Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls
playing against Olympiakos Piraeus in the McDonald's Championship
in Paris, 1997.
The NBA's current participation and fascination with international basketball began in 1987 when the Milwaukee Bucks hosted the first-ever McDonald's Open. Yet, that first McDonald's Open may not have come about if not for the foresight NBA Commissioner David Stern and then-FIBA Secretary General Boris Stankovic. Before then, the NBA and FIBA had never talked about getting together, let alone worked together.
But in 1986, FIBA explored the idea of opening the Olympic basketball competition to professionals for Seoul in 1988. The measure, however, did not have enough votes to pass. Still, the NBA and FIBA wanted to see how each other's brand of basketball would fare when pitted against each other. And hence, the Open, sponsored by McDonald's, was born.
The NBA was willing to host the event. FIBA had a team and a coach who were willing to participate. Alexander Gomelsky, the legendary Soviet Union coach, had long taken his team on exhibition tours of the United States, playing college teams including Indiana and North Carolina.
But Gomelsky, who entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995, wanted his Soviet team to take on the best basketball players in the world.
The NBA agreed. Yet, instead of the host city hosting a single game, it was suggested that there be a mini round-robin tournament featuring three teams. With the Bucks and the Soviet national team already set to participate, Tracer Milan, the 1987 Euroleague champion and one of the great European club teams of the decade, was invited to take part.
With the teams set, the first McDonald's Open tipped off in Milwaukee's MECCA on Oct. 23, 1987. The Bucks topped a Tracer Milan team that featured future Hall of Famers Bob McAdoo (a three-time NBA scoring champ) and Dino Meneghin, and the future Phoenix Suns coach, Mike D'Antoni,
123-111 as D'Antoni recorded a triple-double with 16 points, 11 assist and 10 steals.
The Bucks would go on to win the tournament by defeating the Soviets, 127-100, two days later, but Gomelsky's team received the experience they needed. The next year in Seoul, the Soviets defeated a U.S. men's team featuring the best college players en route to a gold medal.
For the next McDonald's Open in 1988, the NBA took its show, and the Boston Celtics -- featuring future Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish -- on the road to Madrid. The Celtics cruised in that tournament. Over the next five years, the Denver Nuggets, the New York Knicks, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns would go on to win their respective McDonald's Open tournaments.
In 1995, the NBA Board of Governors voted to send the NBA champion over to what was now being called the McDonald's Championship, featuring championship teams from around the globe. The Houston Rockets represented the NBA well, winning the tourney, as did the Chicago Bulls (who took Paris by storm in 1997) and the San Antonio Spurs, who won in Milan in 1999.
In all, nine McDonald's Open/Championship tournaments were held and the NBA teams lost nary a game. And while the McDonald's Championship hasn't been held since 1999, the NBA continues to be deeply involved in international basketball.
Recently, the Memphis Grizzlies and Spurs played an exhibition game in Paris, while the Grizzlies and Spanish native Pau Gasol took on FC Barcelona in Spain. Also, six times since 1990, the NBA has played regular season games in Japan. In 2003, the Los Angeles Clippers and Seattle SuperSonics met at Saitama Super Arena north of Tokyo for two regular season games.