Milwaukee Bucks: A forgotten Cold War victory over the USSR

MILWAUKEE, WI - OCTOBER 25: The Soviet Union stands for the National Anthem against the Milwaukee Bucks during the 1987 McDonald's Open on October 25, 1987 at the MECCA Arena in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1987 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - OCTOBER 25: The Soviet Union stands for the National Anthem against the Milwaukee Bucks during the 1987 McDonald's Open on October 25, 1987 at the MECCA Arena in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1987 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images) /

As the Cold War neared its end, the Soviet Union’s basketball team traveled to America for an exhibition event which saw them go head-to-head with the Milwaukee Bucks.

By October 1987, the frosty dynamic that had defined US-Soviet relations for over 40 years may have been starting to thaw, but make no mistake, the tensions, suspicions and confusion of the Cold War continued to linger.

The fall of the Berlin Wall — another event with a little known Bucks connection of its own — and the dissolution of the Soviet states would follow in the years to come, but first in the retelling of the final years of the Cold War, there was the 1987 McDonald’s Championship held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The McDonald’s Championship was an exhibition event which replaced the FIBA Intercontinental Cup, and in its first staging, the Milwaukee Bucks became the first NBA team to host what was on that occasion a three-team competition.

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Joining the Bucks were reigning EuroLeague champions Tracer Milano (now Pallacanestro Olimpia Milano), and the considerably more newsworthy Soviet Union national team.

As Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated described in his feature article on the competition at the time:

"“From the moment they stepped off the plane in Milwaukee, on the night of Oct. 21 after an eight-hour flight that followed a 26-hour fog delay at Moscow International Airport, the Soviet players were the focal point of the tournament. International competition and increasingly open news coverage of all things Soviet have demystified them somewhat, but an air of the unknown still swirls around any U.S.S.R. team.”"

That “air of the unknown” may also have played into the fervent nationalism that surrounded the competition, and specifically, the Bucks’ meeting with the Russians. After all, the Bucks weren’t just representing Milwaukee or the NBA, but the United States as a whole. This was USA versus USSR, a clash for the ages, and the Bucks dare not let their country down.

If any further evidence of that sentiment is required, the lede of Bob Sakamoto’s pre-game article for the Chicago Tribune tells the story:

"“The pride of America and the National Basketball Association will be on the line Sunday.”"

Bucks star forward Terry Cummings went even deeper when speaking to Sakamoto a couple of days earlier:

"“This is the best time to believe in what you live for in this country. We’re representing the NBA and our country, but we’re also representing more: our friends and families.”"

Milwaukee may have had eight consecutive playoff appearances to their name, but it’d be hard to say they’d ever played in a game with stakes as high as those imagined for this exhibition event.

Meanwhile, as the local and national media drummed up anticipation and worked themselves into fervor, the Soviets undertook their own preparations. As McCallum detailed, the lead-up to the event included the USSR team posing with teddy bears at Kohl’s, and taking a trip to the local multiplex to take in the latest offering from Michael Douglas and Glenn Close.

"“While the Soviets didn’t exactly revel in the attention given them by the promoters and the press, neither did they find it distasteful. Strange, perhaps, but not distasteful. Following their practice one morning, they took center stage at the obligatory feeding frenzy at McDonald’s and then visited Kohl’s, the department store owned by Bucks owner Herb Kohl. There they were given sweatshirts—red, of course—jean jackets and teddy bears (Gomelsky politely refused his). That night they saw Fatal Attraction at the West Point movie theater.”"

Away from the spectacle, these representatives of the Soviet Union were in fact a basketball team, though, and the country had displayed a growing affinity for that particular beloved American game.

The USSR had infamously claimed gold in the most controversial fashion against the US in the 1972 Olympics — the assistant coach on the team that visited Milwaukee was the man who produced the decisive assist — but in the time since, the development of basketball behind the Iron Curtain had led many to view their national team as less of a novelty and more as a source of genuine intrigue.

When the USSR national team made the trip to Milwaukee, the Soviets boasted one of the most exciting young prospects in global basketball. Unfortunately for those in attendance, and those in hope of any kind of real contest, Arvydas Sabonis, who had been drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers a year earlier, was unavailable due to an achilles injury.

Referring to Sabonis’ absence McCallum’s Sports Illustrated feature also provided an excellent snapshot at the difference between the players at the disposal of the Bucks and their Soviet visitors.

"“The Soviets did bring along another 7-footer, 30-year-old veteran Aleksandr Belosteni, who had reportedly been prohibited from leaving the country because he was in disfavor with Soviet authorities for an improper customs declaration. Backing up Belosteni would be potbellied, twig-armed 6’11” Viktor Pankrashkin, the owner of perhaps the worst body in the history of international hoops. He is something of a cult hero in the U.S.S.R., in the same sense that 7-foot Henry Finkel of the Celtics was once a cult hero in Boston while backing up Bill Russell and Dave Cowens.”"

The USSR were at less than full strength, but Milwaukee’s own problems were also extensive. Sidney Moncrief would miss the game while continuing his recovery from knee surgery, while the timing of the game meant John Lucas, Craig Hodges and Ricky Pierce were all unavailable due to unresolved contract negotiations.

Still, both sides marched on, and the competition opened on Friday, October 23, as the Bucks matched up with Tracer Milano. As the European club champions at the time, Milano were no pushovers, and they were even led by a familiar face to American fans in the form of former NBA MVP Bob McAdoo.

The Italian club certainly tested the Bucks, producing a spirited performance in what ended as a 123-111 win for Milwaukee. On Saturday, Tracer Milano took to the MECCA Arena court again, this time to face the USSR national team. A dominant 135-108 victory for the Soviets followed, creating a real sense of tension. Perhaps Sunday’s finale between the Bucks and the USSR would be a hotly-contested, heavyweight battle after all.

Some were less convinced, though.

Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, Tracer Milano guard Mike D’Antoni — yes, the very same D’Antoni who now coaches the Houston Rockets — laid out in no uncertain terms his confidence in the Bucks’ chances of victory, and issued a reminder of how imperative it was for them to deliver.

"“The Bucks just need to come out and play like they did against us in the first quarter Friday. When their veterans are in there, they shouldn’t have any problems. The Bucks got to take them by 20 points. I don’t think they want to lose to Russia on national TV.I’m an American, too. I hope they teach these guys a lesson. I hope they give these guys a nice whipping.”"

Meanwhile, the USSR players and coaches followed up their win over Milano with a celebration of sorts via what could be described as an eclectic sampling of American culture.

"“After the game, several members of the Soviet team jammed into Valeri Goborov’s room at the Hyatt Regency to watch the sixth game of the World Series. Later most of the Soviet players tramped over to Radio Doctors, the all-league music store across the street from the hotel, to practice consumerism. A couple of the older players searched for Russian folk albums that aren’t available in the Soviet Union—not Radio Doctors’ strong suit—but Volkov (Michael Jackson, Sting, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston) and Edeshko (U2, Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer) had more luck.”"

When game day arrived for the event’s big finale, the atmosphere in the arena and around Milwaukee was much more welcoming and inclusive than D’Antoni’s earlier quotes necessarily were.

The Washington Post detailed how local fans thought the game was “probably a good way to build goodwill”, and the sense of respect, intrigue, and genuine interest for the Soviet visitors was clearly apparent from those who did attend.

"“The crowd inside Milwaukee Arena stood respectfully for the Soviet national anthem, then sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and cheered wildly. The top item at concession stands was a red tank-top emblazoned with the letters CCCP.Outside, police cordoned off several blocks for a ‘Global Block Party’ that featured a 20-by-30-foot TV screen showing the game for about 1,000 people.”"

As for the game itself, which was televised on ABC, a competitive start quickly gave way to a blowout as the Soviets had no answer for Milwaukee’s vastly superior defense. The USSR produced a remarkable 17 first half turnovers, and 24 overall, as the Bucks applied the kind of pressure they were likely completely unfamiliar with.

Writing for Sports Illustrated, McCallum noted:

"“Playing with a ferocity never seen in normal preseason games, the Bucks trapped all over the court, crashed the boards and ran the Soviets ragged.”"

According to the Washington Post, the USSR made just one of their 21 attempts from three-point range through the game’s first three quarters, while Soviet guard Šarūnas Marčiulionis later attributed those misfires to nerves, in conversation with The New York Times.

"“There were lots of moments we had good shooting position, but we were very nervous. Next time we’re here, we’ll try to do better.”"

For the Bucks, Jerry Reynolds led the way with 24 points and seven assists, while Jack Sikma and Paul Pressey also put it up to the visitors. Cummings would eventually be named as the competition’s inaugural MVP.

When all was said and done, Milwaukee prevailed with a resounding 127-100 victory. Rather than cause for celebration, the Bucks were left with a great sense of relief, though.

As coach Del Harris explained to The New York Times:

"“We did not know before the game that we were going to win. We knew we were the favorites and that we virtually had to win. With four minutes to go, I looked at the players and didn’t have to say anything. We knew it was over. Everybody laughed for the first time. It was a big relief.”"

Sharing a similar sentiment to the Washington Post, Sikma summed up the nature of the game from a Bucks’ perspective:

"“The pressure was so great. It was a no-win situation if we didn’t beat the Soviet Union.”"

Overall, the McDonald’s Championship was deemed to be a success. Meeting the approval of then NBA commissioner David Stern, the event would be staged a further eight times between 1987 and 1999, although neither the Bucks nor a Russian team would participate again.

Still, many star players did, and as the NBA team emerged victorious in every staging, the MVP roll call of Cummings, Larry Bird, Walter Davis, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Michael Jordan, and Tim Duncan, reads as a who’s who of that era of NBA superstars.

For the USSR national team, another great success lay just around the corner before they would be disbanded in line with the greater political change in 1991.

At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, the Soviets claimed their second gold medal, with Marčiulionis, Alexander Volkov, Valeri Goborov and Viktor Pankrashkin among those who competed in both that event and a little under 12 months earlier in the McDonald’s Championship in Milwaukee.

For the Bucks, four more years of playoff basketball lay in wait, before a lengthy drought brought Milwaukee’s fans back to earth with a thud.

Still, in the context of the international game of basketball and the wide reach of the NBA that exists today, the significance of the Bucks’ game with the Soviet Union can’t be overlooked.

Although a small group of touring Atlanta Hawks players had previously played in exhibitions on a trip to the USSR, and the Hawks would become the first NBA franchise to officially play in the USSR in 1988, the Bucks were the first NBA team to officially match up with the Soviets.

In the time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, modern Russia has continued to develop as a basketball powerhouse, both in an international sense and with their highly respected club teams. Players not only from Russia, but from other former Soviet states too, have become a permanent feature of NBA basketball. An example from recent Bucks history isn’t slow to come to mind either, when veteran center Zaza Pachulia, a native of Georgia is considered.

Beyond that, the socio-political influence of the 1987 McDonald’s Championship is close to impossible to measure, yet at a time when a wide range of misnomers and questions remained on both sides, the Soviet Union’s basketball team visited Milwaukee to get a taste of America, and in turn provided Wisconsinites a chance to learn more about their rivals from the USSR.

Next. Milwaukee Bucks: The greatest regular season game in NBA history. dark

The Bucks won the basketball game, but in hindsight it’s almost still more impressive that the contest even took place to begin with.