Time was, when the phone rang at the marciulionis house in Lafayette, Calif., the chances were good that a sportswriter was looking for an interview with Sarunas, a backup guard for the Golden State Warriors. But lately, with Sarunas on the injured list with a strained right knee, most of the reporters' calls have been for his wife, Inga, who also is an important player on a Bay Area basketball team. Inga's the leading scorer for the Merritt Community' College women's team in Oakland, and while that may not be as glamorous as playing for the Warriors, it serves her purposes quite nicely.
Inga, 25, a former player on the Soviet junior national team, wasn't looking for media attention when she joined the Thunderbirds last September; she was "just looking for something to do," she says. After Sarunas joined Golden State two years ago and the Marciulionises moved to the U.S. from Lithuania, Inga found herself adrift in a strange land. She missed her friends and family, and Sarunas traveled much of the time, leaving her home alone to care for their daughter, Krista, who's now three. Inga was so unfamiliar with her surroundings that even a trip to the grocery store was a challenge.
"I was sitting at home with Krista all the time, missing Sarunas and feeling homesick," she says. "I was mad at the world. [Merritt coach Fred Brown] had read some stories about Sarunas that said I played basketball, too, and he asked me if I wanted to play. I said no many times, but finally Sarunas said, 'Go. Try.' "
So she enrolled at Merritt, not so much for the classes—she's taking physical education and outdoor recreation—or for the quality of play, which can't compare with topflight international competition, but for the camaraderie of once again being on a team. She hasn't been disappointed. "It has given me friends," says Inga. "It used to be that I knew no one. Now I've learned some things about America from the other players on the team, and maybe they've learned some things about Lithuania from me. They wanted to teach me some 'street' English, but I told them no, I have enough trouble with the regular kind."
She's had no such trouble on the court. At week's end, Inga, a 5'11" guard, was scoring 23 points per game for the 20-6 Thunderbirds. Although Brown tries to minimize the pressure on her by downplaying her ability, he has called her "the best shooter I've ever coached, male or female."
While basketball has helped the Marciulionises adapt to America, Lithuania is still very much on their minds. In his hometown of Kaunas, Sarunas is having a gymnasium built that is modeled after the one at the College of Alameda, where the Warriors sometimes practice. The recent Soviet crackdown in Lithuania is especially frightening to the Marciulionises, because Inga's 18-year-old brother, Erik, is in the Soviet army there.
"I worry about him," she says. "When people are poor and hungry, they are always angry. I told him to just keep quiet until his term is over in September. I can't wait for that day."
She's also looking forward to the day when she won't be a media darling anymore. "Sarunas tells me being interviewed by the press is part of being an athlete, especially in America," says Inga. "I told him, 'You do the interviews. I'll just play.' "
Now that basketball is helping Mom cope with life in America, the whole Marciulionis household is having a ball.