Exhibition games in college basketball are designed to be forgettable, with high-major NCAA teams just wanting to knock off the rust and avoid injuries or embarrassment against lower-division foes.
The Marquette men’s team isn’t even playing an exhibition this season, preferring closed-door scrimmages against Loyola (Illinois) on Oct. 15 in Milwaukee and Missouri on Oct. 29 in Chicago.
Which makes what happened in the wee hours of Nov. 2, 1975, so interesting in retrospect. For the then-Warriors’ exhibition that season, MU coach Al McGuire maneuvered to face the fearsome Soviet Union national team. Even stranger, for several reasons, the game tipped off just after midnight in front of a juiced-up crowd of 10,938 fans at the Milwaukee Arena.
“It was different,” former MU forward Bo Ellis said by phone this week. “But that’s what Marquette was. All the stuff we did at Marquette was like that.
“A little strange, but we looked forward to it. We thought it was pretty cool to be able to play at midnight and the arena was packed. I know the students were all fired up because the place was rocking.”
‘It’ll be like a New Year’s Eve party’
McGuire, also the school’s athletic director at the time, was the ringmaster of MU’s basketball circus that included funky uniforms and brash players. He was offered a game against the Soviet Union, which was playing colleges in the United States ahead of the 1976 Summer Olympics, but McGuire had already scheduled his NCAA-allotted one exhibition against the Canadian national team.
McGuire had a hustler’s instinct for a good angle and knew the Soviet team would be a hook. A controversial finish to the gold-medal game in the 1972 Summer Olympics had inflamed Cold War tensions, with the Soviets getting multiple chances to score the winning basket in the waning seconds. The US team still has not accepted its silver medals.
“It was just an honor to play them and thinking that we could beat them,” recalled former MU guard Lloyd Walton. “That’s all I thought about, especially when I found out it was basically the same team that the Russians had when they beat the US in ’72.”
The Canadians graciously stepped aside and McGuire had a villain to play against his really good team, which was ranked No. 4 in the preseason poll.
The midnight tipoff smacks of McGuire’s gimmickry, but it was actually just logistics.
The Amateur Basketball Association of the USA scheduled an original slate of seven games featuring the Soviet team. The Amateur Athletic Union, after some legal wrangling with the ABAUSA, started organizing more games, including the one at MU. The Soviets ended up with a breakneck schedule of 14 games in 26 days, including facing top teams such as Indiana, North Carolina, Maryland and Notre Dame.
The only opening for MU was the first game of the tour, and McGuire wanted to sell the game to national television on Nov. 1, which was a Saturday. The problem was the NCAA did not allow any games to be played until after Nov. 1. The NCAA, a frequent sparring partner for McGuire, denied petitions for a waiver.
Another issue was that the Milwaukee Admirals were playing a hockey game Sunday evening at the Arena, and McGuire told the Milwaukee Journal that it took eight hours to switch from the basketball floor to the ice.
So that’s when the midnight idea kicked in, since it would be Nov. 2 and work under NCAA rules.
“It’ll be like a New Year’s Eve party,” McGuire told the Journal.
‘A special kind of atmosphere’
The Arena was indeed festive.
“I think our student body was on 100,” Walton said. “Because it was at midnight, so our fellow students were out early drinking and preparing. I won’t say that for the general public, but I think our student body was rarer to go to say the least.
“It was a special kind of atmosphere, no doubt. Nobody was playing the Russians. Nobody was playing at midnight. We’re talking about Marquette, one of the best teams in the country. This was a special game. Trust me.”
A story in the Journal noted one fan held a sign that read “Détente Stops Here” and several people wore masks of former President Richard Nixon.
Guard Earl Tatum didn’t mind the late start.
“Normally playing at times like that, we’d be in the playgrounds,” said Tatum, who grew up in Mount Vernon, New York. “Playing in New York in the parks at 11:30, quarter to 12.
“But playing big-time college basketball, man, you’re used to playing at 8, then the pro games a lot of times you’re playing at 7. It was a little weird. You’re trying to get a little rest before the game.”
The Soviets arrived in Milwaukee on Oct. 31 after 24 hours of travel from Moscow. They attended a Milwaukee Bucks-Portland Trail Blazers game at the Arena on Nov. 1, and then waited until the late tip.
Coach Vladimir Kondrashin had a formidable lineup that included two 7-footers in Mikhail Selantev and Vladimir Tkachenko as well as 6-foot-7 star Alexander Belov, who had been drafted a few months earlier by the NBA’s New Orleans Jazz.
“We knew we could beat them, but they were good,” Tatum said. “They ran. We didn’t run at Marquette. Al wouldn’t let us run.
“But they couldn’t beyond us, either. Bo Ellis out there and (Jerome) Whitehead. It was tough.”
Ellis had 16 points to lead United to a 67-56 victory. Walton added 14 points and eight assists with no turnovers.
You can sense how much the exhibition victory meant even in a silent video of the game, with MU’s bench celebrating wildly and the players on the court lifting their arms in joy as the final seconds ticked away.
Marquette, Soviets go their separate ways
According to accounts from the Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel, the game started at 12:14 am after a pre-game ceremony in which the Soviets were given MU caps. It ended at 1:46 am
Ellis, Walton and Tatum don’t remember much from after the game except getting a bite to eat and heading back to their apartments.
“I just probably went back to the room to play some music,” Tatum said. “Played some Al Green or something.”
The Soviets immediately headed to Indianapolis, where they lost to Indiana on Nov. 3. The Hoosiers would finish that season 32-0, the last undefeated national champion in college basketball. Indiana eliminated United in the Elite Eight.
A story in Sports Illustrated noted the Soviets struggled during their whirlwind schedule, but the players were mostly interested in stocking up on goods and sampling fast food that they couldn’t get back home. They won bronze in the 1976 Summer Olympics, with the US reclaiming the gold.
The NCAA no longer allows exhibitions against outside amateur teams, including national squads, only Division II, III or NAIA opponents.
So that exhibition against the Soviet Union will remain a unique and memorable bit of trivia in MU hoops history.
“Midnight, first game,” Ellis said. “We were different. Coach was eccentric. That’s what we did. That’s who Al McGuire was. That’s what we did back then.”
Contact Ben Steele at (414) 224-2676 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenSteeleMJS or Instagram at @bensteele_mjs