How Basketball, the Olympics and the Grateful Dead Forever Changed Lithuania

The Other Dream Team is a 2012 documentary that illustrates the importance basketball has played in Lithuania’s history and culminates in their participation in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

Last week the Lithuanian Men’s basketball team was knocked out of the group round at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. They wouldn’t continue to the semi-finals and had lost out on their shot at a 2016 Olympic medal. I watched my husband come home from work looking absolutely defeated at the news. I knew most other Lithuanians, which had undoubtedly watched the match, were experiencing similar feelings. While other countries might just be disappointed in the loss, basketball is the pride and joy of Lithuania. So much so that it is called the “second religion” of the small country and there is nothing bigger than competing in the sport at the Olympics.

Basketball became popular in Lithuania during the 1930s when a Lithuanian-American named Frank Lubin was invited to coach basketball there. Lubin had just competed on the national U.S. basketball team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin where the team had won the gold. Lubin moved to Lithuania and led the country to two Eurobasket championships in 1937 and 1939. The country was officially hooked on basketball and it was a passion that would carry on for decades.

When Stalin invaded Lithuania towards the end of WWII, the country endured horrible treatment under the Soviet Union. Over 30,000 Lithuanians including women and children were sent to labor camps in Siberia where they were barely fed or given water on the long journey there. If they survived the trip, they would often spend over a decade at these camps where conditions were harsh. Most Lithuanian families, even today, can count at least one immediate family member that perished in Siberia. The citizens that were able to avoid being sent to the gulags were under constant scrutiny by the KGB who tortured and imprisoned anyone who spoke out against the Soviet Union. Lithuanians were robbed of any hope of ever being an independent nation again. All children were made to learn Russian in school and were not permitted to be educated in the Lithuanian alphabet. Even sports were dictated. Under the Soviet Union, all Lithuanian athletes were forced to play in international competitions (i.e. the Olympics)  under the banner of the USSR.

But, something started to take shape in the early 1980s. Lithuania’s basketball club in Kaunas (the second largest city in Lithuania) was called Zalgiris. The name refers to an old order of Lithuanian knights. Zalgiris would frequently compete against CSKA Moscow which was and still is the club team of the Red Army. CSKA pulled the best players from all over the Soviet Union and was often the foundation for the national team. But, whenever CSKA competed against Zalgiris — they consistently lost.  Lithuanians saw how their athletes from a small country of 3 million people were constantly beating the Red Army’s team with players pulled from a population of over 200 million. It became apparent that this wasn’t just about basketball anymore, it was political.  Arvydas Sabonis, the center for Zalgiris and NBA Hall of Famer, later recalled that beating the Red Army at basketball was Lithuania’s chance to “bite the red bear in the ass.” Zalgiris gave hope to Lithuania in these games and begun the stirrings for what would become Lithuania’s independence movement.

At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, the Soviet Union took home the gold medal in men’s basketball. Four out of the five starting players were Lithuanian. There was a secret sort of pride for Lithuania during this occasion, as it felt more like their own victory rather than a win for the USSR. The win only stoked the country’s determination to become independent. Two years later on March 11th, 1990 Lithuania became the first Soviet state to declare their independence.  Less than a year later, the Soviet Union withdrew their military from the country.

Even though Lithuania had broken away from the Soviet Union, they were struggling to regain their place in the global community and separate themselves from the image of being a Soviet state.  The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona was the first opportunity they had to compete under the Lithuanian flag. But, the chances of getting to the Olympics were not optimistic. After declaring independence, Lithuania found themselves bankrupt and attempting to rebuild after so long under Soviet control.  Šarūnas Marčiulionis, one of their legendary basketball players had emigrated to the U.S. where he was playing for the NBA. Marčiulionis, along with several other basketball players vowed to help get Lithuania to the Olympics in any way they could. Progress was slow until something entirely unexpected happened.

The Grateful Dead had read about Lithuania’s plight and offered to fund the basketball team’s journey to the Olympics.  They also sent a box of tie-dye t-shirts in Lithuanian colors to the entire team.  Newly  independent, funded by the Grateful Dead and sporting tie-dye shirts — this was how Lithuania made their long awaited return to the Olympic games.

The Soviet Union had been dissolved by 1990 but 12 of the 15 former Soviet states including Russia entered the Olympics under the “Unified Team.” The three countries that did not participate under this banner, aside from Lithuania, were Latvia and Estonia (the other two Baltic states) who had by this time also declared their independence.

Lithuania’s basketball team competed well during the group rounds and progressed to the semi-finals. But, they suffered a loss when they went up against Team USA who was famed that year for having the Dream Team roster with the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to name a few. This put them in their final match to take home the bronze medal. In a very epic turn of events, their last game to determine if they medaled was against the Unified Team. For Lithuania, this was a defining moment to fully break away from their past with the Soviet Union and distinguish themselves as Lithuania to the rest of the world. The game was close the entire four quarters but at the end,  Lithuania beat the Unified Team with a score of 82-78.

It was Lithuania’s first Bronze medal at the U.S. for men’s basketball. In the following years, they would earn two more bronze medals at the Olympics in addition to numerous wins in international basketball championships. Basketball has continued as a time honored tradition in Lithuania, with the country’s passion for the sport becoming internationally renowned. Today, basketball is as much a part of Lithuania as ever. For them, basketball is so much more than just a game.

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