HANG TIME WEST – There is a point in “The Other Dream Team,” the excellent documentary chronicling the importance of basketball in Lithuania and the meaning of the 1992 Olympics in particular for the newly independent nation, that focuses on Sarunas Marciulionis breaking from the grip of the Soviet Union to join the NBA in 1989.
Donnie Nelson, a Marciulionis confidant who is now general manager of the Mavericks, recalls Marciulionis talking about putting himself in danger by associating so closely with a Westerner, an American at that, and therefore obviously connected to money. And Nelson was there the night before the choice between signing with the Hawks, whose then-owner, Ted Turner, had a cozy relationship with the Soviets, and the Warriors, whose relationship with no one in the Soviet or Lithuanian systems would have made picking Golden State a rebel move.
Marciulionis consulted with Gary Kasparov and lawyers for the chess champion that night before, getting input from Kasparov. As Nelson recalled in the film: “Sarunas knew the odds. He was doing something that could cost him his career. Gary said right there to his face. He said, ‘Sarunas, tomorrow you’re going to be one of the richest men in our country, free to pursue your professional dream. Or you’re going to be in Siberia.’ ”
Welcome to Line 1 on the Marciulionis Hall of Fame bid.
Simply: Has any player ever risked more to play in the NBA? Marciulionis chose the Warriors knowing the Soviets could void the contract – or, gulp, worse – and that years before they had threatened retribution against Sarunas and his family for something as minor as not wanting to read a prepared party-line speech to a group of youngsters.
Marciulionis’ role in the history of basketball has become undeniable. His 2010 nomination through the International Committee was based largely on his unique experience of being one of the driving forces to organizing and finding funding for the Lithuanian national team for the 1992 Olympics soon after it had declared independence from the crumbling Soviet Union. That was historic enough, between Arvydas Sabonis, Marciulionis and assistant coach Nelson (and the others) just making it to the Summer Games in a time of national upheaval. They also joined forces with the Grateful Dead and fashioned tie-dyed clothes in Barcelona and, of course, beat what remained of the old USSR operation for the bronze medal in a symbolic conclusion. But then risking everything, perhaps literally, to play in the NBA helped create what became the European invasion that changed the game forever.
In this context, Marciulionis is worthy of serious consideration for the Hall of Fame. He may not make Springfield as a player, even though he won gold at the 1988 Olympics on the Soviet Union roster dominated by Lithuanians (as well as his ’92 bronze) and eventually spent seven seasons with the Warriors, SuperSonics, Kings and Nuggets. But as a Contributor, he is very deserving.
Some, feeling the title of Contributor diminishes their impact on the court, have preferred to exhaust eligibility as a player before looking into election via the category that has enshrined owners, business executives, league officials and broadcasters. Where Marciulionis stands on this is not known. But he can remain in the International Committee and be debated as a Contributor, an ideal outcome that would allow him to be considered by two panels.
Either way, his candidacy should have new meaning. He risked his career to play in the top league in the world. His role in monumental events that shape the new basketball globe – the 1992 Olympics, the decision to sign with the Warriors – has become undeniable. Try finding many greater contributions.