Sports are full of clichés. Play one game at a time. Leave it all out on the field. There’s no “I” in team. Clichés allow fans to make sense of the unpredictable nature of athletic competition. Without them, how else would we be able to explain results that don’t make sense? How else did the underdog beat the favorite if they didn’t have more heart? The odd nature of sports clichés is that despite them being an exercise in generalities and vagueness, there can be truth behind them. There is a reason they became clichés in the first place. Sometimes a game isn’t just a game. Sometimes a basketball team isn’t just a basketball team. Sometimes a warm-up jersey isn’t just a warm-up jersey. The 1992 Lithuanian Olympic Basketball team wasn’t just a team who played in a game with an odd-looking warm-up jersey. They represented a whole lot more. They were freedom.
For much of the 20th century, Eastern Europe was in the throes of political turmoil. The “Great War,” or known to us Americans as World War I, left over 17 million dead from the summer of 1914 to the winter of 1918. A whole generation of able-bodied men was lost to the horrors of war. For the next twenty years, Europe attempted to rebuild, but the people were poor, desperate, and begging for answers to their considerable problems. Unfortunately, false hope came in the form of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
In 1938, with European domination on the brain, Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Communist Russia signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, or “Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” Besides calling for peace between the two nations, the treaty also secretly allowed Germany and Russia to divide the territories of Romania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and Lithuania into their own “spheres of influence.” On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and thus began World War II, barely two decades after the first one ended. Less than two years later, Germany, ever the honest bunch, invaded Russia, effectively ending the “non-aggression” part of this agreement.
On May 8, 1945, the war mercifully ended when Germany unconditionally surrendered to Allied forces, which now included the Soviet Union. As part of the surrender, the Soviet Union absorbed the countries that had been under Nazi Germany’s black cloud, including Germany itself. In 1955, the USSR established the Warsaw Pact, an agreement conceived by the Soviets in order to keep military and political control over their part of the world. Countries were forced to sign this “treaty,” under threat of military action. With the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Soviet Union officially cut off the “Eastern Bloc” from the rest of the world. Their European domination was complete.
For the next 38 years, life behind the wall grinded to a halt. Under the guise of nationalism, citizens were no longer individuals but extensions of the state. Everything they did, the government demanded, should be for the betterment of Mother Russia. Any innovation, any accomplishment, any achievement did not belong to the individual, but rather to the Soviet Union as a whole. This included athletic prowess. If one showed athletic promise, they immediately became wards of the state. They were trained, nurtured, and used as an example for the rest of the world to see that Russia was a world power. Olympic Games became not a friendly competition between world countries, but a chance for Russia to prove that they were superior. Winners were treated as kings and queens. Losers were failures. From 1952 through 1988, the Soviet Union competed in 18 Olympics (between the summer and winter games) and won 1204 medals, including 473 gold medals.
Basketball was the Soviet Union’s pride and joy. Due to state-sponsored extensive training programs, the Soviet Union dominated Olympic basketball. For eight consecutive summer Olympic games, the team medaled. The streak only stopped in 1984 due to the Soviet Union’s political boycott of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles (Hungary also boycotted). Some of the greatest players in the world played for Russia, including Mikhail Studenetsky, Aleksandr Travin, and possibly the best of them all, Sergei Belov. Unfortunately, the world rarely saw these players play except for every four years due to the restrictions put on them. To play in the NBA (or any other international professional league) was to defect, which was of course unmercifully punished. If one of these players did manage to make their way to America, they could be sure the loved ones they left in mother Russia would face the wrath of their decision.
By the summer of 1988, there was change in the air. A year earlier, in June 1987, Ronald Reagan challenged Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” The Russian economy was beginning to crumble due to years of isolation in a world that encouraged foreign trade. The USSR started withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, a country that they had been in war with for over nine years. This maneuver was taken as de-escalation of the Cold War. Most importantly, the citizens of the Eastern Bloc, people that had been under Russia’s iron fist for over five decades, were beginning to assert their desire to be independent.
Under this political climate, the Soviet Union men’s basketball team arrived at the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988. Two of the most popular, and successful, Russian players of the time led them: Sarunas Marciulionis and 7-foot-4 inch Arvydas Sabonis. Both of these players, in fact, were so good and admired internationally that NBA teams drafted them, despite the little chance they would defect. Marciulionis was selected by the Golden State Warriors in 1987 and Sabonis, quite possibly the best center in the world at the time, was actually drafted twice, in 1985 and then by the Portland Trail Blazers, in 1986.
While the team was technically playing under the sickle and hammer banner, not everyone was on the same political team. Marciulionis and Sabonis, along with several other members of the team, were not Russian, but rather Lithuanian. Lithuania was an occupied country and its citizens were essentially prisoners of war. These great basketball players were not playing for Russia under their own volition. They were being forced. This point was driven home when KGB agents surrounded their hotel at the Seoul Olympics not as protection, but as an armed reminder that they were still wards of the USSR.
Despite the talent, the Soviet team was not the favorite. The United States team was overwhelmingly expected to win the gold. Coached by Georgetown’s John Thompson and starring the best amateur players in the world, including Dan Majerle, Danny Manning, and David Robinson (an NBA player who would also play on the 1992 “Dream Team”), the US team thrashed their opponents by an average of 37 points over their first six games. The USSR lost their first game to Yugoslavia, but went to win their next five, setting up a semifinals match-up with their arch nemesis, the United States of America.
On September 28, 1988, the USSR upset the USA 82 to 76. It wasn’t quite the shock the 1972 game had been when Alexander Belov hit the game-winner for Russia, but it was an unexpected result nonetheless. Two days later, Russia defeated Yugoslavia to win the gold medal. In that game, Sabonis dominated the paint with 20 points and 15 rebounds. According to that day’s edition of the New York Times, “the Soviet team gathered at midcourt and tossed Alexander Gomelsky, their 60-year-old coach, in the air three times.” This would be the last medal the Soviet Union basketball team would ever win.
The Berlin Wall came tumbling down in November 1989. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union, becoming the first of the Soviet republics to do so. As expected, the Soviets did not take kindly to this and demanded Lithuania to renounce their independence. The Lithuanians stood firm. Soviet tanks rolled into the capital of Vilnius and violence ensued. Fires started, Molotov cocktails were thrown, and people died. But Lithuania refused to give up their independence. When ten of the remaining eleven Soviet Socialist Republics followed Lithuania’s lead, it was over. The Soviet Union was no more.
While the world rejoiced and the countries’ borders opened up like a window on a cool spring day, reality was still harsh. Nations that once were forced to rely on the Kremlin for economic support were all now broke. The people, kept hopeless and desperate for so long, were dirt poor. While freedom allowed hope, the truth was that life was going to be just as hard, if not harder, as sovereign nations separated from the Soviet Union.
Luckily for players of Marciulionis and Sabonis’s caliber, the disintegration of the Soviet Union meant that they could take their talent elsewhere and make money off it for themselves and their family. Marciulionis moved to Oakland to join the Golden State Warriors, the team that drafted him in 1986. He immediately excelled and became the scoring threat everyone knew he would be. Sabonis, not wanting to be too far from home, joined Club Baloncesto Valladolid, a Spanish professional team. Having already put considerable miles on his huge frame due to the intense nature of the Soviet’s training program and constant international competition, he was already beginning experience knee issues that would plague him for the remainder of his career.
Lithuania was still a basketball-crazed country and their stars, despite playing many miles away, still loved their homeland. In late 1991, Marciulionis decided he wanted to use some of his NBA money to finance the newly independent Lithuania’s trip to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He enlisted his good friend and longtime teammate Arvydas Sabonis to help, but going to the Olympics is an expensive proposition. From travel, accommodations, and equipment, it requires sufficient financial support from the country. Lithuania, quite simply, could not afford it. Everyone knew that the Lithuanian players were the driving force behind the Soviet’s 1988 Olympic win. If the team could just get there, they would have a chance at a medal. Marciulionis made several appeals to garner support, but had very little luck. That was until March 1992 when things took a turn for the serendipitous.
A Bay Area local newspaper ran a story about Marciulionis and his attempts at getting Lithuania to the Olympics. A few days later, the Warriors were in Detroit for a road trip. As it just so happens, a certain free-loving, hippie 70’s jam band were also in Detroit for a show. The article had caught the attention of the Bay Area-native The Grateful Dead and upon hearing that the Warriors were also in Detriot, they invited Marciulionis and assistant coach Donnie Nelson to their show. In the documentary “The Other Dream Team,” Marciulionis is quoted as saying there was a “strange smell in the air” when he arrived. The Dead were basketball fans themselves and wanted to help this basketball powerhouse get to the Olympic Games. So, a meeting took place between the band’s leader Jerry Garcia, smoking a giant cigar-sized blunt, and the Lithuanian team, most of whom spoke very little English. Garcia promised them the band would finance their trip to Barcelona, but with one condition.
A uniform, by its very definition, is something that is the same, that is unvaried, that is conforming to one principle. Prisoners wear uniforms. Military personnel wear uniforms. The Soviet Union wore uniforms. The Lithuanian Olympic basketball team was not going to wear a uniform. They were going to wear jerseys. And with the help of the Grateful Dead, they did exactly that.
Along with a check, the Dead sent the team colorful, free-flowing tie-dye warm-up jerseys with a flying, dunking skeleton right smack in the middle. Designed by New York artist Greg Speirs, the logo came to symbolize Lithuania’s ability to rise above its past and create an identity all on its own. According to Speirs, the slam-dunking skeleton “symbolized the team, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes and coming up from nothing, and rising up to overcome the obstacles, which are represented by the hands blocking the shot in the image. The image is one of breaking out of oppression symbolized by the skeleton finally slam dunking the basketball…. It’s not a dead skeleton at all, but this skeleton represents rebirth and a new life.” Donnie Nelson, who became an assistant coach for the Lithuanian team, said in a 1996 article, that the players understood the special meaning of the new digs, “After all those years of those Soviet colors (in daily life), nothing but blues and grays,” he says, “the guys went nuts for those shirts. They ended up wearing them to bed, to practice, everywhere.”
Sporting these jerseys before every game (Olympic regulations required the team to wear something a bit more “tame” during the actual game), the Lithuanian team ripped off three straight wins before falling to the United States “Dream Team” by only twelve points. While the flag on the jersey was the same, this was a much different American team that the Soviets – featuring many of these same Lithuanian players – had defeated in 1988. This was the first Olympics where professionals were allowed to play. The Americans did not hesitate to bring their best over (including international icons Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird). They did not want a repeat of 1988 at the same hands of Sabonis and company.
The Lithuanians, led by their stars, continued on in the tournament, beating Australia and then Brazil. Their combination of the inside game of Sabonis and outside game of Marciulionis was close to unstoppable. But as fate would have it, no sports story is ever complete until the protagonists have to face their foes. And on August 8, 1992, two and half years after Lithuania declared their independence from the Soviet Union, the Lithuanians faced off against the Russians, now known as the Unified Team, for the bronze medal.
The game went back and forth, the two teams never separated by more than a few points. Sabonis and Marciulionis were dominant. Marciulionis piled up a game-high 29 points, while Sabonis, playing a game bigger than his over seven foot figure, scored 27 points and grabbed 16 boards. It seemed whenever Lithuanian needed a play, Sabonis was there, including a fast break block shot and an immediate transition lay-up on the other end with only a few minutes left in the game. With the clock ticking down to zero and Lithuanian holding a four-point lead, a team, a nation, and an oppressed people began to celebrate. They had defeated the Russians once again and, this time, it felt even better.
Delirium erupted both in the locker room and 2800 hundred kilometers away in Lithuania. As the guys celebrated, they were joined by the President of their country Vytautas Landsbergis. No one is quite sure how it happened but Landsbergis became soaked in champagne and had to change clothes. He exited the locker room clad in a tie-dye Skullman shirt. The team accepted their bronze medal with pride. Lithuania was no longer a country ruled by another. They were their own state. And they had the medal and wacky, colorful, tie-dye jersey to prove it.
After the Olympics, Marciulionis went back to the Golden State Warriors and played another five seasons. He’s currently the president of his own basketball academy in Lithuania. Arvydais Sabonis finally made his way to the NBA in 1995 and played seven seasons. Though his knees never allowed him to play at the same level as before, Sabonis was still quite good and was rewarded by being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011.
Today, Lithuania is a country of three million people and three million basketball fans. Their fight for independence, and the basketball team that made them proud, was chronicled in the 2012 documentary “The Other Dream Team.”
The 1992 Lithuanian Olympic Basketball team wasn’t just a team. Their bronze medal game against Russia wasn’t just a game. And the tie-dye warm-ups given to them by the Grateful Dead were not just jerseys. All of these clichés together represented something so much more. It represented independence and freedom. •