Lithuania has realized basketball dream, too

Ken Rosenthal

August 07, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

BARCELONA, Spain -- It took an American with a knowledge of both countries to place last night's United States vs. Lithuania game in perspective.

"If they're the Dream Team," Lithuania assistant men's basketball coach Donn Nelson said, "we're the miracle team."

Nelson, the son of Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson, was speaking of a team that had just lost, 127-76. The miracle, of course, is that it's competing in the Olympics at all.

After 50 years under Soviet rule, Lithuania declared its independence on March 11, 1990, and became integrated into the Olympic movement on Sept. 19, 1991.

Those, however, are only the cold facts behind the unlikely saga of its men's basketball team, a team funded in part by the Grateful Dead.

"As recently as a year ago, these guys never would have guessed they'd be here," said Nelson, who became an assistant at the request of Golden State's Sarunas Marciulionis.

Yet there the Lithuanians were last night, gathering with the American superstars for a post-game photo arranged by Marciulionis and his NBA buddies, Magic Johnson and Clyde Drexler.

Marciulionis is the 6-foot-5 guard who spent much of the NBA season working tirelessly to raise money for the cause. He's completely exhausted, but still there is one more game.

The biggest game.

Lithuania against the Unified Team for the bronze medal. A rematch of former Olympic teammates and Soviet countrymen. A sporting event with implications far beyond the game itself.

They've played twice before.

Lithuania won, 116-79, in the Olympic qualifying tournament, playing its starters nearly the entire game, trying to win by 50 points, one for each year of Soviet rule.

The Unified Team won, 92-80, in the first round of the Olympics, rallying furiously from a 19-point second-half deficit.

This third meeting seemed unlikely.

But Marciulionis called it "destiny."

How else to explain the Unified Team blowing an eight-point lead in the final 4:44 against Croatia yesterday, with the Atlanta Hawks' Alexander Volkov missing the front ends of five straight one-and-ones?

"In the end, we were cheering Croatia for the first and last time," Marciulionis said, smiling.

Four Lithuanians won gold medals as members of the 1988 Soviet team. Not a single one joined the Unified Team, which includes two Latvians and two Ukrainians.

"First, there's the political issue," Nelson said. "These guys have grandmothers and grandfathers who suffered under persecution, who were exiled to Siberia. These are things you can't forget.

"Then you've got the sporting aspect. You're competing against your best friends, the guys you played with for 10 years. Are you expected to release all these feelings, all these pent-up emotions, on those guys?

"It's confusing."

Marciulionis tries to separate the sports from the politics -- "We're friends with the Russian guys. We talk to them every day." Yet, he can't disregard the passions of all those Lithuanians with ancestors who died in the resistance.

The history, of course, is one reason he got so involved in the first place. Marciulionis was on the phone constantly during the NBA season. His Golden State teammates were amazed by the energy he devoted to financing the national team.

The Grateful Dead, a San Francisco band, contributed $5,000 plus a set of tie-dyed warm-ups in Lithuania's national colors of red, yellow and green. "They're pretty cool," said Dream Team forward Chris Mullin, who plays for Golden State. "I'd like to get some myself."

Even more important, the resort town of Melilla -- a Spanish possession on Morocco's Mediterranean coast -- paid $200,000 in exchange for the Lithuanian team's agreeing to play an exhibition game and conduct its training camp there.

"Outside of basketball, he had so much pressure on him," Mullin said. "But that's the way Sarunas is. He just goes all out as a human being, as a friend. He's just a very special person.

"When they gained their independence, he went to work diligently. They deserve credit not only for the way they've played -- they're in the medal round -- but just for coming together as a team."

One more game now.

The biggest game.

"A medal to these guys, it doesn't matter what they get, they're all gold," Nelson said. "It's for Lithuania this time. A bronze medal in these Olympics would mean twice as much as the gold in '88. Here, they're playing for a cause they believe in."

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