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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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It is a logic that doesn't take into account the hazards lying in wait in NBA lanes, hazards that caused Marciulionis to miss 10 games last season, and another 32 the season before that, with strained knees and bruised hips. With all the basketball he has played since the end of last season, it's amazing that the broken right fibula that will sideline him for the first three weeks of this season wasn't suffered on the court but in the woods in Lithuania, where he fell in September while jogging the day before he was to fly back to the U.S. for camp.

As all out as Marciulionis plays for pay, consider what he did while playing for pride. Against the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in the Olympics, Lithuania held a 19-point lead five minutes into the second half, only to lose 92-80. It was bad enough that Lithuania's first loss as a new nation should come to Russians-by-any-other-name. Worse, the defeat put the Lithuanians in a semifinal against the unbeatable Americans. If the Lithuanians were to win a medal, they could now only get a bronze.

As it happened, Lithuania met the CIS in a rematch for the bronze medal. Marciulionis scored 29 points in that 82-78 victory, which followed an enervating, sleepless night. The feelings that set in when the game ended, remembers Donn Nelson, who served as an assistant coach for the Lithuanian team, made the moment seem like "a wedding, a funeral—every emotion you can ever feel, all combined. All of a sudden tears started flowing from this rock of a guy. This was the most powerful moment I've ever experienced in sports."

It is probably safe to say that no Olympian who had ever won gold in a previous Games has ever been so happy with a bronze. "They are two completely different things," Marciulionis says. "Most athletes finish their career after winning the gold, because it's a dream. But this bronze is like a beginning, a new era. The gold was for each of us; but the bronze—we knew who we were playing for."

It isn't yet noon, and already this has been another exasperatingly typical Vilnius day. Earlier this morning a busted pipe left guests at the Hotel Sarunas with no hot water. Now Marciulionis is at the Statyba team's gym, the temporary home of his basketball school. He gestures disgustedly at a puddle that has formed on the sideline under a leak in the roof. "We had a new roof put on, right?" he asks, rhetorically. "And look at the quality. We pay them. They do a bad job. Now we have to go to court for arbitration." Such is life in Lithuania these days—water where you don't want it, no water where you do.

"Without hard times, people don't appreciate the good times," says Marciulionis, "but I think my nation has had enough hard times. So I'd like to change the mentality of the people like that." He snaps his fingers. "People have to understand the need to work, to work hard. There are too many people with foolish ambitions."

Lithuanians use a Western word to describe some of these people who have interposed themselves between what their country is and what Marciulionis would like it to be. The word is Mafia. You can see the wise guys in Vilnius and Kaunas, in small groups, with leather jackets and cellular phones and too much time on their hands. They settled one internal matter a few months ago, in an abandoned Soviet Army barracks behind what will soon become the Vilnius campus of the Marciulionis Basketball School, by splattering the walls with brain matter.

Being a businessman in such an environment requires a measure of delicacy. Marciulionis avoids the cafés where the mobsters hang out, for fear that they may take him for a mark. But he has an array of friends and acquaintances—from basketball, from his youth in Kaunas and from the six different schools he attended—and some of these people tell him that the Mafia respects him for how he has attained success. "They know that I didn't get it from my dad and didn't get it from the lottery," he says. "They know that my hands and legs fed me." And so they let him be.

Yet even as he lays the bricks of the new Lithuania, he receives some brickbats, too. It's the honest, workaday Lithuanian citizen who's likely to regard Marciulionis with envy. Those who are still part of the great mass, with so little, suddenly have this prosperous public man to scrutinize, and for them it is just as easy to say he should do more as it is to say he does so much. "You hear people say that he does these things for charity only as a tax shelter," says Ritis Sabas, a member of the Vilnius University basketball team. "You hear them say, 'We're working hard, and he gets money for nothing.' I say to them, 'Man, you should work as hard as he plays.' "

To forestall such criticism, Marciulionis, who this season will earn $1.5 million from the Warriors, lives a cleaved life. One half is marked in the East Bay by a Mercedes and fine Chinese cuisine and a comfortable house; the other in Vilnius's Old Town by a simple Lada auto and szepeline dumplings and that spartan apartment. (His marriage to Inga, a former Soviet junior national team player herself, has suffered as he has taken on causes as if they were mistresses; she and their five-year-old daughter, Krista, live separately from him in the Bay Area.)

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