Sarunas Marciulionis caught a glimpse of a goal not long ago in his homeland, the recently independent Republic of Lithuania. That goal: ameliorating conditions at a boarding school for blind children that lacks some of the simple things any school needs—adequate equipment, sufficient food. The breakup of the Soviet Union, of which Lithuania had been a part, has gone off on the Farrow-Allen order of smoothness. Three years ago in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, a kilo of potatoes went for 20 kopeks, one fifth of a ruble. Now that same sack costs 82 rubles, and because income hasn't kept pace with the price increases, the school can afford no more than half a kilo of potatoes a day, not nearly enough to feed its 200 students.
Those who have watched him play basketball know that when Marciulionis sees the goal, he goes hard to it. In an interview with Lithuanian TV this afternoon, recounting his visit to the school, he takes his first, sharp step. "Nature denied these children the pleasure of sight." he says. "Can't we at least give them the small pleasure of a full stomach?"
The next day he attends a state reception in honor of six handicapped Lithuanians who had recently won medals at the Paralympic Games. A blind Paralympian feels Marciulionis's face, to "see" what he looks like, while government mucka-mucks sip champagne and sample fine chocolates. Soon Marciulionis is asked to make a few remarks. Here he slashes into the lane, accelerating. Once again he describes what he had seen the previous day: how there was only one small working refrigerator in the school commissary, so even if relatives were to bring food for a child, it would most likely go bad; how there were only six Braille typewriters, so most of the children must write with needles, painstakingly punching a series of holes to create each character. "Yes. be proud of me," he says, referring to the bronze medal he and his teammates on Lithuania's basketball team earned at the Barcelona Olympics. "But these Paralympians are our real heroes. What they do under lousy conditions, with the odds against them, is amazing."
One of the VIPs in attendance is Lithuanian Prime Minister Aleksandras Abisala. "I wanted him to hear that," Marciulionis says later. "I have to open people's eyes." So sincerely does he utter this last sentence that you're certain its irony escapes him.
Here most of us would steal a glance over our shoulder to see the ball leave the backboard just so, catch the lip of the rim and fall through. But Marciulionis won't permit himself even that satisfaction. "I'm never completely content with myself," he says. "I always feel I can do better. If something bad happens, I think it's my fault; I feel guilty. But that feeling moves me forward. If I'm happy with myself, I don't improve. Move forward all the time. This is my logic."
The 28-year-old Marciulionis is to his homeland as a guest is to the Hotel California: He can check out anytime he wants. And he does, for seven months of each year to play guard for the NBA's Golden State Warriors. But there are countless examples of how he can never leave. The Sarunas Marciulionis Basketball Foundation funds a basketball school in Vilnius and the newspaper Krepšinis! (Basketball!). The Sarunas Lithuanian Children's Fund is trying to set up a program to fly kids to the U.S. for lifesaving operations, along the lines of the Children's Miracle Network, and to deliver youngsters from Lithuania's ramshackle orphanages by funneling money to families that might not otherwise be able to afford the costs of adoption. "Ten dollars a month," Marciulionis says. "That's all it takes to support one child."
And there is in fact a hotel, the Hotel Sarunas, a 26-room businessman's oasis on a leafy side street in Vilnius where accommodations go for $65 a night (no rubles, please). Just off the lobby is a sports bar-cafe named Rooney, which is also Marciulionis's NBA handle. It's done in Early Dorm decor—sneakers hanging from the ceiling and the like—and there you can catch Santa Barbara in Lithuanian or Yo! MTV Raps or even the odd NBA game off the satellite dish.
The people at International Management Group who manage Marciulionis's money, accustomed to athletes who impulsively squander their sudden lucre, second-guessed this investment, as they did another of Marciulionis's projects of the heart, an under-construction resort with 60 rooms, a restaurant and a 700-seat arena in the provincial town of Anyksciai. But his handlers at IMG didn't take into account Marciulionis's six seasons on various Soviet national teams, time during which he earned a sort of real-world M.B.A. He would take Russian caviar, diamonds and vodka overseas and then sell them for hard currency, which he would in turn spend on a TV, a VCR or a computer, any of which he could sell for a grand sum on the black market back home. "He could buy himself a house in Vilnius, but he lives in an apartment instead," says Donn Nelson, the Warriors' assistant coach who scouted and signed Marciulionis and is now among his closest friends. "He would rather give people in his country jobs and help them make a life for themselves."
Much of the world already knows about the 6'5" Marciulionis's starring role in two Olympics—in 1988, when the U.S.S.R. won the basketball gold in Seoul, and this summer, when Marciulionis led the Barcelona tournament, outstripping every Dream Teamer in these categories that bespeak raw exertion: assists, minutes played, trips to the free throw line. But few know the extent to which he jawboned, phoned, faxed, cajoled and willed a Lithuanian team into existence during the months immediately after Lithuania declared its independence in March of '90. It's a measure of the ecumenical appeal of Marciulionis's cause that in searching for sponsors he came back with both the Bank of America and the Grateful Dead. The Dead donated $5,000 and, more symbolically, prevailed upon one of its licensees to provide the Lithuanian players with the red, yellow and green tie-dyed T-shirts that have since become, with 50,000 sold so far, as much a symbol of the end of the cold war as those souvenir chunks of the Berlin Wall. When the Warriors made the shirts available shortly after the Olympics, so many phone orders poured into their offices that the Oakland Coliseum Arena's switchboard crashed. (Please don't call the Warriors. Call 1-800-225-3323. The shirts are $30, and profits go straight to Sarunas's Children's Fund.)
"An average day with Sarunas is like being with one of those traders on Wall Street," says Nelson, whose father, Don, is Golden State's coach. "And last season here he was, building a hotel. He'd come to practice and say, 'I bought nails today.' And the next day, 'I bought lights.' And, 'I bought pillows.' He wants to single-handedly turn his nation around. I tell him, 'Rooney, you can't do it yourself.'