Olympic Basketball & The Grateful Dead

Posted

In 1991, the iconic Grateful Dead music band helped sponsor Lithuania’s national basketball team, a talented but financially-strapped squad that went on to win bronze at the Seoul Olympics. Their story was a magical tale of tie-dyes, basketball glory, and the birth of a new nation.

That year, few expected Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and the rest of the NBA-drawn “Dream Team” not to win gold. But even fewer predicted that a newly-freed nation out of the old Soviet bloc would rise to become a medal contender.

Lithuania had enjoyed a proud and accomplished basketball tradition. The Baltic state won the European Basketball Championship twice, in 1937 and 1939. Frank Lubin, "grandfather of Lithuanian basketball", played for UCLA and then led the old country to their European title just months before the outbreak of WWII.

Towards the end of the war, Russian tanks rolled into Lithuania and the tiny nation of 3 million was absorbed into the USSR. Basketball didn’t lose its luster as the most popular sport, but Lithuanians were now playing for Soviet greatness, not for their own.

They were members of Moscow’s bronze, silver, and gold medal winning teams at every Summer Olympics between 1952 and 1988 (except '84). At the 1988 Games in Seoul, the Soviet Union defeated the U.S. 82-76 in the semi-finals before moving on to top Yugoslavia for the gold.

Four of the five starting players in the Soviet lineup were Lithuanian and what’s more, they all came from the same city of Kaunas.

Two years earlier, the Atlanta Hawks and the Portland Trail Blazers tried to draft Arydas Sabonis, the 7’3” Lithuanian center who would take down the Americans in Seoul. But officials behind the iron curtain refused to let him go.

With more luck in 1989, the Golden State Warriors  picked up Sabonis’ shooting guard teammate, Sarunas Marciulionis. Sabonis himself joined the Trail Blazers several years later in 1995.

Independent but broke, Lithuania emerged from the fallen heap of the communist empire with no money to support a national basketball team. The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona were looming and players were desperate to make the trip.

It was then that Marciulionis and Warriors’ assistant coach, Donnie Nelson, went on a grass-roots fund raiser in the Bay area. The two had become friends in Lithuania when Nelson spent time there scouting and running clinics. Nelson was the one who delivered Marciulionis for a 3-year contract with Golden State.

Managing just nickels and dimes, they caught a break when local sports writer, George Shirk, wrote a piece about their plight in the San Francisco Chronicle. The article caught the eye of the Grateful Dead’s public relations manager, Dennis McNally, who showed it to the band members.

Lead musicians Gerry Garcia, Bob Weir and the others took immediate sympathy for the cause. The Dead were about freedom and celebration and the story behind Lithuania’s struggles won them over.

The band not only cut a large check, but had their designer send a box of tie-dyed T-shirts in red, yellow and green- Lithuania’s national colors. On the shirts was an image of a skeleton dunking a basketball.

In Barcelona, emotions ran high for the Lithuanians who were playing for their flag for the first time in over 50 years. They reached the quarter-finals and defeated Brazil 114-96, but lost 127-76 in the semi-finals to the Americans.

But the real fight for national pride and historic dignity came when they squared off for 3rd place against their former Russian overlords. Old comrades went up against old comrades and in the end, the Baltic nation prevailed 82-78.

In an historic sports moment, the Lithuanian darlings accepted their bronze medals wearing the Grateful Dead tie-dyes. The shirts became the hottest must have souvenirs at the Barcelona Games.

Lithuania went on to capture bronze once more in Atlanta in 1996 and then again in Sydney in 2000. Sabonis put in 7 seasons with the NBA and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011. Marciulionis followed in 2014.

In one of sports’ most stirring anecdotes, Lithuania's trip to basketball glory would not have happened without the unlikely help of an American rock & roll music group.

Other articles enjoyed:  Greatest Sports Deal Ever, College Hoops & A New York Legacy, The Three Point Shot

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment

Shop For Our Books & DVD's

WEEKLY SPORTS PUZZLE

View larger Puzzle archive


THIS WEEK

10 years ago

BASKETBALL February 15, 2009 The NBA holds its 58th annual All-Star game in Phoenix, Arizona. The Western Conference defeats the East 149-119 with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal sharing the MVP Award. The former received his 15th and final All-Star selection, the second highest in NBA history behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 19.

20 years ago

FOOTBALL February 16, 1999  O.J. Simpson’s Heisman Trophy is sold for $230,000 to help settle a civil judgement against him for the deaths of his ex-wife and friend. O.J. won the Trophy in 1968 as a running back for USC; he later played for the Buffalo Bills and SF 49ers. His life began to spiral downward in 1994 following murder charges against him.

30 years ago

BASEBALL February 16, 1989  Pitcher Roger Clemens signs a record $7.5 Million, 3-year contract to extend his tenure with the Boston Red Sox. The 11x career All-Star would win the Cy Young Award 7 times, more than any other pitcher, and the World Series twice, in 1999 and 2000 with the NY Yankees. He retired in 2007 with a W/L record of 354/184.

40 years ago

AUTO RACING February 18, 1979  In a race for the ages, Rich Petty wins the Daytona 500 at the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Trailing in 3rd place towards the end of the chase, the North Carolina native cleared the finish line after Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison, driving 1st and 2nd place cars, collided in the final lap and opened up the win for Petty.