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 Olympics 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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I’m Meeting My Lithuanian In-Laws For The First Time And I Don’t Speak Lithuanian!

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Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania

For the last week, I have been umming and ahing over what to write about. I have bounced around every idea; from recollecting a trip to Venice to writing about a Victorian port town on the peninsula of Washington state. But, every time I have sat down to write —  I have been mauled by distractions. Particularly, the fact that I’m going to Lithuania in six weeks to meet my in-laws — for the first time — and we do not speak the same language!

I understand that many many many people throughout the world have been in a similar situation and somehow have managed to stumble through. My predicament is also helped by the fact that my in-laws — in a very touching gesture — took a beginners English class a few months ago. In addition, I have been attempting to learn some basic Lithuanian. But, a big reason for my nervousness is the Lithuanian language itself.

Lithuanian is a very tough language to learn. Contrary to popular assumptions, it sounds nothing like Russian or any other Slavic language. This is because it isn’t Slavic, but one of the only two Baltic languages (Latvian is the other). Lithuanian is one of the oldest languages in the world and is definitely the oldest known Indo-European language. It actually shares many of the same features as Sanskrit. So, yes it is a very intimidating language to attempt. But, the history of the language and how it has been used to define Lithuania as a nation makes it seem all the more imperative to understand.

From 1795-1914, Lithuania was under the control of Imperial Russia and their language was banned from being spoken in public, their alphabet (Latin) prohibited from being taught. This was all in the effort of Russification. The Russians expected the language would become extinct, but their actions only created a cultural resistance from the whole society. Academics began to write poems and articles in Lithuanian, newspapers were published in Lithuanian and the upper classes began to speak only in Lithuanian (previously the poor had been the only group who exclusively spoke the language). This history is probably why many Lithuanians today culturally identify themselves by their language and why there are now laws in place to protect the Lithuanian language.

During the Soviet Union, Lithuanian was still considered the predominant language of Lithuania but Russian was commonly spoken alongside it. My partner was born in the Soviet Union and grew up in post-Soviet Lithuania. He had no interest in learning Russian in school and  while he understands it well enough, he doesn’t speak it. Neither do many of his generation. While he didn’t see the worse of what his country went through under communism and another wave of Russification, he grew up in the remnants of a post-Soviet state rather than what may have been a culturally rich Lithuania. For him, and I’m sure many other Lithuanians — this is a bitter pill to swallow. It is also what makes their language that more cherished. It defines them as who they are.

Knowing all of this has only added extra pressure to learning Lithuanian. There is no way I will be able to master even an intermediate level of Lithuanian before I meet my in-laws. But, I know it’s a language I will continue to encounter and learn in the coming years. Unfortunately, there are limited available resources to learn Lithuanian as it’s a language spoken exclusively by Lithuanians (Just over 3 million people). Rosetta Stone doesn’t even have a version of it. This leaves one option — my partner giving me pained looks as he listens to me butcher his native tongue while I attempt to learn the language. Sacrifices all around!

Does anyone have any stories or advice on learning a new language, particularly Lithuanian? Please share in the comment section below!