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Act of courage highlights Marciulionis' road to Hall of Fame

POSTED: Aug 5, 2014 6:25 PM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper


After coming to the U.S., Sarunas Marciulionis played for four NBA teams over seven seasons.

There was no way to prepare for the news, because there was no way to see it coming from decades away.

Sarunas Marciulionis in the Hall of Fame?

"Shocking," Sarunas Marciulionis said even once it had actually happened.

Sarunas Marciulionis Career Highlights

And not just the enshrinement that becomes official Friday night with the ceremony at the basketball museum in Springfield, Mass. The whole thing. His career. His life. Especially his life.

One of the true good people of an NBA generation -- a pleasure to call a teammate, a joy to coach -- has made the Hall via the International committee in recognition of his play for the Soviet Union, a run that included beating the United States en route to the 1988 Olympic gold, and then for bronze medal-winning Lithuanian teams in 1992 and '96 after the Iron Curtain crumbled and his native land gained independence. Marciulionis was a physical presence around the world at 6 feet 5 and 200 pounds, a fullback as much as a shooting guard, a black-and-blue contradiction to the perceived softness of other European imports. He was voted one of the 50 greatest players in the history of FIBA, the sport's international governing body, in 1991 and played seven NBA seasons, averaging 12.8 points a game and twice finishing second in Sixth Man of the Year voting.

That's great, and that's nothing.

For a real legacy, there is Marciulionis taking on the opponent that made Michael Jordan seem like a summer-league scrub. And not just taking on, either. Marciulionis was going to the NBA in 1989 and all but dared the Soviet Union to do something about it at a time the Red Machine didn't take kindly to being called out, even in its weakening state.

He risked everything to break from the Soviet system to join the Warriors, the team that drafted him in the sixth round in 1987, and measure himself in the best league in the world. To play in the NBA, he put more on the line than anyone.

"I guess [my] basketball career," Marciulionis said. "It could be closing all doors to play professional basketball inside of Soviet Union and some other countries. That's the smallest thing that could possibly happen."

The smallest thing that could possibly happen. He was actually putting a lot more on the line. Soviet teammates were being allowed to play in European countries, but America was a Cold War opponent.

"I guess," Marciulionis said. "If they did pick on me to show others don't this do and do that, it could be more severe punishments."

Donnie Nelson, a Golden State assistant coach then and general manager of the Mavericks now, would practically laugh. He knows the real stakes. He was in the room when Marciulionis met with Garry Kasparov, the chess champion and political activist who later became a member of the board of directors of the Human Rights Foundation, to weight the best exit strategy.

"I was there the night that Garry Kasparov sat Sarunas down and he said, 'Sarunas, you're taking the system on,'" Nelson said. "He said, 'Tomorrow, you're going to be one of the wealthiest men in the country and free to pursue your professional dream or you're going to be in Siberia.' And he didn't crack a smile."

No sign of sarcasm, in other words.

"[Kasparov] was taking on an established Soviet professional form of slavery," Nelson said. "The players there played till they were 40, and then when they were beyond their prime they were allowed to leave. All those checks went right back to Soviet Intersport, Gossport [the state sports agencies]. There was a lot of money. Imagine every player in all the sports in the United States going through one government-controlled, centralized agency. If you want to be a professional athlete, you are going to go through that centralized agency. Imagine all the money that was flowing through someone's fingers. What Kasparov did was take that establishment on. Sarunas was front lines, bayonette fastened, and the basketball guy that with Kasparov took on the whole system.

"You can't live in that society and not be scared on a daily basis. Back in the day, we were followed by the KGB. We could never have a conversation in his flat or in my hotel room. You always had to have it in parks or walking on the street. My translator got beat up by local KGB because they wanted to extort information.

"About my third trip over, we had this translator that Sarunas hand picked. He knew he could trust him and that his relatives had been deported to Siberia. Sarunas' English wasn't very good. My Lithuanian was nonexistent. Every time we walked out of my hotel room in the early days, this guy would pull his hat down, would pull his collar up and we would be walking around the streets of Lithuania, which was then part of the Soviet Union. After a couple trips, I said to him, 'Are you embarrassed to be seen with me in public? What's your problem?' I thought there was an issue. He said, 'No, you don't understand our society. There's two things that you deal with every day. One is the KGB and one is the mafia, and a lot of time they're the same.' They're the same animal. And we found out in a very real way when on one of my subsequent trips over there, he was taken for a -- quote, unquote -- ride by local KGB. He showed up the next day with a broken nose, two black eyes.

"We're sitting there at Sarunas' kitchen table trying to figure out how we handle this. My thing was, 'Just give 'em what they want. Pay them or whatever. Just get 'em off the guys' case.' Sarunas said, 'You don't understand. You pay, it's going to get worse.' He had to take another couple rides just for the opportunity to be the translator for me and Sarunas. Think about it. After they were convinced that they were not going to get paid, the local guy, the local chief of police or whatever the guy was, he has to have a certain amount of pornographic material translated on his desk at the first of every month [as a different form of payment]. He did that until Lithuania became a free country. Just think about how crazy that is."

And then Marciulionis came to North America.

"He put his whole life on the line for that," said close friend Tommy Shephard, the senior vice president of basketball operations for the Wizards. "His family. Everything. ... It was the most painstaking decision of his life. It was nerve-racking to live that moment. I don't think we [in the United States] could ever appreciate what he went through."

Marciulionis went to Oakland, quickly realized how far behind he was on some fundamentals that U.S. players had learned long before, and did his best to stay quiet and learn. The approach just didn't last too long. He was such a fun-loving guy and the Warriors were such a tight group with fellow 2015 Hall inductee Mitch Richmond, Chris Mullin, Tim Hardway, Manute Bol and others that Rooney, as he became known, was drawn out. He was one of them.

Marciulionis and Richmond, likewise a shooting guard with a physical style, had ferocious battles in practices, and only grew closer. It helped that Marciulionis was too good a guy to trash-talk Richmond about the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, the USSR's 82-76 win over the U.S., and Marciulionis outscoring Richmond 19-5. (Arvydas Sabonis had 13 points and 13 rebounds, David Robinson 19 and 12, Dan Majerle 15 and seven.)

The United States became a second home, not just a place to run away to, as Marciulionis played four seasons in Golden State, one in Seattle, one in Sacramento and one in Denver. He was a driving force at the same time in helping newly independent Lithuania organize and raise funds to make the 1992 Olympics, the Summer Games of the original Dream Team, with Nelson as an assistant coach and the famous tie-dye jerseys in response to financial support from the Grateful Dead. After retirement, Rooney returned to Lithuania, became a prominent businessman and opened a basketball academy, but eventually he found himself coming back to America every year and spending three or four winter months in the San Diego area.

He's come to the United States in the summer this year too. California, of course, but then there's a trip he needs to make to Springfield, Mass. Something about changing history.

"I can say 'satisfaction,' but it's really like a pride," Marciulionis said. "Something I've done in this world is noticed by other people. I guess I've done the right things."