College basketball: A look back at Springfield's exhibition vs. the Soviet Union, 25 years later
Entering the 2016-17 season the Springfield College men’s basketball team had won 1,445 of 2,405 games (60.1 percent) since that first historic season back in 1907.
There was, however, a contest that didn’t count in the win-loss record although it ranks as one of the most memorable.
Twenty-five years ago on Nov. 19, 1991 Springfield hosted the Soviet Union in an exhibition game as part of the basketball centennial.
The then-known Chiefs (who were a NCAA Division II member at the time) dropped a 92-86 overtime decision against their international opponent in a highly-spirited contest before an enthusiastic crowd of 1,800 fans at Blake Arena.
This was the third game of a five-game trip (sponsored by USA Basketball) for the Soviet Union who also played Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, and Indiana.
“We had just returned from a highly successful trip to Ireland in celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Basketball and the opportunity to play the Soviet National Team was like frosting on a cake,” recalled Mike Theulen, who coached the team from 1990-98. “We were the only non-Division I team they played during their swing through the United States during the preseason. It was my second year as head coach at Springfield College and this game was the first opportunity for our first recruiting class to see action along with our returning veterans.
“Our team played with great intensity and played so well that they literally rose to the occasion in battling the Soviet team toe-to-toe for the entire game. The atmosphere was electric. Blake Arena was filled to capacity with standing room only. It was so hot in the Arena that it was the only time in all my years of coaching that I had to take my suit jacket off. Our crowd and our students were loud and proud throughout the contest.
He added: “It was a privilege for me to be the Springfield College men’s basketball coach during that time and during that game. Words cannot explain the feelings of pride that I had for the College, being part of this historic event, and, most importantly, how very proud I was (and still am!) of our team. They represented themselves, their College, and that historic event in a first-class way. It was an honor and MY privilege to be their coach,” Theulen stated. He is now the athletics director at Western New England University in Springfield.
Springfield led 34-31 at halftime but fell behind by 10 points twice in the second half before making a comeback attempt behind the play of freshman guard Hassan Robinson, who was making his college debut.
The Glen Cove, New York native compiled a double-double with 23 points and 11 rebounds while logging a team-high 41 minutes. He made a conventional 3-point play with four seconds left in the second half to send the game into an extra session. Junior guard Earl Elliotte assisted on the play after stealing an inbounds pass.
Robinson went on to set a program record with 2,003 points, a mark that stood for 11 years. He also played briefly for the Connecticut Pride in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). An All-American in both basketball and baseball, Robinson was inducted in the SC Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000. At present he is the assistant principal at Bennet Academy in Manchester, Connecticut.
Robinson still follows his alma mater and remembers the game well.
“The first thing I remember was saying is this the same team that is playing Duke and North Carolina because the Soviet Union had a tour going on and they were playing the big Division I teams, and it actually was,” Robinson recalled. “I was up for the challenge and lot of the credit goes to Coach Theulen because he got us pumped up for it.
“For me coming in as a freshman, my confidence was sky high because Theulen built me that way saying now it’s your time and coming from prep school I always had that one coach who had the utmost confidence in me. So, he built me up all through the pre-season and coming in as a freshman, I felt like I had the confidence of a senior. I was really excited about that game. I really didn’t know what to expect, but I was pumped up for it.
“The other thing that sticks out in my mind was having to make that free throw at the end to send the game into overtime. That was a scariest part of my life sports-wise,” laughed Robinson.
Against the Soviets, Springfield also received a top performance from senior forward Steve Schibi, who contributed 19 points (making all 10 free throws) coming off the bench. Elliotte was outstanding finishing with 15 points and five steals while senior forward Ron King added 10 points and senior center Marty Geary six points and nine rebounds. The Pride made 28-of-30 free throws to keep the game close.
Springfield outrebounded its taller and more experienced opponents by a 58-50 margin and although both teams made 28 field goals, the Russians had one more three-pointer and converted 33-of-49 free throws to gain their only victory on their trip.
Theulen got all 11 of his players into the game except for sophomore forward Ken Freeman, who was out with an injury.
Igor Grachev and Sergei Grezin led five Soviet Union players in double figures with 24 and 23 points, respectively.
Ten of the 15 players on the Soviet squad were members of their 1991 Junior National Team that went 7-3 against United States AAU basketball teams. Vladimir Tsinman was the head coach.
Fans may remember the name Vladimir Kondrashin who was the assistant coach that night against Springfield. He served as the head of the Soviet Union’s 1972 and 1976 Olympic men’s basketball teams. The 1972 squad captured the gold medal after defeating the USA 51-50 in the controversial gold medal contest. Kondrashin was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2007.
As fans around the world know, Dr. James Naismith invented the sport in 1891 when he was a faculty member at the International YMCA Training School, which is now Springfield College.
SC will celebrate the 125th Anniversary of Basketball on Saturday, Dec. 10 with a series of events and banquets for men and women along with a salute to former athletics director and Coach Ed Bilik who also served as the secretary rules editor for the NCAA. There also will be a 3-point shooting contest for students.
Ken Cerino served as the sports information director at Springfield College from 1986-2000.