Sarunas Marciulionis, formerly of the Golden State Warriors, has gained a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame, class of 2014. That is a long overdue move, but fans may be unaware how he prevailed against a background of oppression.
Marciulionis is from Lithuania, an independent nation until 1939, when Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact and together invaded Poland, starting World War II. The deal gave Stalin the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Those nations became part of the Soviet Union, a totalitarian dictatorship that repressed subject peoples and failed miserably on the economic side. So Marciulionis did not live a life of luxury, to put it mildly.
He also had to play basketball not for Lithuania but for the Soviet Union. Soviet is not a nationality, so this was a form of identity theft. But he had no choice at the time.
He helped the USSR win a gold medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, scoring 19 points in a semifinal victory over the United States. But the times were changing.
Three years later the Berlin Wall was in ruins and the Soviet empire collapsed, ending the repressive fallout from the Stalin-Hitler Pact. Lithuania became a free nation again and athletes such as Marciolionis used that freedom to full advantage.
He was making a mark in the NBA with the Warriors, part of Don Nelsons up-tempo offence with Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway, and Mitch Richmond, another 2014 Hall of Famer. In the 1992 playoffs, Marciulionis averaged 21.3 points and 5 assists, both highs for a Warriors reserve player.
That was also an Olympic year and he enlisted the help of Don Nelson and the Grateful Dead to put together a team from Lithuania.
In the 1992 summer games in Barcelona, Marciulionis averaged 23.4 points, 8.3 assists, 5.0 rebounds, very high for a guard. He could run, shoot, pass and jump but also box out. Nobody could make him go anywhere on the court he didnt want to go.
He scored 29 points in an 82-78 win over Russia to capture the bronze medal. Lets say the man was motivated, but he wasnt done.
He came to the 1996 games in Atlanta and his stellar play helped Lithuania win another bronze. So he owns a three-peat in Olympic medals. He also excelled off the court, founding the Lithuanian Basketball League and serving as its president for a decade.
Marciulionis life and career can dish out an assist to our young American players. He grew up in difficult conditions but kept working hard and moving ahead. No excuses for this man, who made the best of his physical gifts and let his game do the talking.
He never had bouts with drugs, crime or violence and his personal life was exemplary. And now he has made it to the Hall of Fame. Celebration is clearly in order.
ESPN and Bay Area stations should rebroadcast Lithuanias 1992 bronze medal victory over Russia. That was one of the great games of all time and probably Marciulionis best performance.
He may hail from Lithuania, but here in the Bay Area, Sarunas Marciulionis will always be one of us. Congratulations on your long overdue election to the Basketball Hall of Fame.