I grew up idolizing 1970s basketball players like Gail Goodrich, Pete Maravich, George Gervin, David Thompson, and Julius Erving. They were my dream team. When it was announced that the 1992 US Olympic Basketball team would be made up of American professional athletes, the press immediately labeled it “The Dream Team.”
The root for the change was that in the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, the USSR team defeated American college (amateur) team 82-76. This was the second in three times the USSR had won the basketball gold. In 1980 and 1984, the two Cold War enemies did not meet due to boycotts. In Barcelona, the world would see American basketball at its finest. Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson headlined the roster.
But the team that won everybody’s hearts at the tournament was not this collection of millionaire athletes. Rather, it was a rag-tag group of athletes from a tiny new country that had been under the thumb of Soviet control since the end of World War II. The 1992 Lithuanian Olympic Basketball Team captured the Olympic spirit. To get to the Olympics almost did not happen.
The country of modern Lithuania was born during the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. During the 1920s and 1930s, the country experienced a brief period of freedom. Then Stalin came. In 1940, the tiny country of only 65,000+ square miles was overtaken by Stalin. The next 50 years were not kind. First Stalin’s iron grip over thought, the economy, and any freedoms was more like strangulation. It continued long after Stalin’s death in 1953. The world of control continued long into the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. It was in this world that Šarūnas Marčiulionis and Arvydas Sabonis were born.
In their teenage years, the young Lithuanians discovered basketball and they discovered they were good at it. They began their professional careers playing in Soviet leagues in the early 1980s. By the mid-1980s, the two were part of the Soviet National Team. The team, however, was strictly controlled by the USSR. Every movement, every word spoken was under strict
control of the Soviets. Sabonis was first drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in the 1985 NBA draft. This pick was voided when it was found he was under 21. It did not stop the Portland Trailblazers from drafting him the next year. Marčiulionis was drafted in 1987 by the Golden State Warriors. The picks were controversial because they were considered wasted picks because there was no way to get the two men out from under the Soviet thumb.
In 1988, the two represented the Soviet Union in the Summer Olympic Games in Seoul where they defeated a group of American college all-stars to advance to the gold medal game where they defeated a loaded Yugoslavian team. For Sabonis and Marčiulionis the victory was bittersweet. They were happy they won the gold, but they were not playing for their homeland of Lithuania.
In 1989, everything changed. The USSR was beginning to crumble. Travel restrictions were being lifted by some Eastern European Communist States. Marčiulionis, with his sweet left-handed moves, came to the NBA that fall. At 6’5”, Marčiulionis flourished in the NBA averaging 12 points a game his first year. In the 1991-92 season, he averaged 18.9 points a game.
1992 also saw Marčiulionis began trying to assemble a team that could compete in the Barcelona games. The problem was his brand new country was broke. He called on the 7’4″ Sabonis to help assemble the players. With the help of the Bay Area band the Grateful Dead, the team traveled to Barcelona to represent their country. A George Shirk article spurred the aid and the band stepped up. They held a concert to raise funds for the team. The band also supplied the team with some tie-dyed shirts and shorts. The apparel became the must have attire of the games.
Lead by Marčiulionis and Sabonis, the team went 4-1 in group play and advanced to the medal rounds. In the semifinal round, the Lithuanians went up against the Americans and lost handily 127-76. But for Lithuania, their gold medal game was the bronze medal game where they took on the Russians (aka Unified team), their former masters. Marčiulionis lead the team to victory over the Russians 82-78. At the medal ceremony, the team wore the tie-dye shirts and shorts that had become their signature off the court look as a thank you to the band.
The team marked the beginning of freedom for many people in the country and still serves as inspiration and a source of pride. For Sabonis and Marčiulionis, their careers as basketball players would soon be on the downhill side. Sabonis eventually played for the Trail Blazers in the mid-1990s and averaged 16 points a game but he was well past his prime physically. But you could still see the skills evident. The deft touch around the basket, soft hands, and an intensity to win still remained.
Today, both men live in Lithuania still involved with basketball. Their drive to represent their country is the Olympic Spirit and inspires many of Lithuania’s 3 million inhabitants to pick up a ball and find a hoop. It is sad how for most of my childhood, I was taught to hate the Soviet Union. To come to find out, they were just like us. Both Sabonis and Marčiulionis could have idolized Gail Goodrich, Pete Maravich, George Gervin, David Thompson, and Julius Erving, just like me had they been free.
*A special thanks goes out to Andrew Rehn for suggesting this post*
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