It was billed as a trip for friendship and goodwill. A quarter-century later, a trip from hell would be a better description.
The Atlanta Hawks, including Lawrence-born play-by-play announcer Steve Holman, were “commissioned” to spend 15 days in the old Soviet Union to play three exhibition games versus the Soviet National team.
The Hawks won two of three (”I think we lost that game so coach Alexander Gomelsky could save face,” said Holman), but a semi-embarrassing loss was far from the worst part of the trip.
The Hawks were sent to the Soviet Union as a prelude to the Goodwill Games, which were televised by TBS, which was owned by Ted Turner ... the same Ted Turner who owned the Hawks.
The trip took place two months after the famous Larry Bird-Dominique Wilkins matchup in the NBA East Conference Finals, which the Celtics won in seven games.
Holman and his fellow Hawks employees expected close to first class accommodations from travel, dining and lodging. Apparently, the Hawks were 0-for-3.
”We were told it would be a great vacation,” said the 59-year-old Holman, who was 34 at the time of the excursion. “It was not.”
As for the travel, the Hawks were told they’d be taking charter flights to their destinations, which meant the players would be able to sit in the front of the plane.
Well, at least they got to sit in the front of the plane.
“The toilets on the Aeroflat planes didn’t flush,” recalled Holman. “It was awful. Our players passed the time seeing who cold swat the most flies.”
The hotels apparently weren’t anything to write home about either. The cockroaches kept some people up all night because they kept the lights on.
And the food was also a big thumbs down.
”We spent fifteen days basically eating tomatoes, cucumbers and drinking warm vodka,” said Holman.
“We could not drink the water. A couple of the guys used ice cubes and paid for it dearly for a few days.”
Commissioner David Stern and his wife were on the “goodwill mission” and apparently suffered some of the same inconveniences. Near the end of the trip, Holman says an “S.O.S” was sent back to Atlanta and TBS responded by shipping pasta, sauce and chicken breast.
”(Coach) Mike Fratello put on the chef hat and oversaw the cooking for the entire group,” said Holman.
“And that included Mr. and Mrs. David Stern, along with our guys and the Soviet team. Trust me, spaghetti never tasted so good.”
Amid all of the angst and discomfort were some good stories.
Holman recalled Tblisi, Georgia as being the best stop on the entire trip.
“Those people were extremely friendly and the collective farm meal was by far the best of the trip,” he said.
In fact, 25 years later, Holman is happy to have gone through the experience.
“I will say at the time we all thought it was the trip from hell,” said Holman.
“But as the years have passed I think we all realized that we were there just before communism fell and what an experience it was to be with passionate people who were very proud of their countries, like Georgia and Lithuania, that had been taken over by the Soviet Union.
”I have spent many plane flights with ‘Nique’ talking about that trip even now. And every time I run into Doc (Rivers) or any of the old guys from that team, the first thing is always a comment on that trip. Thank goodness we were all 25 years younger then.”
Holman's streak Lawrence native Steve Holman has been the lead play-by-play broadcaster for the Atlanta Hawks since 1989, having not missed a game. His current streak of 2,050 is the second longest in NBA history, behind only Lakers legend Chick Hearns' 3,338 consecutive games. He is entering his 29th season with the Hawks, having started in 1985-86. He also did play-by-play with the Atlanta Falcons the five seasons before that.