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'I Have To Open People's Eyes'
Alexander Wolff
November 09, 1992
Sarunas Marciulionis of Lithuania brings the same fire to striving for prosperity for his homeland as he does to playing for the Warriors
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November 09, 1992

'i Have To Open People's Eyes'

Sarunas Marciulionis of Lithuania brings the same fire to striving for prosperity for his homeland as he does to playing for the Warriors

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There were other reasons it behooved Marciulionis to give in. The sports ministry had been swept along by the same wave of change—perestroika—then breaking over Soviet society, and the government would soon promise members of the national basketball team that they would be free to sign contracts to play abroad if they won a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics. Changes in the Soviet Union did not go unremarked Stateside, either, especially in two NBA front offices, those of the Warriors and the Atlanta Hawks. In theory no team stood to benefit from the Soviet Union's liberalized policies more than the Hawks, whose owner, Goodwill Games impresario Ted Turner, was already well connected in the Kremlin. Golden State had chosen Marciulionis against the rules in 1987 when he was eight days too old to be eligible for the draft; thus conventional wisdom around the NBA held that he would eventually be "assigned" to Atlanta by Goskomsport, the government-run sports corporation, with Goskomsport taking its usual outsized cut of the deal. But in '89, as winter turned to spring and power started flowing away from Moscow, the Warriors, for reasons we shall see, now held all the aces.

Marciulionis had first met Donn Nelson during the summer of 1985, when Nelson played for Athletes in Action, a touring team. Marciulionis knew little English and Nelson no Lithuanian, and at first that limited their interaction to vague kindnesses and pleasantries translated through third parties.

Two years later came an episode that helped cinch Marciulionis's friendship with Donn Nelson. When Marciulionis was in the town of Panevezys with Statyba to play in a tournament, there was a knock at his hotel room door. The man at the door, whom Marciulionis did not know, bore the traditional Lithuanian welcoming gift of homemade bread. He told Marciulionis his story: His teenage son suffered from a rare heart condition. Hospital after hospital had said it couldn't provide the boy with an artificial heart valve, the only thing that would keep him from dying in a matter of months. "This is what I have," the man said, offering the bread. "I give it to you."

Marciulionis did the only thing he could: He appealed to his new American friend. Donn canvassed the States, trying vainly to acquire an artificial valve. Finally, with the help of Nelson's mother. Sharon, and the congregation at her Milwaukee church, Marciulionis and Donn were able to bring the boy to the U.S. and introduce him to Dr. Jim King, a heart specialist, who performed the operation.

By collaborating in fixing a stranger's heart, both plumbed what was in each other's and found much in common. After the 1988 Olympics, Marciulionis invited Nelson to Lithuania, where for three months he lived with Marciulionis in Vilnius. The two staged a series of clinics around the increasingly restive republic.

On June 23, 1989, without the approval of Goskomsport, Marciulionis signed for a reported $1.3 million a year with the team that, he says, "cared about my future more than I did." People told him he was crazy. They told him he would wind up in jail. But Marciulionis still had in his heart a little of the rebellious boy who had built bombs in his backyard. Marciulionis gambled that the fraying regime had much more pressing things to worry about than keeping a basketball player from seeking his fortune abroad. He was right. Marciulionis was not only the first Soviet citizen to sign with an NBA team; he was also the first Soviet professional athlete not to have to kick back so much as a kopek to the Kremlin, "I hate when somebody takes from me," says Marciulionis, who has donated a refrigerator and money from the Children's Fund to that boarding school for blind children. "Don't take from me. Because"—here he gestures, spreading his hands out from his heart—"I can give."

Don Nelson guessed it would take three seasons for Marciulionis to develop into a productive NBA player. For a while that timetable seemed foolishly optimistic. "Everything was coming at him at oblique angles," says George Shirk, the San Francisco Chronicle basketball writer who introduced Marciulionis to the Grateful Dead backstage at a concert in Auburn Hills, Mich., thus forever altering the course of sporting haberdashery. "As an Eastern European playing in the Bay Area for a tough coach, he might as well have been on the moon. His first trip to the Safeway completely weirded him out. He and his wife were hoarding vegetables as if they weren't sure they'd still be there the next day."

On the floor the mental pressures to please his coach short-circuited Marciulionis's intuitiveness, that unfettered part of him that makes his game so effective. Finally, in a hotel coffee shop in Cleveland during the middle of Marciulionis's second season, Nelson sat down with his still-unbroken colt and confessed to being at a loss over what to do with him. Marciulionis asked that he simply not be ridden so hard. "We came to an agreement that we would concentrate on just a few things," Nelson says. "I stopped trying to make him a perfect player." Meanwhile Marciulionis picked up more and more English. And his teammates finally accepted that, with the ball and a path to the basket, "he has," as Chris Mullin puts it, "a certain gift."

Now NBA teams are clue-free as to how to stop him. He was the highest-scoring nonstarter in the NBA last season, with 18.9 points a game, and runner-up to the Indiana Pacers' Detlef Schrempf for the Sixth Man Award. No guard shot a better percentage from the floor. And among the league's players, only Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler and Karl Malone produced more than the one point every 1.55 minutes played that Marciulionis turned in with his peculiar style, which the Dead might call Not Fade Away.

"My personality is that I hate to miss," Marciulionis says. "Yet I know that it's impossible to make 100 percent of your shots. But I'm not comfortable with that logic. So when I drive to the basket, I have less chance to miss and more chance to get fouled or pass off. A basket or free throws or an assist. Three options. This is my logic."

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