In 1992, the USA men’s Olympic basketball team made history by annihilating every facet of competition with their titanic lineup, but one team left in Chuck Daly’s victory path tasted even greater triumph. That team was Lithuania. As Blazer fans, we often reminisce on the Sabonis days and how amazing it would have been to have him in his prime, without looking very thoroughly at why that never happened. We’ll come back to the aforementioned triumph later.
If you’re up to date on your cold war politics, you may already know that Sabonis was forced to stay with the USSR, even after he was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers with the 24th pick in the 1986 NBA draft (a selection which, at the time, baffled and infuriated the average Blazer fan). Lithuania was not a free country, and Lithuanian players represented the USSR internationally, receiving no recognition for their homeland.
In the 2012 documentary that spawned this article, “The Other Dream Team,” another beloved Blazer, Bill Walton, attempted to summarize the agonizing sense of demoralization that plagued Lithuanian players during occupation by the Soviet Union:
Imagine having to compete for another country at the prime of their life, when they have everything going for them, and knowing full well that since 1940, the Russians have occupied and oppressed and just destroyed every bit of hope that the entire country, their homeland, had ever even thought about.
That is why when the USSR defeated the USA in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, there was no love for a team that had been wrongfully named our enemy. Four of the five starters were Lithuanian players, but because they were lumped into the army of red Olympians, their victory was seen by the United States as a political loss. The team we so despised, led by Arvydas Sabonis, went on to win the gold that year.
But behind the iron curtain, Lithuania was in shambles. Every family was affected by the atrocities of World War II, and no Lithuanian basketball players had ever known their country’s freedom. Many do not like to talk about it, but Arvydas Sabonis opened up about his family’s history with forced settlements under USSR regulation:
My mom was sent to Siberia and remained there for nine years, and my grandparents were there for twelve years. As they explained it to me, it was because they had too much land.
Some Lithuanians never returned from Siberia. Countless were killed in Stalin’s gulags, and remain buried in mass graves. The 1940s were a dark time in the world’s history and left their permanent mark on every nation; especially Lithuania, which was caught geographically between Germany and the USSR.
During Soviet occupation, Lithuanian basketball players (and the country as a whole) were destitute. They were paid the equivalent of $100 dollars a month to feed themselves and their families, so when the opportunity to play in the NBA became a possibility, some were stuck between dreams of independence and threats of ramification.
When Lithuanian shooting guard, Sarunas Marciulionis, signed with the Golden State Warriors in 1990 (becoming the first Lithuanian player to sign with an NBA team), he was faced with this dilemma. The night before, he was told that the following day he would either be one of the richest men in his country, free to pursue his independent dream, or he would be sent to Siberia. Fortunately for him, things worked out. NBA Hall of Famer, Chris Mullen, said that the first time Marciulionis saw that fruit in American grocery stores were not rationed, he began to cry.
He had not always been so fortunate. The year that he was selected as the #1 Soviet Athlete, he was told to address some students with a speech that was written for him:
They took me out of practice and told me what I’d have to say. They gave me a speech and I looked at it, and I disagreed with what it said. So, I said, “I’m not going to talk.” and they said, “The Olympics are this year, your wife is graduating from university – if you don’t do this, there will be trouble for you.
Lithuanian players were forced to support the USSR, which had ravaged their country with war, torn their families apart, blocked them from leaving the country, and sewn their uniforms with the red thread of humiliation and oppression. It took yet another tragedy to change any of this.
On January 13th, 1991, Soviet tanks seized the Vilnius TV Tower in Lithuania, killing dozens of civilians with live ammunition. The footage that struck me the hardest as I watch the documentary was of a young boy, maybe 13 or 14, being interviewed about the event. He trembled to steady his voice in any way possible as he spoke of his father:
- “I went out to TV tower to look for my father.”
- “And you found him?”
- “Yes. He was run over.”
- “By a tank?”
The boy then broke down in tears, unable to maintain composure in the unjustified loss of his parent. The events of that night led to support from other nations, who decried the acts of the Soviet Union. Their intervention eventually helped bring about Lithuania’s first independence since before WWII.
Now you have some background for what happened next for Lithuanian basketball. After decades of violence, poverty, and indignity, the Lithuanian team (Zalgiris Kaunas), could represent themselves on a global stage, and not their oppressors, in the 1992 Olympics.
The minority of Americans who were less than enamored with Team USA’s image in Barcelona were hard-pressed not to root for Lithuania. The team started with no money, but after a little help from the Grateful Dead (yes, the band – you read that right), they soon had funding and some unofficial tie-dye uniforms that mirrored their newfound independence.
Losing to the United States in the quarter-finals was the second best thing to happen to the Lithuanian team that year. Since the Soviet boycott had kept them out of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, their loss to the U.S. landed them in the Bronze medal round in their independent debut, with CSKA Moscow; a team that symbolized everything wrong with their tortured past. The whole world watched as the team that had never been free to play with public pride defeated their rivals, 82-78. They were truly the dream team, because they truly had a dream.
Siberian settlement survivor, Juozas Butrimas, spoke of his time long before 1992, when he was deported to Siberia for false claims of anti-Soviet activity. He said that, “In Siberia, we built a regulation basketball court. Basketball allowed us to have dignity, to retain our sense of humanity. How did I survive? Basketball. It gave me a lot… They didn’t bury me there.”
The sport means the world to many Lithuanians. We often take for granted that international players may come and go as they please in today’s NBA. The Lithuanian team, by virtue of existence, is a reminder that the world has come a long way. So next time you think about Arvydas Sabonis and how much he meant to us, remember how much he means to his home country as well.
“The medal in Seoul was gold, but this bronze is our soul .“