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#ThrowbackThursday - 1985: The Phoenix Suns sign Georgi Glouchkov aka the first Eastern Bloc player in NBA history

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Georgi Glouchkov in action

Players born in Europe had dotted the NBA landscape since nearly its inception, going back to Hank Biasatti in 1946. Prior to 1985 though, the vast majority of those players had been the children of American citizens born abroad, or players born abroad who immigrated to Canada or the United States at an early age. And prior to 1985, there had only been about 30 foreigners in NBA history.

Enter Phoenix Suns scout Dick Percudani and the 1985 draft. NBA scouts had recently turned to the international arena as a source for talent and the Phoenix Suns were in the thick of the the Euro expansion. Percudani, a former Italian league coach, spotted Glouchkov playing for the Bulgarian national team in the European Championships

Here’s Colangelo relating early impressons of Glouchkov from Dan Bickley’s book “Return of the Gold: The Journey of Jerry Colangelo and the Redeem Team”:

“I heard there was a guy playing in Bulgaria who was a terrific rebounder, and a big, strong guy,” Colangelo said. “His name was Georgi Glouchkov. Our international guy was Dick Percudani, and he said that Georgi had torn Arvydas Sabonis apart. And remember, Sabonis was considered the greatest big man ever to play in Europe.”

If Sabonis was the greatest big man ever to play in Europe, then why didn’t the Suns just draft him? Because Sabonis played for the Soviet national team. The era of glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall were still a few years away. Though it seems fitting that Mikhail Gorbachev would rise to power in the same year that the first Eastern Bloc player would join the NBA.

And so, desperate for a shot in the arm after two consecutive season missing the playoffs, the Phoenix Suns took a seventh round flyer on Glouchkov, already a seven year veteran of the Bulgarian national team. Georgi was a novelty. The nicknames came fast and furious: Georgi Boy, the Balkan Banger, Air Georgi, and Glue.

The Balkan Banger stuck but Glue was probably more appropriate: Glouchkov would wash out of the league after only one season, but not before the Suns’ had milked him for every last ounce of corny publicity.

Along with the press release announcing Georgi’s signing, the Suns issued a Bulgarian phrasebook. Much was made of head coach John MacLeod taking Bulgarian lessons in order to communicate with his new star, who spoke next to no English. In a Sports Illustrated article from the time, Suns’ center Alvan Adams’ joked:

"He's really very bright. I did notice that his English book had the Gettysburg Address in it, so I guess we'll know he's fluent when he starts using 'four score' in a sentence."

Colangelo even went so far as to shoot a commercial with his new star:

In it, he and the team's general manager, Jerry Colangelo, are shown in a locker room.

Colangelo: "Hi. I'm here with Georgi Glouchkov discussing the big game with the Trail Blazers tomorrow."

Glouchkov then rattles off something in Bulgarian, but the subtitles that appear on the screen say: "I don't understand a word you're saying, but I really like Mexican food."

Colangelo, slapping Glouchkov on the knee: "Isn't his knowledge of the NBA incredible?"

Woof. His on-court presence was about as effective as his television presence. Glouchkov managed to find playing time in 49 of Phoenix’s 82 games that season, but only stood out in a handful of them. He peaked early, notching a 12 point, 10 rebound performance in a November blowout of the San Antonio Spurs. His season averages were a mere 4.9 points and 3.3 rebounds in almost 16 minutes of action. It was not the frontcourt jolt the Suns were looking for.

Why did Glouchkov fail? It was probably a combination of things. The deck was stacked against him from the start. In Bulgaria, the 6 foot 8 inch Balkan Banger had played center, but was moved to power forward in the NBA. The language barrier, despite efforts made on all sides to overcome it (Glouchkov had a translator at practices), could not have helped. And then there were rumors of a few other possible causes: a taste for American junk food and candy, a taste for American women, and steroid use or the lack thereof. There was talk that perhaps as a member of the Bulgarian team, Glouchkov had been on a steroid regimen that he was unable to continue in the United States. Colangelo spoke to all of these potential causes without settling on one. From “Return of the Gold”:

“At that time, the Bulgarian weightlifting and wrestling teams were into steroid use and other things,” Colangelo said. “But that never crossed my mind with a basketball guy. And whether it was true or not, here’s what happened with Georgi Glouchkov.

“He came to us with size, strength and the inability to communicate. And along the line, he just lost his strength, just like Samson with his hair cut off. We came to the conclusion that, between the pretty girls, the Snickers bars and maybe a lack of substance use, he couldn’t make in the NBA.”

So Glouchkov wasn’t the Euro answer to the Suns’ dreams, but the 1985 draft heralded a sea change in NBA talent evaluation. Four of that year’s first round picks were born abroad, including first overall pick Patrick Ewing. Soviet star Arvydas Sabonis was actually taken in the 4th round by the Atlanta Hawks, but the pick was voided as Sabonis was under 21 at the time.

And while he may not have hung around in the promised land, Georgi Glouchkov did open the floodgates for other Eastern European stars like Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, and Alexander Volkov.

For some interview and game footage, check out this video on Georgi Glouchkov from Suns.com: http://www.nba.com/suns/video/teams/suns/2016/02/02/1454453722207-georgi-glouchkov.mp4-268068