The San Antonio Spurs really have minor problems in trying to sign center David Robinson, the 7-foot 1-inch franchise with a two-year Navy stint to serve. Just ask the Atlanta Hawks, who have a little experience of their own in trying to land a draft pick with a military commitment.
In the sixth round of the 1986 National Basketball Assn. draft, the Hawks picked a 22-year-old, 6-9 forward who is also a private in the army.
The problem is, Alexander Volkov is in the Soviet Army, and the Hawks came as close as they probably ever will be to getting Volkov into an Atlanta uniform Wednesday night at Loyola Marymount’s Albert Gersten Pavilion when a team of six top Soviet players and five Hawks beat a Southern California Summer Pro League all-star team, most of whom have never played in the NBA, 161-143. The game, and a second tonight at 6:15 at Loyola-Marymount, are part of a 10-day, four-city tour by the Soviets that was arranged by the NBA and Turner Broadcasting System.
“At first, I thought being drafted (by the Hawks) had to be a mistake,” Volkov said Wednesday through an interpreter after the Soviet players finished a pre-game workout. "(Now) I try not to let the idea get into me because nobody had that luck before (to be drafted by an NBA team).”
Volkov, who is known in the Soviet Union as a top outside shooter and made 5 of 8 shots in Monday night’s game, spent most of Wednesday night on the bench after a sluggish start and foul trouble. He finished with 11 points, all in the last five minutes.
Two other players in this Soviet contingent also have been drafted by NBA teams. In 1986, the Hawks took another 6-9 forward, Valeri Tikhonenko, in the seventh round, and this year Golden State took Sharunas Marchulenis, a 6-4 guard, in the sixth round.
Like Volkov, Marchulenis and Tikhonenko find it hard to believe that U.S. pro teams think they could play in the NBA.
A fourth Soviet player drafted in the NBA, Arvidas Sabonis, who was the No. 1 pick of the Portland Trail Blazers in 1986, is home in the Soviet Union recuperating from surgery on his torn right Achilles’ tendon. The 7-2 Sabonis, who may be ready for competition again by November or December, is widely regarded as one of the best centers in the world.
Volkov and company’s current stint in the United States began last Friday in Atlanta and moved to Milwaukee briefly on Tuesday to promote the Soviet national team’s scheduled appearance in the McDonald’s Basketball Open there in October. Of this group of Soviet players, all are 24 or younger, only three or four are likely to be on that national team.
The Soviet and Atlanta players arrived in Los Angeles Wednesday for two games and will move on to Seattle for the tour’s final game Aug. 8.
The Soviet-Hawks team tour is, on the face, a goodwill event from the mastermind of Soviet-American athletic goodwill, Ted Turner, TBS owner.
Said Atlanta star forward Dominique Wilkins before Wednesday’s game: “The language barrier is really no problem once we get out on the court. Then it’s basketball is basketball. The coaches are doing a good job of communicating. Once you show them a play, they can go out and run it.”
Ostensibly, this trip also provides the Soviets a chance to prepare for a possible matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks in the McDonald’s tournament, but Soviet Coach Alexander Gomelsky said Wednesday that injuries to key players--including Sabonis--might force the Soviets to stay home in October from the round-robin event that also includes European Champion Tracer of Milan, Italy.
“If all of our players were here and healthy, perhaps we would be able to have a good contest,” Gomelsky said of his team’s current prospects against the Bucks. “It would be more interesting for the crowd if we were to start out with some of the other teams--Golden State, the Knickerbockers or the Los Angeles team. Not the Lakers, the other one.”
Gomelsky isn’t the only coach who looks forward to playing the Clippers, but, perhaps foremost, the Soviets see the trip as a chance to demonstrate that some of them cold play in the NBA--if they and the Russian Sports Federation were to follow that option.
“We’ve only played one game, but they have some talented guys, a couple could probably play in the NBA right now,” said Wilkens, who, still sketchy on the names of his Soviet teammates, said he wouldn’t mind seeing the Hawks sign Volkov and “that guy who scored 28 points” Monday night in Atlanta when the Soviet-American All-Stars beat an Atlanta pro-am team, 152-146. It was Marchulenis, the Warriors’ draft pick, who was hot again Wednesday. He led all of the Soviet-Hawks players with 30 points.
Gomelsky said that while the Soviet national team would definitely have a tough time in the NBA, the players who have been drafted could be successful.
“I know there are three German players (in the NBA),” Gomelsky said. “My players are much better than that.”
The message from Volkov and Gomelskyis that, in reality, a Soviet player playing in the NBA is a far-fetched idea. But it’s a diplomatic rather than a resounding nyet.
“The permission that is granted to our players is granted by our federation to play (for our national team),” Gomelsky said. “When one starts negotiating individually with players, it doesn’t do anything except lift up his nose in the air.”
What the Soviets have in mind, then, is to lift their collective nose in the air. Diplomacy, goodwill and all that other superpower harmony that Turner is trying to promote aside, the Soviet players see this tour as a chance to improve the general quality of play in their country.
“To get better, we need more contacts with America and to start to play with the professionals,” said Volkov, who began playing the game in his Ukrainian hometown, Kiev, when he was 9, which is young for a Soviet player. “We should learn a lot from them, defense, how to do individual matchups. At first maybe we should play not with the best, but step by step, we should improve.”