Every decade is fazed by the smog of various happenings that describe the never-ending script of history. Social unrest in the sixties, rock n’ roll making its way into the seventies along with the Vietnam war, Reagan, and drugs in the eighties, and in the nineties, the giant that was the Soviet Union fell and crumbled. Before collapsing, several countries rose up and tried to declare their independence from their authoritarian masters. Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Moldova; all satellite countries of the Soviets began to slowly break away from the Iron Curtain that hung upon them. But occasionally, there rises the odd story, the strange niche, the interesting and inspirational tale that always comes to light in the cracks of history. So how does the Grateful Dead come into play, in all this Soviet jargon and historical rebuff? Let me explain.
The time is 1990, two years away from the end of the Soviet Union breathing it’s last few words upon the tomes of time. Lithuania declared independence, a daring move, which was followed quickly by a Soviet crackdown. Soldiers marched up to the Parliament building in Vilnius and killed fourteen innocent civilians defending their newly independent country. Eventually, Lituania broke free from its Soviet oppressors the following year as a truly independent nation, but as a broken, economically struggling country.
The year 1992 came around. The Soviet Union was still in power. Lituania wanted to participate in the Olympics, especially in basketball, a favorite of the Lithuanians. However, the fledgling new democracy had no money. They could not afford to send their team to Barcelona. The team members themselves had to raise money. This is where history picks up a different brush to paint an interesting niche upon its tomes.
The Golden State Warriors picked up Marciulionis in 1989, a staggering 6’5’’ giant from Lithuania, who left the country soon after the Berlin Wall fell. He saw that his home country was struggling, and wishing it's placed upon the world’s stage as a newly free proud dominion. Together with his coach, Donnie Nelson, he raised funds to have newspapers in the United States to pick up on the story. It was at this time, Bob Weir, the guitarist for one of America’s most legendary rock n’ roll band’s, gave Donnie a call. Being huge supporters of freedom and all of its proponents, as well as basketball, the Dead invited the two to a Dead concert, as well as to talk after the show. It was here where Marciulionis, a foreigner never attending a concert, detected a “strange smell” wafting in the air at the concert. Shortly after the end of the concert, the two were invited backstage. Laid on the table, was a wide assortment of tye-dyed shorts and jerseys, sporting a skeleton slam dunking a basketball on the jersey. And upon this colorful image, a check, cut by the band. The Lithuanians were now off to Barcelona after this unlikely alliance.
The Lithuanians played exceptionally well. They had on their team four gold medal athletes, and Marciulionis joined them. They beat China, 112-75. They beat Venezuela, 87-79. They beat Puerto Rico, 104-91. But now came the adversary, and the match that everyone was waiting for. The Unified Team, the now-defunct Soviet Union’s basketball team, came forward. The small, newly independent nation, now faced its former oppressor. During the qualifiers, the Lithuanians had overcome them with no issue. But now, every inch was fought over, with the world watching each step and point shot. Halftime came; the Lithuanians were up by a mere two points, 59-57. However, despite Marciulionis and his right-hand man, Sabonis, scoring a combined 42 points, they eventually lost 92-80. However, the book is not yet finished. The Lithuanians could yet advance. They beat the Australian’s, 98-87, and now qualified for second place in the playoffs. The Brazilian squad now came forward, and offered up a tough game, as they were very well revered at the time. Though they were down a point at halftime, the Lithuanians overcame defeat and eventually won, 114-96. The tiny nation, newly independent and making a big noise, was now on it’s way to the semi-finals. They were now pitted against the American ‘Dream Team,’ with Basketball legends such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird all sponsoring the United States. Needless to say, this team of superstars and basketball legends stunned the Lithuanians into a 127-76 loss. Our story does not end here, however. The Bronze Medal was still up for grabs, a prize in itself for the nation. But who else did they have to play for the bronze? None other than the Russian’s themselves.
The hopes of every small child in a new nation, the old, the young, and the now free Lithuanians laid on the shoulders of these athletes. It was an insurmountable amount of pressure that no one could have imagined. The small, independent nation, against the large, dominant, oppressors. It was a chance, on the world stage, to show up their recent overlords, and to hold proud their new independence. It was a hard and close fought battle, with both team’s being only a few points apart from each other at all times. No team held the dominance, it was a fever pitch battle from start to end. At one point, Chomicius’ takes an elbow to the head, and blood gushes all over his face and into his eyes. Seated on the sidelines was Vytautas Landsbergis, the newest president of Lithuania. He asked Chomicius how he was doing, to which he replied that he couldn’t see anything through the blood. A simple rely followed from Vytautas: “Don’t worry about it, you are spilling blood for Lituania.” The end of the game was approaching. Six minutes left, and the Lithuanians were only up by one point, 62-61. The last few minutes were tense, with all the players giving all they had in these final few minutes. But finally, within the last few minutes of the game, the tiny nation had overcome their opposition and won the game, 82-78. At home, in Lithuania, scores of people rushed out into the street. Fireworks glazed the night sky, cheers and hugs passed from stranger to stranger, and the feeling of unity once more washing over the country. They had overcome, despite all their hardships and sacrifice. The Lithuanians were now a proud people on the world stage. The team retreated to the locker room, dousing themselves in champagne, and singing the Lithuanian anthem with their president.
Normally, team’s would wear their warmup jersey’s when receiving their medals on the stand at the Olympics. However, as Marciulionis stated, “The Grateful Dead believed in us when no one else would.” Sporting their tye-dye T-shirts and shorts, the Lithuanians proudly made their way to the stand. With the whole world watching, the colorful team, looking fresh from a Dead concert, received their bronze medals. Tears fell from their eyes as player’s received their medals, each realizing the symbolic game they had just played, and how a nation now was heralding their names as heroes. For them, this was the gold medal. This was their epicenter of victory. No one could take that from them. The humble nation had now become a powerful one. Basketball history had been written, and oddly enough, the Grateful Dead had made their footnote in the history of Lithuania's independence.