The Bulls' new Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations had a unique road that led him to Chicago where he gained the respect from many of his colleagues along the way.
Arturas Karnisovas, the Bulls new Executive Vice-President of Basketball Operations, has a consequential task ahead. The zeitgeist of the Chicago Bulls community requires rejuvenation.
"Our ultimate goal clearly is to bring an NBA championship to the city of Chicago," Karnisovas told reporters during a conference call Monday. "All we can control is our approach and the process behind every decision. A firm foundation is absolutely vital. I will build that here in Chicago. Earning the enthusiasm and excitement back from the fans of the Chicago Bulls is a challenge and something I very much look forward to. These fans deserve a team they can be proud of, and my objective is to get us back to relevancy."
Karnisovas knows perhaps better than most about reviving spirit, pride and enthusiasm. He helped deliver that as few in world history have in becoming a national hero in his native Lithuania. Perhaps it was more visceral than physical, but it was Karnisovas playing for Lithuania with his prominent countrymen like Sarunas Marcilionis and Arvydas Sabonis who finally helped slay the great bear that was the Soviet Union with their bronze medal basketball victory in the 1992 Olympics.
That was, of course, much overshadowed here with the dominance of the famous Dream Team.
But in terms of symbolic worldwide impact, Lithuania's third place victory over the so called Unified Team that was the remnants of the Soviet Union struck a final blow to that Communist menace of the Cold War era. That it was done with the support and inspiration of the Grateful Dead rock band help make the story as lyrical as it was heartwarming.
What a long strange trip it's been for Arturas Karnisovas.
Karnisovas spent seven years as an executive with the Denver Nuggets
He comes to the Bulls from five years in scouting with the Houston Rockets and seven years as a front office executive with the Denver Nuggets where he helped assemble one of the top rising teams in the NBA.
Karnisovas is a native of Lithuania, the Baltic state that became a basketball cradle of Eastern Europe, its players carrying the great Soviet teams in international competition while enduring the burden of stifled dissent and occupation.
"In terms of the Chicago Bulls," Karnisovas was saying Monday, "I've been following them since my teenage years, the draft of 1984 when Micheal was picked. MJ was always the guy I followed."
Those teenage years were spent behind what we called the Iron Curtain, an invisible barrier to independent thought and action that inspired even the most eclectic and electric of rock bands.
Yes, Arturas rocks, also.
"He's as good as it gets when it comes to character and integrity," said Adrian Griffin, the former Bulls player and current Toronto Raptors assistant coach who was a Karnisovas teammate at Seton Hall U. "He had an awesome work ethic and positive mindset. He never complained about anything and that's the way he is today; so he practices what he preaches. On the outside he may seem laid back and conservative. But inside he is a competitor. Someone easy to talk to and approach with a wealth of experience. I think he will do a phenomenal job."
Karnisovas grew up in Klaipeda, a Baltic Sea port city. His father, Mykolas, was a basketball player, though the national team then was part of the Soviet Union's. Which was very good, though mostly thanks to the players from Lithuania. When the Soviets won the 1988 Olympic gold medal in what became the motivation for the Dream Team, four of the five starters were from Lithuania led by Marciulionis and Sabonis along with Rimas Kurtinaitis and Valdemaras Chomisius. Their spirit of independence was so significant even that year they posed for a separate gold medal team picture with just the Lithuania players. It's this heritage that nurtured Karnisovas, who would go on to help lead the bronze medal winning teams in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, the 1992 Lithuanian team being the most significant with its emotional victory over its former masters.
A country celebrated as one.
Donnie Nelson, the Mavericks general manager who was instrumental in guiding the Lithuania team, has talked about that post game locker room celebration in Barcelona as the greatest he's even seen in sports. The world marveled at the Dream Team.
It cried for the other dream team.
Nelson called it the most powerful moment he's even witnessed in sports, the players crying and singing their national anthem, the nation's president who had stood face to face with Russian tanks being doused with champagne and joining in the tears and toasts.
Lithuania became independent with the close of World War I in 1918, but then was occupied by the Soviet Union at the start of World War II. It was then traded off between Nazi Germany and back to the Soviet Union at the end of the war. But its stubborn defiance became a bulwark against the oppression of the Soviet state. The Lithuanians were occupied in body if not mind. So the Soviets tried to starve them. But they would not relent.
That courage would eventually inspire the iconic Grateful Dead band, which became sponsors of the Lithuanian team in Seoul in 1992, the Lithuanian players famously wearing the tie dyed red, green and yellow of the band on the medal stand. Sales of those t-shirts and contributions from the band helped got that Lithuanian team to the 1992 games with the country finally becoming independent again in 1991.
It was a country trying to supply bread; there wasn't enough money for balls.
Someone working for the band saw stories about the team's plight and hopes in the San Francisco Chronicle. The band members were intrigued and enthusiastic with Marciulionis, then playing for the Warriors, leading the way.
Grateful Dead Drummer Mickey Hart said Lithuania resonated with the band for its "struggle for life, liberty and freedom." Nelson years later recalled taking Marciulionis to meet the band members, who were practicing in what seemed to Marciulionis like an abandoned garage in the famed "hippie" Haigth-Asbury San Francisco neighborhood. Marcioulionis asked Nelson if they were at the right place because those guys couldn't be famous. "You guys just took down one of the darkest political forces in history. Here's to freedom and celebration," group lead Jerry Garcia told him. Then the Dead gave life to the team.
"The Grateful Dead saw this story and they said, ‘We've got to do something to help,'" recalled legendary Deadhead and Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton, who also helped raise money for the team. "Sarunas was making good money in the day, but was living this incredibly austere life to send his money back to Lithuania. They brought in Sarunas and said, ‘Here's a big check for you and here's some licenses to our merchandise we're going to give you and you take the money and send the money to Lithuania.'"
Those Grateful Dead tie dye shirts became the souvenir item to have in Barcelona in 1992. The sales funded a basketball dream.
"Sarunas could not have known about the Grateful Dead then." said Walton. "The Grateful Dead always have stood by grassroots organizations, the little guy fighting to make it. Their music is about peace and love and about team and family and hope. And being people of action they saw this great act of sacrifice and vision and doing something for people. The Grateful Dead was happy to help."
The 6-8 Karnisovas, meanwhile, was taking after his father and his nation's passion. P.J. Carlesimo was building a collegiate power at Seton Hall U. in northern New Jersey and on the recommendation of Marciulionis extended a scholarship for the big kid from Klaipeda. The Soviet Union was crumbling, but still hanging on. So Karnisovas had some shaky days trying to persuade authorities to allow him to become the first Soviet player to play for a U.S. university. Karnisovas didn't speak or understand English when he arrived in New Jersey. But he not only became a starter on four NCAA tournament teams including an Elite Eight team in 1991, but an economics major and the first Big East athlete to be named top scholar/athlete in back to back years.
Karnisovas had a very successful international playing career. In 1997 playing with Greek team Olympiacos, he played against the Chicago Bulls in the McDonalds Championship.
Karnisovas was good enough to play in the NBA, which still was somewhat biased against European players. Karnisovas averaged 18.3 points per game as a senior with a four-year three-point shooting average of 41 percent. He shot almost 50 percent on threes one season. But in that era the NBA generally neglected shooting big men. If you were 6-8, you better bang. Karnisovas was a bit small for power forward, though, a time when the NBA wanted Buck Williams and now Nikola Jokic. Karnisovas returned to Europe, where he had an excellent career as European Player of the Year in 1996 and for championship teams in Spain and Italy.
"He was always really positive, really smart, someone who fit in with their style of basketball," said longtime Bull Toni Kukoc who played against Karnisovas in the 1992 Olympics. "Overall a good athlete and really a smart player. He could run and finish at the rim, but for a guy his size he shot the ball well. He understands the game of basketball."
Karnisovas' international resume, curiosity and ease with borders landed him in the NBA office with the Basketball Without Borders program among others. He moved onto the Rockets in international scouting where he was part of the impressive Daryl Morey executive tree that included Gersson Rosa, a native of Bogota, Columbia who now runs the Minnesota Timberwolves and former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie. Karnisovas then climbed to Denver, where he's helped the Nuggets become a Western Conference contender.
"I like him; he's an organized guy," says Ron Adams, the former Bulls assistant now with Golden State. "Denver has done a great job of accumulating a lot of talent. They've done a good as anyone in my mind. Not only identifying international guys—they had (Jusuf) Nurkic and Jokic together at one point—but they also traded away guys who are starting at other places. Arturas is good in that regard. I think he's a really serious and competent basketball guy. Denver has done a tremendous job of their talent selection."
Karnisovas meeting Michael Porter Jr. after selecting him in the 2018 NBA draft.
Karnisovas, 48, is regarded even by friends as somewhat reserved and guarded at times. Though he's genial encouraging of teamwork. There's no i in his team.
"Great guy," said Dice Yoshimoto, a former Bulls video coordinator who worked with Karnisovas in Denver and now is an analyst with U. of Georgia basketball. "He's a little bit quiet, but he has a great, welcoming demeanor. He carried himself to a very high standard. He works, follows up with a great work ethic and has a great eye because he also played. He finds a lot of players in Europe.
"He's very curious," added Yoshimoto. "He was always helpful for (the coaching staff) with his intelligence and always anything you needed know, a down to earth kind of guy. He looks quiet, but he really is not that type of guy. They (management) collectively came to decisions. That's a home run."
And perhaps Chicago is that home for Karnisovas.
"It was special special experience for me playing the USA (Dream Team)," said Karnisovas. "We got beat up pretty good. I don't know if it was 45, 40-point difference. I remember every moment of that game. In terms of actually playing against Michael, my memory goes back to when we played against the Chicago Bulls when I was part of Olympiacos when we played in the McDonalds in 1997 in Paris, the European champion against the NBA champion, an incredible experience as they were on the road to six championships.
"I was telling the story of when we lived in New Jersey (working in the NBA office) and our friends from Chicago would come," recalled Karnisovas. "We would imitate our kids running out of the garage with the Chicago music of introductions playing. I have a long history of passion for this team."
And now….the Executive Vice-President of Basketball Operations for your Chicago Bulls!