Jenkins: Marciulionis’ Impact Goes Beyond Basketball

Established 1946 | 7-time NBA Champions

It’s the strangest thing. Official records confirm that only one Sarunas Marciulionis was involved in the resurrection of Lithuanian basketball, one of the greatest sports stories ever told. There are people who swear he came by the thousand.

We find him today in a mellower, more westernized homeland, so far removed from the barren landscape of his youth. He wouldn’t say life is comfortable, for that is not his way, nor does he take credit for the epic developments that led to his country’s rebirth. But the people understand. They see him in his sports bar, or on the streets of Vilnius, and as his good friend Tommy Sheppard said recently, “They still get a little pie-eyed.”

No wonder. The story of Marciulionis and Lithuania’s ascent to freedom is enough to bring anyone to tears. He certainly wasn’t alone back then, fierce in resistance to Soviet rule, desperately assembling the resources to fund his country’s presence in the 1992 Olympic basketball tournament. Sports was only part of a much larger mission. Somehow, though, it all comes back to that team photo from Barcelona ’92: the proud Lithuanians celebrating their bronze-medal victory over the Russians. Beneath the shiny showcase that was America’s Dream Team, this was the most significant story – and Marciulionis was its symbol.

“There really are no words to describe Sarunas’ worthiness in the Hall of Fame,” said Sheppard, the Washington Wizards’ senior vice president of basketball operations. “This is a man who always had a heartbeat for his country, who made people realize they didn’t have to stand there and take what was forced upon them. His whole life was about freedom, and giving back. It’s straight out of Hollywood casting.”

Marciulionis couldn’t jump like David Thompson, shoot like Larry Bird or pass like Magic Johnson, but he takes a singular spot in the Hall, forged through sheer determination. “Don’t forget that he was a hell of a player,” said Chris Mullin, a teammate on the Golden State Warriors. “Before he got to the NBA, the European player was considered soft, easily intimidated, nobody you had to worry about. He totally reversed that impression. He was tough. He was fearless. I never played against anyone as physically strong as him – at any position.”

Let’s take a moment to review Marciulionis’ on-court credentials:

Member of the Soviet Union’s championship teams at the 1987 European Championships and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, where they shocked the heavily favored U.S. team. Joined the Warriors in 1989-90 as the first Soviet player to compete in the NBA. Averaged 18.9 points (21.3 in the playoffs) in 1991-92, with a higher shooting percentage (53.8) than any guard in the league, and finished a close second to Detlef Schrempf as Sixth Man of the Year. Injuries curtailed his career, but at the age of 32, he was back on the Olympic stage for Lithuania’s bronze medal-winning team in 1996.

It’s all quite impressive, but a glance at the historical record hardly compares to the sight of him on court. Much like fellow left-hander Manu Ginobili, he was virtually unstoppable once he put his head down and attacked the basket on a right-to-left drive. He had a feathery mid-range jump shot and could hit the clutch free throw. He played intense, non-stop defense.

“The way he lived was all about heart and determination, someone who wouldn’t take no for an answer,” said longtime friend Donnie Nelson, a key figure in Marciulionis’ life. “And that’s exactly how he played the game.”

In attempting to explain his monumental role in Lithuania’s plight, Sarunas would often begin by saying, “I have two hands.” Sounds simple enough, until you get a look at those hands. “They’re gigantic, bigger than mine,” said Donnie’s father, Don, the Hall of Fame coach who was known to grab the basketball like a grapefruit in his playing days. “And unbelievably strong,” said Mullin. “On defense, he’d grab the ball with one hand, just a death grip, and take part of the guy’s wrist, too. In practice I’d tell him, ‘Please, just take the ball. Leave my arms alone.’”

Those hands once gripped a tennis racket, long ago, in Marciulionis’ home town of Kaunas. He was ambidextrous, and he knew only one way to hit the ball – crush it with all your might – so he played every shot with his forehand, adroitly switching the racket from one hand to the other. He won some big junior events, too, but once he got into the Soviet sports system, such radical technique was frowned upon. He was getting a bit large for the sport, anyhow, eventually growing to a formidable 6-5 and 210 pounds, and he had switched to basketball by the age of 13.

Lithuania had been under oppressive Soviet rule since 1940, and to this day, he carries stark memories of poverty and degradation. He and his friends had to build their own outdoor basketball court, a ramshackle but useful piece of work. People were standing in bread lines for food. They waited up to seven years for the opportunity to buy a car. When Marciulionis left home for Vilnius, intent on trying out for the Soviet junior national team, he did so “with one bag containing a very small amount of clothes, and another full of apples – the only thing my parents could afford to give me.”

He made a reasonable impression on the junior team, but for three years running in the early ’80s, he was the last man cut from the senior national squad. “The 13th man,” he recalls. “I was born on that day (in June). The number always stayed in the back of my mind.” A lesser man would have given up after three straight rejections, but Marciulionis only grew more determined, taking the number 13 when he finally made the squad and wearing it in the NBA.

The ’88 Olympics proved to be a turning point in basketball history. The U.S. had a formidable team led by David Robinson, Mitch Richmond, Danny Manning, Dan Majerle and Hersey Hawkins, but they were overwhelmed in the semifinals by a Soviet team powered by Lithuanians – not just Marciulionis and future Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis, but Rimas Kurtinaitis and Valdemaras Chomicius. Incredibly, the four of them all came from the town of Kaunas. At tournament’s end, celebrating their gold medal, they arranged a separate, Lithuanians-only team picture – not so much as an insult to their Russian teammates but as a symbol of pride, with poltical unrest escalating back home.

Marciulionis had become the star of that team, a revelation on the break with his no-look passes and soul-satisfying dunks. He was stunned to realize that he couldn’t just compete with NBA stars, but orchestrate outright domination at times. He and teammate Alexander Volkov, a Ukranian, spent hours watching tapes of NBA games, and as eloquently described by the New York Times, “They watched in the same excited way that the first generation of European jazzmen listened to the recordings of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.”

The landscape was changing, though – virtually by the day. Just before the breakup of the Soviet Union, Lithania declared independence in 1990, but not without the savage price of torture, murder and deportation. Success meant nothing short of a complete overhaul of the country’s economy and institutions. To the outsider, basketball would seem a trifle against far more pressing issues, but that wasn’t the case. This had long been Lithuania’s most popular sport, dating back to European championships in the pre-Soviet years of 1937 and ’39. It was a tremendous source of national pride. And Marciulionis took it upon himself to turn that sturdy foundation into a mighty castle.

“I’ve known poverty and endured a lot of pain,” he said at the time. “And now it has made me what I am. I don’t want to change. I’m never completely content with myself. If something happens, I think it’s my fault, I feel guilty. But that feeling moves me forward. If I’m happy with myself, I don’t improve. Move forward all the time. This is my logic.”

Donnie Nelson, son of the famous coach, was about to make his own mark. He had befriended Marciulionis several years before, during his touring days with the U.S. team known as Athletes in Action, and as a student of wars throughout history, he became immersed in Lithuania’s crisis. By 1989, as a part-time scout for the Warriors, he was spending most of his time there – “staying in Sarunas’ apartment, doing clinics, rolling up my sleeves, trying to raise funds the old-fashioned way.

“It’s hard to describe the state of affairs back then,” Nelson went on. “Here was a country completely bankrupt. Even with his gold medal in hand, Sarunas still had to stand in long lines just to get meat for his family. There was a ton of suspicion in the air. The mafia and KGB were a presence; sometimes violence would break out on the streets. And I’m watching my good friend fighting for freedom and independence. It was his incredible spirit – and that of his countrymen – that pulled them through.”

Marciulionis’ entry into the NBA gave him fresh, exciting avenues for his fund-raising campaign, as well as a torrent of culture shock. George Shirk, covering the 1989-90 Warriors for the San Francisco Chronicle, decided to accompany Sarunas and his wife, Inga, on a trip to an Oakland grocery store. “She walked in there and broke into tears,” Shirk recalled. “She had never seen that much food, ever. In Vilnius the stores didn’t have closing hours, they were just closed, period.”

“Sarunas made Donnie Nelson take him back to that store six days in a row,” Sheppard said. “They couldn’t believe it would be there the next day. That’s the world they came from – have no trust in tomorrow.”

Dennis McNally, then working public relations for the Grateful Dead, read Shirk’s stories and alerted the band members, who fancied Marciulionis’ undertaking without hesitation. “It was perfect for us,” said drummer Mickey Hart. “We’re always for the underdog, and this wasn’t just a basketball team. This was a struggle for life, liberty and freedom.”

As Donnie picks up the story, “We arranged to meet in San Francisco, heart of the Haight-Ashbury (still a haven for the hippie culture made famous in the ’60s). We wind up knocking on what looked like an abandoned garage, but sure enough, there’s Jerry Garcia and Bobby Weir and all the boys. For some reason they were practicing Beatles tunes that day. Sounded a bit disjointed at times. And of course, this is all in a huge cloud of marijuana smoke. After about an hour, Sarunas leans over to me and says, ‘Donnie, there’s no way these guys are famous (laughter),’ I said, ‘Stick with me on this one. I think we’ll be OK.’And that’s how it started. Those guys wound up writing us a huge check, and they got their designer to send us a box of tie-dyed T-shirts in red, yellow and green – Lithuania’s national colors. Garcia just loved it. He lit up what looked like a very large cigar and told Sarunas, ‘Man, you guys just took down one of the darkest political forces in history. Here’s to freedom and celebration.’”

With sufficient funds raised, and now dressed to kill, Lithuania took the Olympic Games by storm. The Grateful Dead’s T-shirts and liked-minded souvenirs were on sale all over Barcelona. The task at hand, though, would be daunting. The remains of Russia’s team became known as the Commonwealth of Independent States, or the Unified Team, and several of Marciulionis’ old teammates, including Volkov, were competing. “We have to remember the people in Lithuania who were hurt by politics,” Marciulionis told Sports Illustrated. “But no politics can step between people who have spent five or six of our best years together. I don’t care if they’re Russians, Ukranians or Khazaks, they’re still my friends.”

Perhaps feeling a bit vulnerable in that regard, the Lithuanians lost to their old friends, 92-80, in the early stages of the Games – their first loss as a new nation. That forced them into a confrontation with the ridiculously talented Americans, and the inevitable defeat meant they could only win a bronze. They were expecting to meet a powerful Croatian team led by Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc, but in a most fortuitous development, the Unified Team rallied from six points down with 65 seconds left to pull a stunning upset.

And so it would be: a bronze-medal game with exclusively Russian overtones, the old against the new. After all that work, and all the passion generated by fans back home, “All of Lithuanina was stopped,” Marciulionis said. “To lose would have been a great tragedy for me personally, and for the country. We absolutely had to win at all cost.”

Fighting through a brand of emotion outsiders couldn’t fully understand, Marciulionis was brilliant. He scored 29 points to lead an 82-78 victory, and those in attendance will never forget the sight of the Lithuanian team taking the medal stand in those garish T-shirts. The most telling scenes, however, unfolded in the privacy of their victorious locker room.

“It was mayhem, the most powerful moment I’ve ever experienced in sports,” said Nelson, who witnessed it first-hand. “This was about 40 years of occupation, about guys whose relatives lost their lives because of the atrocities. The lid came off when the president of Lithuania, a man who had literally stood in front of Russian tanks during the resistance, walked in. They doused him with champagne. Put one of those T-shirts on him. And those men sang the national anthem like it has never been sung before.”

Nobody wanted to take off the uniform, for fear the moment might escape too soon. Still fully clothed, Marciulionis slipped away from the celebration and turned a shower upon himself, full blast, all cold, for nearly five minutes. “I kept thinking, all the hope, all the dreams – what if we’d lost? You can’t fix that. It was once in a lifetime. And then it hit me. A feeling you can die for. I was crying. Cold water and crying, pouring on my shoes.”

For this to occur on the heels of Marciulionis’ greatest NBA season, establishing himself as a force in the league, was almost too much to comprehend. But it was an episode so powerful as to define the man, far overshadowing the premature decline of his career. Physically dismantled by injuries, he wound up playing out the string in Seattle, Sacramento and Denver, his reputation forever secure.

Mark Grabow, a renowned strength-and-conditioning coach who worked with the Warriors during Marciulionis’ prime, remembered a man of exceptional gifts. “I’ve trained guys in the NFL, big-league baseball, the NBA, pro tennis, and he’s probably the best athlete I’ve ever worked with,” said Grabow. “This is a guy who could have crossed into any number of sports with ease. He would have been a world-class soccer goalkeeper, rugby player, javelin thrower, boxer. I remember going to his house one day before practice and he’s sparring with the European kick-boxing champion from Lithuania, totally holding his own. Around the Warriors, his weightlifting feats were astounding. And it was all about his will and courage. He’s one of those guys who never took a step backwards – on or off the court.”

Back home in Lithuania, he could have spent the rest of his life with his feet up on the neighborhood bar, sipping vodka, laughing heartily among the adoring townspeople. Not a chance. He went immediately to work upon retirement, spreading himself thin, taking on a massive but self-satisfying workload. He instituted a children’s fund that allowed diseased and poverty-stricken kids to fly to the U.S. for proper care. He established a youth basketball academy which continues to thrive, 22 years later. He founded the Lithuanian Basketball League in 1993 and was its president for 10 years. By the age of 35, he was founder and commissioner of the Northern European Basketball League, the highly successful predecessor to FIBA Europe.

Where does it end? The Hotel Sarunas, established in 1992, is a fashionable stop for tourists in the capital city of Vilnius, featuring a sports bar called Stars and Legends (particularly legendary if he’s in town). He has become obsessed with paddle tennis – sort of a cross between racketball and conventional tennis – and the sport’s popularity has risen dramatically in Europe.

As always, it seems there are many of him: “two hands” and a thousand men, relentless in pursuit of a better life. Pay special attention to Marciulionis as he stands alone for Hall of Fame induction. There won’t be another one like him.