If you've heard the hypemeisters billing the U.S. Olympic basketball team as "the world's greatest pickup squad," it may have occurred to you that so fabulously wealthy and slickly marketed a group doesn't exactly capture the true essence of the term pickup. But there is a team that fits the description, a Dream Team born of nobler reveries.
Lithuanians spent 51 years longing to gain their independence from the Soviet Union. During the final decade of the occupation, Lithuania provided the U.S.S.R.'s world and Olympic championship basketball teams with some of their best players. Thus many Lithuanians fixed upon a new, fond desire when their country gained its freedom 11 months ago: playing and beating their nemesis in the sport that residents of the Baltic republics have long regarded with Hoosierlike devotion. Their wish came true last week at the European Olympic qualifying tournament in the Spanish city of Badajoz, and it mattered little that the team Lithuania routed 116-79 represented something called the Commonwealth of Independent States, not the U.S.S.R.
That the Lithuanian team is together and competing at all is the result of dogged wintertime phoning, faxing and lobbying by Golden State Warrior guard Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvidas Sabonis, a 7'4" center who plays professionally in Spain. "Having to both organize and play ball is twice as much work," says Marciulionis, who was born and raised in Kaunas. "But it's fun. And there's twice as much satisfaction in each victory."
The Lithuanians' sponsors are a polyglot and improvised lot. The most numerous are Lithuanian-Americans, chesty about independence and delighted to support the cause. The most lavish underwriter is the resort town of Melilla, a Spanish possession on Morocco's Mediterranean coast, which paid $200,000 in exchange for the team's agreement to play an exhibition game and hold a camp there and to wear the resort's name on the front of its uniforms. But the most off-the-wall support came from the Bay Area-based Grateful Dead, who kicked in $5,000 plus a set of tie-dyed warmups done up in Lithuania's national colors that would take the curl out of Wavy Gravy's hair.
For a matchup so fraught with possible conflict, the game between Lithuania and the CIS was a remarkably decorous and festive one. Two minutes into the action, Valeri Tikhonenko of the CIS and Lithuania's Gintaras Krapikas collided in pursuit of a loose ball; when they hurried to their feet, each trying to be first to offer a handshake, the flout-the-fire-code crowd of 6,400 roared its approval. Soon Lithuania, which should have no problem gaining one of the four berths at stake in Zaragoza, site of the European finals that will be played this weekend, was demonstrating how perfectly woven together its ragtag team is. Sabonis has Mark Eaton's strength, Bill Laimbeer's outside shot and something close to David Robinson's agility. With his first step Marciulionis can break down even a vacuum-packed zone. When Sabonis gets the ball inside or Marciulionis gets inside with the ball, the other three Lithuanians on the floor can knock down three-pointers as if the game were Around-the-World.
When the lead over the CIS hit 38 with more than four minutes to play, the Lithuanian reserves joined the crowd in the wave. They probably should have been in the game, but with no TV broadcast of the game back home and few spectators from Lithuania on hand, the most significant game in the country's history would be reduced to a simple score read in the paper or heard on a newscast. Thus the final margin had to be emphatic enough to satisfy Lithuanians whose ancestors had disappeared in the gulags or died with the resistance. Sabonis, for example, didn't take a seat until 49 seconds remained, by which time he had abused Tikhonenko and Atlanta Hawk forward Alexander Volkov, his former teammates on the Soviet Union's 1988 gold medal team, for 33 points and 17 rebounds.
"It's a funny situation," said Marciulionis, who freely swapped NBA tales with his former U.S.S.R. teammates. "We have to remember other people in Lithuania who got hurt by politics. But no politics can step between people who've spent five or six of our best years together. I don't care if they're Russians, Ukrainians or Khazaks, they're still my friends. You can't fight your friends."
The Lithuanians were grateful for the Dead-ly warmups.