"But there's an underlying theme to everything he has done—coming to the NBA, putting together the Olympic team, setting up his projects in Lithuania and living his life in general. If he believes something is right, he doesn't believe anything anybody says to the contrary. He's going to pour everything physically and emotionally into that thing, no matter what. And if anybody doubts him, they might as well pour gasoline on his fire. Method? There is no method. Rooney goes. Rooney conquers. Exactly the way he plays basketball."
Laimute Drazdauskaite was seven years old when she fell from a bicycle and suffered a spinal injury. Years later, after marrying Juozas Marciulionis, she aggravated that old injury so badly while giving birth to their first child, a daughter, Zita, that she wound up bedridden for a year and a half. Doctors told her she could have another child only at her peril. But Laimute was determined to have a son, and when she did, she named him Raimondas Sarunas, invoking with the second of those names a feisty warrior knight from Lithuanian folklore.
In life, Sarunas seemed to manifest the same determination his mother had shown during his birth. Three times before he turned 10 he won a Lithuanian age-group tennis title, and he did so ambidextrously, switching the racket from right hand to left, swatting nothing but forehands. Zita found her athletically prodigious little brother so astonishingly different from their mother, a strict geography teacher, and their father, an engineer with sad eyes and a winsome manner, that she sought out an astrologer for an explanation. "His stars are very good," says Zita. "His zodiac is Gemini. He wants to be in movement, he wants to be with people."
Sarunas's passage into adulthood can be traced precisely to a February day in his 13th year. In his idle time he had taken to fashioning homemade explosives in the backyard area of his family's high-rise apartment building in Kaunas. He would stuff matchboxes with gunpowder and set them on fire to impress younger kids from the neighborhood. But on this day he misjudged the length of a fuse. The explosion melted a hole through the synthetics of his jacket, singed away his hair and eyebrows and left his face disfigured. A bright winter's day suddenly went dark.
Marciulionis remembers best what he heard later that day, still blind, in the emergency room: the mothers of children with lesser ailments exclaiming to their young, "Oh, don't look at him!...He's so young—what a shame!" Over the three weeks of his hospital stay Sarunas had to be quarantined because his looks so frightened the other children in the pediatric wing that they couldn't sleep at night. Repentance welled up in him. Oh, I'll be good, he vowed. Just give me my sight back and make my face normal again! A month after he was admitted, after taking several cycles of eye medication, his vision had completely returned. Eventually his face healed, too. "It was a kind of miracle," says Marciulionis, whose parents still keep a box with some of the burnt skin scaled from his face. "I had a lot of time just to think about life. When I see these blind children at the school, in the back of my mind I am them."
Swearing off all basement pyrotechnics, Sarunas threw himself into basketball. He played in the parking lot behind his apartment building, under a backboard he had cobbled together himself. Even in the most basketball-crazed regions of the U.S. the game doesn't dominate the people's sporting consciousness the way it does in Lithuania. During the early 1980s the powerful Zalgiris team of Kaunas won three Soviet club championships, victories Lithuanians celebrated as the next best thing to independence. With its 7'3" center, Arvidas Sabonis, and clever point guard, Vitoldas Masalskis, Zalgiris so captivated the public that every clerk in every liquor store in Marciulionis's hometown knew this: If a customer came in asking for a Sabonis, he wanted a big bottle of vodka; if he asked for a Masalskis, he wanted a small one.
At the University of Vilnius, where Marciulionis studied journalism, he played only in the odd basketball tournament "to defend the colors of my school," he says. But even this limited exposure attracted the interest of the junior coach at Statyba, the most important club in Vilnius and Zalgiris's archrival. The next year he played with Statyba, and then came an invitation from Moscow to try out for the Soviet junior national team.
Marciulionis was too thrilled to consider the political implications of playing in the colors of Lithuania's occupiers. "We were proud when we were wanted by the Soviet team," he says. "To be picked from 260 million is a great distinction." He made the team but played rarely. Then, at the Junior World Championships in Spain in the summer of 1983, he entered the second half of a game against the U.S. with the Soviets trailing by 15 points. "I played really hard," he says. "I scored, had a couple of steals and turned the game our way. From that point on I felt all my frustrations were worth it."
His frustrations would continue, but by now Marciulionis was conditioned to reinterpreting them as challenges. He would miss making the 12-man Soviet senior national team three times before breaking through in 1987, when at age 23 he was the sensation of that summer's European Championships in Athens.
It was shortly after his coming out in Athens that officials of the Lithuanian Communist Party handed him a speech they wanted him to deliver to an audience of thousands of workers drawn from all over Vilnius. The speech made a case—a defensible one—that Lithuania's greatest sports triumphs had come under the Soviet system. But it went further, suggesting that those triumphs were the result of that system. Marciulionis wanted no part of implicitly bad-mouthing Lithuanian independence. The officials suggested, without much subtlety, that he think hard before rejecting the proposal: His final exams at the university were coming up. He and his wife, Inga, were in line to receive an apartment. His place on the Soviet senior team, freshly won, wasn't yet secure. Marciulionis winces while recalling the day he addressed the workers. "It's one thing I wasn't tough enough about." he says, "but they tried to scare me. They said I could have everything I wanted to have if only I did this."