The Hawks arrived in Moscow at about 7:30 p.m. on July 20 and flew the next day to the Olympic Training Center in Sukhumi (sa-HOO-me), a resort town on the Black Sea. Among the activities available to the Hawks, according to the trip itinerary, were yachting and waterskiing, but the closest the players came to water sports were the icy showers in their hotel rooms. Wussler skipped this part of the trip and later conceded that in previous trips to the Soviet Union he had not visited Sukhumi nor checked out the facilities at the training center, which did not measure up to those of a world-class athletic power. But the Soviet athlete, as Levingston has said, is something special.
Certainly Marchulenis is. There he was on the Hawks' first evening in Sukhumi, inviting the Americans into a snack bar and buying everyone ice cream. There he was on the final night in Sukhumi, strumming Lithuanian waltzes on his guitar and trying, albeit awkwardly, to follow Levingston's dance steps at an impromptu beach party. When the vodka ran out, Marchulenis, who does not drink much himself, broke everyone up when he said, in his halting English, "Is no problem. I call room service for more."
Before the Hawks' visit, the only American professional basketball team ever to have appeared in the Soviet Union was the Harlem Globetrotters, so the Hawks were truly noteworthy. Fans packed practice sessions and looked on reverently. They mobbed the players for autographs or just to touch them. They were ecstatic when they latched on to Hawks souvenirs, literally clutching them to their bosoms.
The Soviet players seemed content with their bit-player status. By night they stared wide-eyed at NBA instructional videos rigged up by Atlanta trainer Joe O'Toole, and by day they hung on every word of instruction offered by the Atlanta coaches. After one joint practice session, Hawk head coach Mike Fratello, who throughout the tour was introduced as "commander" of the Hawks, spent 20 minutes demonstrating to Georgi Rezcovas, a young Soviet center, the rudiments of the jump hook. Wouldn't it make certain Americans happy, like U.S. Olympic coach John (No Detente) Thompson, if a last-second jump hook by Rezcovas gave the Soviets a victory over the Americans in the gold medal final at Seoul?
After three nights in Sukhumi, the Hawks were more than ready to move on to Tbilisi, where they played the first game on Monday, July 25. An Atlanta defeat was not only possible, but likely. Previous commitments in the U.S. had forced guards Doc Rivers and Spud Webb, forward Kevin Willis and center Jon Koncak to miss the training in Sukhumi—"Sometimes you just live right," said Koncak—and they didn't join the team until Sunday evening in Tbilisi. And Dominique Wilkins, delayed by a benefit game, wouldn't arrive until Game 2 in Vilnius. But Battle's jump shot with 5.7 seconds remaining—the game clock ran in 10th-of-a-second increments—changed the scoreboard lights to XOKC (Hawks) 85 CCCP ( U.S.S.R.) 84.
The Hawks flew to Vilnius on July 26. As they walked into the Palace of Sport for that evening's practice session, they were astonished to see a capacity crowd of 5,000, utterly silent and almost deathly still. It was as if the fans had come to worship and, in a way, they had. Lithuania, home of both Marchulenis and Sabonis, is basketball-mad.
Wilkins, meanwhile, was just plain mad when he dragged his weary carcass into the Hotel Lietuva at 1:45 a.m. on July 27, the morning of the game. He had spent six hours in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport awaiting a connection to Vilnius, with no food, no Soviet money, no knowledge of the language and no companionship. "My goodness, my goodness, what am I doing here?" said Wilkins, face in hands, as he headed up to bed. It became obvious the next night—he was there to play. He scored 29 points, including a slam dunk with 35 seconds left in overtime that drove the crowd crazy and put the game out of reach. Incredibly, Lithuanian officials had wanted the game to end in a tie—"Is just exhibition, no?" said one—and the Soviet team was willing to comply, until Bruce Alexander, an NBA referee who accompanied the Atlanta delegation, got everyone back on the court. One of the first questions Fratello was asked in the postgame press conference was why he had not been "willing to accept tie."
"Let me get this straight," said Fratello. "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?" The translator must have done a good job of communicating Fratello's incredulity, if not his New Jersey accent, because the place erupted in laughter.
And it erupted in joy on Saturday night, a date in the history of Soviet basketball that will rank with the best—including Sept. 10, 1972, when the U.S.S.R.'s Olympic team won the gold medal in a controversial victory over the U.S. For the Hawks, of course, the loss was not so big a deal, considering the rocky nature of the 13-day journey.
"We had to pull through a lot of adversity on this trip, and maybe that will make us closer," said Battle. "It'll certainly give us something to talk about during a long season." Then he smiled. "But if TBS plans another tour for next summer." he said, "I'd just as soon they make it in the Bahamas."