Basketball takes big leap with First McDonald's Open 51 days ago

MIES (Switzerland) - Thirty-five years ago in the American hoops city of Milwaukee, a very significant event in basketball history took place. 

The first McDonald's Open was staged there in October of 1987.

The three-day competition caused a real buzz and is now viewed as an occasion that helped unify the basketball world.

Looking back at one of FIBA's iconic moments, the first of nine McDonald's Opens had the Milwaukee Bucks, the reigning European club champions Tracer Milano and one of the most dominant teams in international basketball, the Soviet Union national team.

In a round robin format over three days, the NBA team beat both opponents and lifted the trophy.

The event served as a stepping stone for what happened two years later, when the FIBA Congress dropped the word "Amateur" from its name.

FIBA Secretary General Borislav Stankovic, and David Stern, the NBA Commissioner from 1984 to 2014, believed that basketball everywhere would benefit if the best players from all countries competed against each other.

Two years after that McDonald's Open, the Federation Internationale de Basketball Amateur became the Federation Internationale de Basketball, and a few years after that, in Barcelona, NBA players made up the USA Olympic squad and was famously dubbed Dream Team.

Before then, NBA players were not able to play at the Olympics or World Cups because they were not amateurs.

Stankovic (left) felt competitions like the McDonald's Open would unify international basketball

The McDonald's Open, Stankovic and Stern felt, would open the world's eyes and reveal basketball to be an even better and more exciting game when top players from different parts of the world squared off against each other.

It was held on October 23, 24 and 25, which was just before the start of the NBA and European league seasons. The McDonald's Open was televised in America on ABC TV with two of the best known voices of basketball, Gary Bender and Dick Vitale, providing the commentary.

Volkov, Tikhonenko (first two on left) and Marciulionis (far right) played for the USSR

Among the Soviet players was highly-rated point guard Sarunas Marciulionis but his fellow Lithuanian, center Arvydas Sabonis, was hurt and couldn't play. Even so, the Soviets had other eyebrow-raising talents like Ukrainian Alexander Volkov and Russian Valeri Tikhonenko.

All four had already been drafted by NBA teams though it was uncertain if any would ever play in the league. In the 1986 draft, Portland took Sabonis and Atlanta selected both Volkov and Tikhonenko. Golden State drafted Marciulionis in 1987, just four months before the McDonald's Open was held.

The four players showed their wares less than a year later at the Seoul Olympics, by leading the Soviet Union to the gold medal.

Tracer Milano brought to the McDonald's Open a very good team, one that was led by former NBA star forward Bob McAdoo, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee in 2000. Mike D’Antoni, who would later become one of the most famous coaches in the NBA at the helm of several teams - the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Houston Rockets - was the Tracer Milano point guard.

Paul Pressey (Milwaukee) and Mike D'Antoni (Milano) faced each other at McDonald's Open

At the McDonald's Open, the Bucks were missing some of their regulars yet the powerful duo of Terry Cummings and Jack Sikma did play.

The Bucks beat Tracer Milano, 123-111, and the Soviet Union then overcame the Italian club, 135–108, on Day 2.

That set up a title decider between Milwaukee and the Soviet Union.

Del Harris, the coach of Milwaukee, felt the pressure of having to beat the Soviets at home.

"We did not know before the game that we were going to win," he said to the New York Times. "We knew we were the favorites and that we virtually had to win."

Sikma expressed a similar sentiment, telling the Washington Post: "The pressure was so great. It was a no-win situation if we didn't beat the Soviet Union."

While one of the teams taking part was an NBA side and not a national team, the pre-game billing of the decider ABC gave the game the feel of an Olympic Final, even showing highlights of past national team encounters between USA and the USSR in other sports.

The legendary Soviet Union coach Alexander Gomelsky at the McDonald's Open

And to add significance, Bender spoke over the highlights, saying:  "In spite of their differences, sport has been the one avenue that has allowed the people of the countries to learn more about each other, and at the same time, about themselves...."

The McDonald's Open was a spectacle. It helped that teams from nations that were at odds politically met in the sports arena on the last day . The Soviets kept it close in the first half but the Bucks pulled away in the second and claimed a 127–100 victory.

"With four minutes to go, I looked at the players and didn’t have to say anything," Harris said. "We knew it was over. Everybody laughed for the first time. It was a big relief."

The coach of the Soviet Union, Alexander Gomelsky, did not speak in favor of having NBA players in the USA team at the Olympics.

"Your professional boys go into the Olympic Games and it would finish the competition," he said in remarks published by UPI. "It would leave the competition for the silver and bronze medals because the Americans are going to win every time."

Having an NBA team play internationally for the first time, however, left Stankovic wanting more.

"It would bring the skills out of our players," he predicted. "Only by playing against better players can you get better."

Sikma echoed that sentiment.

"Their (Soviet Union's) biggest problem is their competition," he said. "The more competition and experience they can get, the better off they can be."


Milwaukee's Cummings tried to block the shot of Tracer Milano's Bob McAdoo

As history as shows, both Stankovic and Sikma were right. There were eight more McDonald's Opens that captivated audiences, and youngsters around the world also drew inspiration from watching NBA players in international competition, especially in 1992 when Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and the rest of the Dream Team put on a marvelous performance at the Barcelona Olympics and won the gold medal.

Hundreds of players from around the world have since competed in the NBA, and NBA players from numerous countries have played at FIBA Basketball World Cups, Olympic Games and Continental Championships.

If fans wondered whether foreign players could make it in the NBA in the first McDonald's Open, they now know for certain that yes, they can.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic of Serbia has been named the NBA MVP the past two seasons, and the two years before that it was Milwaukee Bucks power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece claiming the honor. Germany's Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks was MVP in 2007, while Canada's Steve Nash was the MVP when he was coached by D'Antoni in Phoenix in 2005 and 2006.

A pair of foreign-born players of past USA teams, Nigeria's Hakeen Olajuwon of Houston and US Virgin Islands-born Tim Duncan of San Antonio, were also MVPs. The former received the honor in 1994 and the latter both in 2002 and 2003.

Many other internationals have had outstanding careers with their national teams and in the NBA, like the brothers Pau and Marc Gasol of Spain, Manu Ginobili of Argentina and Tony Parker of France. All captured NBA crowns.

Today, the Dallas Mavericks have Luka Doncic and he is viewed as one of the top players in the league.

And Gomelsky was wrong because in 2004 at the Athens Olympics, USA lost to Puerto Rico, Lithuania and in the Semi-Finals, to eventual Gold Medal winners Argentina.

After that McDonald's Open and when NBA players were in USA teams, Olympics were not reduced to battles for silver and bronze for the other teams.