For years the soviet union has been absorbing American basketball by degrees. It has won an Olympic gold medal by beating the U.S. in a bizarre game in 1972; it has played—and on a goodly number of occasions beaten—a cross section of American college teams; and all the while it has listened intently to lectures by American coaches. This summer six Soviet players even got the chance to play against NBA competition as members of a touring Atlanta Hawks contingent.
Still, the Soviets wondered, What would it be like if their national team played an NBA team? Exactly how far, they wondered, were they beneath the highest level of basketball? Was there perhaps a chance their national team could stay with an NBA club the way their hockey team does with representatives of the NHL?
The answers came on Sunday afternoon at the Mecca in Milwaukee during the historic McDonald's Basketball Open. In order they were: not pleasant; far; and no.
Playing without four of their best players—Sidney Moncrief, who recently underwent knee surgery, and Ricky Pierce, John Lucas and Craig Hodges, all of whom are trying to iron out contract hassles—the Milwaukee Bucks ran the Soviets, who also were missing two of their better guys, off the court, 127-100. One might have wished for a better game—the score was 98-50 in the Bucks' favor with 4:20 left in the third period—in the first pairing of the best U.S.S.R. team and an NBA club, but it was not to be.
"Sympathy?" said Jerry (Ice) Reynolds, who led the Milwaukee scoring with 24 points. "I didn't feel any sympathy for them at all. In this league, you can't have sympathy."
But, Jerry, they're not in your league, figuratively and literally.
"Well, if we were playing over there, they would've tried to crush us just as bad." They wouldn't have succeeded.
Tracer Milan of Italy, the reigning European champion, whose top player is former NBA star Bob McAdoo, also participated in the round-robin event. And it was Tracer's surprisingly strong showing against the Bucks in the first game of the series, a 123-111 Friday-night loss to Milwaukee, that fueled speculation that the Soviets could beat the Bucks in the finale. The Soviets added fuel to that sort of speculation by handling Tracer 135-108 on Saturday.
But the Milwaukee-U.S.S.R. game was no contest from the start. 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. Even the most rabid red-baiter would've wished that coach Del Harris had gone to his bench earlier than he did, which was late in the third period. But even then there was enough of a talent gap that John Stroeder, an immobile 6'10" free-agent center with Continental Basketball Association written all over him, dominated the U.S.S.R. with 14 points and seven rebounds in 16 minutes.
"My boys and I witnessed professional basketball today," said Soviet coach Aleksandr Gomelsky. "It is the best in the world. This is chance for me to study. I can go home and improve my team after this."