown in from overseas to curb complaints about the cuisine, cooked pasta dinners for the entire traveling party. (Stern confirmed this and recalled kissing the coach on both cheeks in gratitude.) Marciulionis occasionally sang and strummed his guitar. The late Gomelsky charmed and schmoozed and cut deals. Volkov, who spoke little English, walked around smiling, seeking help with his pronunciation.

“I felt we were pioneers to a certain extent,” Fratello said. “Doc (Rivers), Dominique (Wilkins), I feel like we were all part of something special.”

Two months later, that same Soviet national team upset the United States in the semifinals of the 1988 Olympics. And it could be argued that this development, too, brought the countries, or at least some of its people, closer together. By the summer of 1989, the doors were swinging both ways. USA Basketball officials began listening more intently to Boris Stankovic, the FIBA executive director who believed that granting NBA players eligibility for international events would grow the game. Meanwhile, five of Europe’s premier players were preparing for their NBA debuts.

Global appeal began with the first five

The arrival of Volkov, Divac, Petrovic, Marciulionis and Paspalj – 25 years ago this summer – triggered an infusion of overseas talent that continues. In 1989, there were five. On opening day 2013, NBA rosters featured 92 players from 39 countries, accounting for about one-fourth of the total. Expanding the global brand remains an NBA obsession, with China and India next on the list, though as always with a caveat: The pace of progress is dictated by pragmatic concerns and political realities.

“I have been going to Kiev for three years now, and it was like every other great European city,” Fratello said. “Great food, great restaurants. There are a number of smaller cities nearby, very picturesque, each one with a story behind it. But what’s going to happen to the country? Before Sasha turned the program around, they couldn’t get exhibition games, didn’t get invited to the better tournaments in Spain, Greece. I feel for him, and I am concerned about his safety. A lot of us are.”

As several of Volkov’s friends have suggested recently, the sports world is unique; though there are exceptions, the unlikeliest of friendships often are pursued and persist, the political circumstances notwithstanding.

Tensions have escalated in anticipation of today’s referendum in Crimea to determine whether the autonomous republic secedes from Ukraine and becomes part of Russia.

“I can’t know how much influence we had with the tour,” Kasten said, “and the Russian team trained with us after the Olympics for a few weeks, by the way. But every step contributes, is cumulative, changes the environment. We saw what (the Soviets) were like. They saw what we were like. That’s why I’m getting ready to take the Dodgers to Australia. Sports is that important. It isn’t a coincidence that (President Richard) Nixon opened (relations with) China with pingpong diplomacy.”