SYDNEY, Australia - Some of their fans still wear tie-dye, a vestige of the 1992 Olympics, when the men's basketball team from Lithuania received financial backing from the Grateful Dead and won the bronze medal. U.S. coach Rudy Tomjanovich said that the Americans are facing a veteran Lithuanian team in today's semifinals, but the opponent's point guard is nearly as green as the team's uniforms.
"I've always wanted to be a point guard," Sarunas Jasikevicius said. "I wanted to play that at Maryland, but we had some good guys at the position there."
Jasikevicius followed Johnny Rhodes and preceded Steve Francis as the Terps' shooting guard. He worked the wing while Terrell Stokes ran the offense, and he, Rodney Elliott and Matt Kovarik were as classy a senior class as Maryland has had during its run of seven straight trips to the NCAA tournament. They led one of the few Terps teams that met postseason expectations, as they lost to defending champion Arizona in the 1998 Sweet 16.
Elliott was last seen Sept. 9 at Radecke Field in northeast Baltimore, watching his son play pee-wee football. The Dunbar High grad said that he was on his way to a tryout with the Boston Celtics. Jasikevicius wants his game to one day be NBA-ready, and he is establishing a reputation as one Europe's bright young floor generals.
The United States and Lithuania were to meet today, 6:30 a.m. Baltimore time, in the second Olympic semifinal. Australia and France were to meet in the other. Lithuania gave the Americans a nine-point game last week that was its closest call here, but Jasikevicius fully expected his Olympic experience to end Sunday at the Sydney SuperDome in the bronze-medal game, rather than the gold.
Portland Trail Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis is the person Jasikevicius most admires. Zydrunas Ilgauaskas of the Cleveland Cavaliers is one of his best friends. Both big men missed the Olympics with injuries, and the Lithuanians' second-leading rebounder is Darius Songaila, who has eligibility remaining at Wake Forest.
"If they play 100 percent, we have no chance," Jasikevicius said of the Americans.
He was just as frank about his deficiencies coming out of Maryland. Jasikevicius was the Terps' best three-point shooter, a fine college player who did a little of everything. He worked on the wing opposite Laron Profit, and occasionally checked Vince Carter when the Terps upset unbeaten and No. 1 North Carolina in January 1998. He didn't come across as chunky in Cole Field House, but Jasikevicius said he felt a need to slim down.
"I've lost some weight, and that's allowed me to be quicker and more athletic than I was," Jasikevicius said. "I felt at Maryland that I was too strong, and at the same time too slow. To play the point, I think you need more quickness than strength. I've always been a point guard for Lithuania, but this is the first year that the coach put the team to my hands."
The Lithuanians were adroitly handled in yesterday's 76-63 quarterfinal win over Yugoslavia. Jasikevicius has struggled with his shot here. He took one attempt in the first half, then broke the game open early in the second with a three-pointer and a pair of pull-up jumpers. Lithuania rested Jasikevicius with nine minutes left, but a staff that includes Donn Nelson rushed him back in when Yugoslavia made a run.
Jasikevicius' line was 18 points, five rebounds and four assists. He was averaging 5.2 assists, more than Gary Payton and almost as many as Jason Kidd. He came into today's semifinal averaging 10.5 points and 26.5 minutes, and was second on his team in both categories to 6-foot-10 center Guintaras Einikis, the only Lithuanian holdover from the 1992 Olympics.
Those Games were held in Barcelona, and that's Jasikevicius' next destination.
After Jasikevicius completed his eligibility at Maryland, he played one year in his homeland. He spent last season with a club in Slovenia, and signed a contract with Barcelona that could keep him in Spain through 2003. Tony Massenburg played for Barcelona. Jasikevicius will be pounding it inside to Rony Seikaly, and enjoying the Catalan lifestyle.
"Spain may be the best country in the world," Jasikevicius said. "The way of life is so relaxed, the people so nice. In Europe, a lot of times you're not certain if you're going to get money. That's not a problem with Barcelona."
Jasikevicius is still with the girlfriend he met at Maryland. He is a few credits shy of a degree in government and politics, and was in College Park for the first summer session.
"I miss some things from the States, the opportunities there," Jasikevicius said. "I really don't miss the traffic, especially in the Washington area."