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Kansas State Stuns Russia during a Three minute Cat Attack- in one of the greatest wins in Ahearn

By Larry Weigel

Russia Basketball Team 1978
Russia Basketball Team 1978

The Kansas State athletic department faced many obstacles in preparing for the USSR National Basketball team’s visit to Ahearn Field-house during January of 1978.

Band director Phil Hewett did not have the music to the Soviet National anthem and learned it was out of print.

Dev Nelson, the radio voice of the Wildcats was trying to decide whether he’d learn how to pronounce the Russian names like Alexandr Belostennyi, Algirdas Linkevich or just refer to them as #14 and #10 during his broadcast of the game.  (1978 USSR National Basketball Team photo below)   

Ticket sales were down for the game with an expected crowd of 7,000 when Ahearn was usually sold out with a seating capacity of 11,000.

The game was not being televised and fans could get a reserved seat for $5.50 and General admission for $2.50.

The game was not included in the season ticket package.

Coach Jack Hartman was wondering what he’d do to handle the Russian’s front line which included:  7’4” center Vladimir Tkachenko, 6’8” Sergei Tarakanov, 6’11” Anatoliy Mishkin and backup center 7’ 1” Alexadr Belostennyi.

Kansas State’s tallest starter was 6’7”.

Russia beat #3 ranked UCLA 80-79 during a nationally televised game in Los Angeles four days prior to their date with Kansas State, followed by a win a few days later over Brigham Young in Provo Utah.

And to make matters worse, K- State played poorly in their 62-59 win over Oklahoma State the night before their big game with Russia while the Russian’s watched the game in Ahearn eating popcorn, and licking their chops-thinking this was going to be an easy win over the underdog Wildcats the next night.

(Evans blocking out 7’4” Tkachenko’s knee caps)
(Evans blocking out 7’4” Tkachenko’s knee caps)

If you were betting on the outcome, Russia was definitely the heavy favorite to win.

(Photo of Redding telling the Big Guy what he thought of a rough exchange under the boards)
(Photo of Redding telling the Big Guy what he thought of a rough exchange under the boards)

But- Kansas State was ready for the Big Red giants.

Hartman used several zone defenses throughout most of the David and Goliath matchup- then placed a big rock in his sling shot called “A Hartman high ball-with a twist   of Redding juice” and brought down the Russians with an aggressive in your face man to man defense during the last three minutes which caught them totally off guard.

Langton-action shot

Russia went into a delay game trying to hold the ball leading 54-51 with 3:13 to play, but their strategy backfired during the Cat attack. The change in defense allowed 6’5” Brooklyn native- Curtis Redding the chance to make critical steals near the end of the game to seal the win. Kansas State upset Russia 57-54 in one of the greatest games ever played in Ahearn.  Kansas City Star Sports writer Mike DeArmond, described the final 79 seconds this way:  DeArmond wrote, “With 1:19 to play and K-State down, 54-53, Redding knifed in front of a Russian pass, dribbled the length of the court and slam dunked the ball through the hoop.

Seconds later he leaped high into the tension-charged air of Ahearn Field House to snare another Russian pass, although this time K-State came up empty on the scoreboard as a return feed on the fast break skipped off Redding’s fingertips.”

Soldner-Tkachenko photo

DeArmond continued, “King Curtis’ next theft stood the7,110 fans in attendance on their collective ear.  Leaving his feet in a headlong dive,

Redding tipped the ball away from Russia’s Stanislav Eremin.  Teammate Mike Evans raced in to pluck the ball up at the free throw line and softly laid it in for the clinching bucket…a move that kicked off a roar that could be heard all the way back in Moscow-well almost.  Amid the explosion of the sound, Redding jumped up and down at midcourt, his arms knifing into the air in frenzy while the crowd poured down out of the stands.”

I was sitting right behind the Russian bench with my 9 year old son Nick and 6 year old daughter Molly,  when Ahearn erupted like a volcano after the buzzer sounded.  The noise was deafening.  I felt more emotion about this win than any other games I played or watched in Ahearn between the years 1962-88.

The morning sports page headlines read: “Redding steals victory from Russians”. But- he had good help from his teammates.  Kansas State’s other starters in the lineup besides Redding, who had four of KSU’s 11 steals and a game high 16 points,  included Steve Soldner a 6’7” junior, Brent Murphy, a 6’7” freshman, Scott Langton, a 5’11” senior, and 6’1” senior Mike Evans.

“Coach Hartman outfoxed the Russian coach because coach was the master of adapting and using different defenses on the fly,” said Soldner during a phone visit a few days ago.  “We tried man to man defense at first but just couldn’t keep up with their size, and switched to a zone”

“The Russian point guard was not a good shooter and kept trying to get the ball to their good shooters at the wing, but we denied the wing pass and kept sagging in the middle while I fronted their 7-4 Tkachenko down low,” said Soldner.  “The point guard became so frustrated because he couldn’t get the offense started, and then hollered something at his teammates in Russian.”

Little did the Russian point guard know that coach Hartman’s genius was at work.  After watching the video, it clearly shows that Coach Hartman left the point guard wide open just beyond the free throw line which was the major weakness in Kansas State’s zone, but the Russian’s never figured it out and kept trying to pass the ball inside and to the wings.

All Russia had to do was put their best shooter at the point-shoot the ball a few feet from the free throw area,  and move the non shooting guard to a wing, but it never happened.

Soldner scored 13 points as he battled Russia’s 7-4, 297 pound center Tkachenko.  It’s a wonder Soldner didn’t trip over Tkachenko’s size 18 ½ shoes, when Kansas State’s collapsing zone held the big guy scoreless in the second half after scoring ten points in the first half.  “The first time I boxed him out( 7-4 Tkachenko), he looked at me like I was crazy,” said Soldner.  “He was so big, he could stand on his tip toes and dunk the ball.”

The Russian team had an invisible smelly weapon according to Soldner.  “Their body odor was just almost overwhelming,” Soldner said.  “Those guys stunk to high heaven.  I guess in Russia they would shower not more than once a week.”   

(Photo of Soldner family)
(Photo of Soldner family)

Soldner said, “The noise in Ahearn was so loud after we took the lead, that a Kansas State campus policeman friend of mine, (I think his name was Skidmore) said he could hear the crowd noise from inside his patrol car at the northeast end of campus.”

Soldner and his wife Julie live in Keller, Texas.  Steve, a graduate in Mechanical Engineering is an Executive Sales Engineer specializing in custom equipment for Peterbilt-Rush Truck Center in Dallas.  Daughter Stephanie, age 29 is married to Kevin Powers and lives in Warsaw, Poland with their 3 month old daughter Allison. Son Austin, age 27 lives in San Francisco, and daughter Regan, who played basketball for Missouri State is now coaching at Missouri State in Springfield.

Rolando Blackman, a 6-6 forward freshman did not start.  Who would believe Kansas State would win with Blackman scoring only two points, but he played a critical role in the win with his nine rebounds which tied the game high total of Russia’s 6-10 Antoliy Mishkin.

Dean Danner, a 6-6 forward, came off the bench and scored six big points on some nifty shooting to help his team edge the Russians in field goal shooting percentages 48% to 43%.  Danner provided me with the game video and newspaper clippings to write this story.

“When the students picked up their books for the spring semester earlier in the week, each was given a red T-shirt with “Kansas State” emblazoned on the front and the player’s Russian-ized name on the back,” said Danner.  “Mine was Dannerski.”

Danner family picture
(Danner family photo)

Danner said, “We all remembered the 1972 Olympics where the USA was robbed of the win over Russia, and we felt in a small way it was a little payback for them stealing the gold medal from the U.S. team.”  “We all were proud of the team representing our school and country that night- it was bigger than just a game.”

Danner lives in Leawood, Ks with his wife Anna and has worked in the packaging industry for the past 30 years.  He and Anna have two children.  Sydney (22) is a senior at Kansas State and Max (16) is a junior at Shawnee Mission East High School.

Mahoney- Tony & Melissa
Mahoney- Tony & Melissa

Tony Mahoney, a 5’10” freshman guard (the smallest player on the court) remembers how the teams lined up to exchange gifts before the game.  “They lined us up from the tallest to the shortest,” said Mahoney.

I had the opportunity to shake hands with their 7-4 center Tkachenko- and it was just like shaking hands with a pillow.”

Mahoney is a pilot for UPS and hauls packages around the country in the Airbus.  He and his wife Melissa live in Wichita Ks, and have three boys- Jason, age 30, Brett, 27 and Devin 24.    (Photo Melissa and Tony Mahoney)   

Langton -Atlantis Dolphin- Family picture
Langton -Atlantis Dolphin- Family picture

Scott Langton played like a mad dog on defense harassing the Russians on every possession.  “The Ahearn crowd went wild when we took the lead,” said Langton.

“I was told later that the ensuing uproar was the loudest recorded sound in Ahearn Field house.”  “I seem to recall a steal and a behind the back pass from Mike Evans and a dunk by Redding (both of which was typically taboo with Hartman),” said Langton.  “I didn’t shoot well that game, but was happy I was able to contribute with defense and a shot that tied the score at 42 coming down the stretch.”

Langton and his wife Jan have two children- Katie age 17- Anna age 12 -and live in Lenexa, Ks.  Scott is a project management consultant and works with medical device manufacturers.  He has his own company Langton Professional Services and works for a consulting company in the San Francisco Bay area called S2insight Inc.  (Langton family photo)

I reached Curtis Redding by phone in Brooklyn, New York. .  Redding played two years at Kansas State before transferring to St. John University.  He works for UPS, is married, has six children and six grandchildren and has never forgotten the significance of the win over Russia after all these years.

Redding said, “I was talking to my son last week about the Russian game and told him that was by far the best game I ever played in my life. “I’ve had many great games in my career including a game where I scored 67 points, but I told my son, points don’t mean a thing because I had my greatest game of all time and only scored 16 points.”

Redding told me that in order to win the game he knew he had to act when Russia decided to hold the ball with the lead during the last three minutes.  Remember there was no shot clock then.

“Mike Evans forced the Russian point guard to pick up his dribble,” said Redding.  “ I hid behind the 6’11” guy I was guarding and waited for the Russian guard to throw the ball- and- while anticipating the pass, I stepped in the passing lane and stole the first one and went the length of the court for a dunk.”

“Then I waited again for another pass, and this time I dove for the ball and tapped it over to Mike (Evans), and he made the layup,” said Redding. “I’ll never forget that game as long as I live.”

Evans scored eight points, shot 50% from the field, blocked a shot and caused turnovers. Russia had 14 turnovers.  The Russian’s didn’t know how to handle his speed and quickness.  He lives in Denver with his wife Kim.  They have three children- Mike Jr, Michelle, and D’ambra.  I did a feature on Mike during early June which tells more about his life after graduating from Kansas State.

Click below to read the Evans feature story:

Bones Nay, assistant Athletic Director was Kansas State’s official host for the Russians and invited them to his home following the game.  The Kansas State delegation included athletic director Jersey Jerimier, Assistant AD Con Colbert, sports information director Glenn Stone and his wife Bethan, Nays’wife Norene, and a Kansas State language department faculty member.

Bones was ready and waiting as the Russians pulled up in their bus.  The Soviet interpreter arrived first and Nay said in a very loud voice, “TELL THEM WE WELCOME THEM TO OUR HOUSE.”  At that moment the Soviet interpreter said to Bones quietly, “‘I can hear you and understand everything you say, I’ll share with them your welcome.’”

Nay said the Russians were very polite but curious as they checked out all of the appliances in his home by first opening the refrigerator, then the dish washer, microwave, and then moved to the laundry room to see the washer and dryer.  They even left a few Russian coins in Nay’s empty gum machine after he showed them that a coin could reward you with a piece of gum.

Nay, Bones Photo
Nay, Bones Photo

The post game meal consisted of fifty Big Mac’s from McDonalds, fries and cokes.  “They drank the cokes with no ice,” said Nay.  The Russians left their mark on Nay’s little peek-a-poo dog. “All the Russian’s would feed her some of their food but she was never the same after that evening,” said Nay.  (photo Bones Nay)

The Russian roster listed a coach, assistant coach, manager, scientist, doctor and masseur.  “One Russian gentleman who was really good, played some beautiful songs on the piano,” said Nay.

“We learned later that he was a KGB agent assigned to the team.”  I wonder if the scientist, doctor or masseur was the spy. 

“A member of the coaching staff saw two bottles of vodka in my liquor cabinet,” said Nay.  “The entire coaching staff then pointed to the liquor and said, ‘Voosha, Voosha (meaning vodka) and asked if they could drink it.

Of course we got it down and poured it in their glasses and they would say, ‘no ice’”.  “We thought we had seen it all,” said Nay.

The Russians told us we were the first college that invited them into a home since being in America, and in addition to the great win, having them in our home afterwards is truly a night we will never forget.” Nay said.

Nay graduated from Kansas State and served as a student trainer under head trainer Porky Morgan during his time at K-State in the mid 1950’s, then was a head high school football and junior college coach before moving into athletic administration.

He also served as the state director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes from 1982-89 and retired as Athletic Director of Dodge City Community College in 1993.

He lives in Hutchinson with his wife Norene.  Bones is widely known throughout the Midwest as a motivational speaker, and now serves as a part time pastor at the First Church of the Nazarene in Hutchinson, Ks.

Russia Gift exchange photo

Russia had wins over UCLA, Brigham Young, Providence College and Connecticut, but Kansas State was the only college team they could not beat.

Although both teams exchanged friendly handshakes and gifts of value less than the price of admission prior to the start of the game, there was tension between the two countries.  Russia- under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev was still harboring a Cold War mentality toward the United States during 1978- while Jimmy Carter challenged the Soviets on Human rights issues and their treatment of Soviet dissidents.

Danner said, “I still have the banner the Russians gave us before the game, and my son took it to his social studies class a few years ago when they were discussing the cold war.”

Russia CCCP logoLittle did those of us in attendance know there would be a complete breakdown in Soviet and American relations over Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan eleven months after Kansas State’s upset win in Ahearn.

This warring action by the Soviets prevented Kansas States’s All American Rolando Blackman from playing in the 1980 Olympics when President Carter boycotted the event scheduled to be held in Moscow.

But those of us who witnessed the upset over Russia in Ahearn believe Kansas State was a gold medalist team that night.

Here’s why!  Four of Russia’s players who lost in Ahearn were members of the 1976 Olympic team that finished third in Montreal behind the United States and Yugoslavia.  And, in 1980, with the US team boycotting the games, nine Russian players who lost in Ahearn in 1978 against Kansas State , including their coach Alexandr Gomelsky were members of Russia’s heavily favored 1980 Olympic team that finished with the bronze medal after losing to eventual gold medal winner Italy 87-85 and Silver medal winner Yugoslavia in overtime 109-91.

One could even say, although the United States missed the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow, a group of courageous underdog Kansas State college basketball players stood up to the mighty giants from Russia on January 19, 1978 and taught them a lesson that quickness, determination, coaching and a will to win could be just enough to earn them an Olympic medal as well and compete with the rest of the world in basketball.

Russia Hammer & sickle giftI will always believe it was Kansas State’s greatest basketball victory of all time.

UCLA sent band director Phil Hewett the music to the Soviet National anthem and it arrived in time to prevent the shattering of protocol if the anthems of both countries were not played prior to an international game.
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