As the NBA tries to do business in mainland China, the league’s brightest lights — some who are so willing to criticize their own government — suddenly don’t have the courage to express their opinions regarding real repression elsewhere.
Earlier this month, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey found himself in trouble with ownership regarding his since-deleted tweet which read, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver did offer some support to Morey but, from everybody else in the league, crickets.
Money, I’m afraid, has been talking loudest.
This latest episode of basketball diplomacy behind the Iron Curtain brings to mind when a Notre Dame team visited a then-Communist country 40 years ago and I was the athletic trainer.
How a sophomore student athletic trainer found himself in such a position is worth noting. During the 1978-79 season, the basketball athletic trainer's position at Notre Dame had become a revolving door. When the dust finally settled after a regional final loss to eventual NCAA champion Michigan State, and two professionals had been terminated — one preseason and the other postseason — I was the only athletic trainer left.
Despite the loss, the season wasn't over because a late May trip to Yugoslavia beckoned. The Irish had been invited to ready that nation’s team for the European championships later that summer. Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps was hoping the trip would serve as a springboard for the 1979-80 season.
One afternoon in April, I was summoned to Phelps’ office and he asked if I was interested in making the excursion. The word "yes” was halfway out of my mouth, when Phelps growled through a cloud of cigar smoke, “Well, you’re going.” A student wasn't making any decisions; only the coach was.
Phelps was having a harder time, though, making the decision for a number of his players.
Kelly Tripucka had made a basketball-related tour of the Soviet Union while in high school. He told me the hotels were dirty and the food was terrible. Thinking Yugoslavia would be the same, he had turned down Phelps’ “invitation” but eventually changed his mind.
Orlando Woolridge wasn’t going either — until Phelps called Woolridge’s cousin Willis Reed, of New York Knicks fame. Reed convinced Woolridge to go.
When we arrived in Zagreb, our hosts greeted Phelps by telling him that they had arranged a great schedule for us, nine games in 14 days and that we would win two. In a Communist nation, I guess, the outcomes of basketball games were predetermined, just like the elections.
Incredulous, Phelps asked for an explanation. He was told we would play two games with Zagreb Cibona, one of the better professional teams in the country, five games with the national team, and two with local club teams. They would provide our two victories.
The host officials then addressed the team and told us we were free to go anywhere and do anything we wanted with two exceptions. We were not to take pictures of any military installations; nor were we to spend any time with Yugoslav women. Any individual who did not cooperate would be sent home. The implication was clear. As “free” as they said we were, we would be watched.
Early in the tour, Phelps had the team visit a gallery honoring sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, in the artist’s hometown of Vrpolje, because Mestrovic had been artist in residence at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 1962. His Pieta, on display at Notre Dame’s Sacred Heart Basilica, is considered a masterpiece.
Not long after arriving, I noticed a small placard that said much of Mestrovic’s work had been stolen from the Yugoslav people by the capitalists at the University of Notre Dame. I quietly pointed the placard out to Phelps, who then decided to cut the visit short.
As for the basketball, the Irish won five games, not two, going 3-4 in the seven games we were supposed to lose. As soon as the players on the national team, several who had played in the United States collegiately, learned an athletic trainer was part of the Notre Dame traveling squad, I found myself looking after two teams. The experience then gained during those two weeks — a scary concussion suffered by one Notre Dame player stands out — helped confirm my own career path.