Sarunas Marciulionis’ 48-year-old knees don’t appreciate winters in his native Lithuania. So the former NBA guard, whose career began with with the Golden State Warriors, still spends part of every year in sunny California. But sore knees or no, nothing was going to keep Marciulionis away from Park City, Utah this past January where Marius A. Markevicius’ documentary The Other Dream Team was making its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The story of the first ever Lithuanian national basketball team’s Cinderella run in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (where they won the bronze medal), it also spins Marciulonis’ own story of growing up in Soviet-occupied Lithuania; playing on Soviet teams, including the 1988 Olympics crew that took home the gold; his career in the NBA; his key role in forming that 1992 team in the wake of his country’s liberation in 1990 and his life now as a hotelier and owner/operator of a basketball academy in Lithuania. It is a life and career that he can take pride in and on a snowy afternoon the day after The Other Dream‘s Temple Theatre debut, Marciulonis spent a few a few minutes with me talking about his memories and the documentary’s visit to his storied past.
Q: What was it like to sit down and talk about all those memories after so much time had passed?
A: Those memories, when you know the final result, look like they should be nice, but the reality is you remember the pressure. Those are sleepless nights, aches and pains. It’s connected with really heavy, heavy, heavy physical and mental exertion and stress.
But now, everything is fine, you look back 20 years and go, “What happened?” That’s how I know it was a stressful thing. The happiest thing about it was the victory, the result and independence, 1992. But even the 1988 Olympics, playing for Soviet Russia, it doesn’t matter. It was four years of preparation, of dedication, commitment to what we do best. People sometimes ask, “Which medal is more valuable?” You can’t say gold is more valuable or bronze. Each year has its different story and its different memories and glory.
Q: In ’88, there were four Lithuanian starters on the Soviet team, how did you see yourselves? Did you look on that as some kind of statement?
A: There were three, sometimes four starters, yes. At the time, the dream of independence, that was way too early. Only later on did we say, “Oh, yeah, we were four. Look at our stats!”
Q: You’ve lived through extraordinary times. You grew up in an occupied country, then came to the United States and then your nation was liberated. When you look back on all that, how do you take it all in?
A: I’m close to 50, but I can’t free up my brain. All those things that were put in my head at a young age, those fundamentals, when I was a kid, that you’ll never be free. Even though you’re free, you’re not free in your brain. I’m enjoying life, enjoying the San Diego area, Bay Area, I often come back. I have things in Lithuania that I’m doing, the basketball academy and the hotel business, but there’s still that Soviet part that’s still in me. Free people, kids who are free, the way they act and react – we’re still locked. There’s no key to unlock, I haven’t found it yet. When you change a place, it doesn’t mean you change your head.
Q: You had played a lot internationally with the Soviet team, but what was it like for you those first you those first few weeks or months when you came to the Warriors and began living in the west full time?
A: I can’t say it was culture shock, because culture shock is when you go from good to bad. When you go from bad to good, it’s an adjustment, not a shock. You’re adjusting to good things. There are things you appreciate. You’re excited. That’s the life side. The basketball side, my first year, my world was very small. It was Alameda, Alameda gym, the arena and the airport. That was my life. There was no time for anything else. I was talking to [former Warrior teammate] Chris Mullin before coming here and I said, “I haven’t been to Alcatraz!” Friends come to the Bay Area and they always go to Alcatraz, but I never found the time.
The game is a responsibility when you play, it’s not just for yourself. I was always trying to do my best. If I did wrong, then I felt bad. – Pam Grady