by Irv Soonachan
For those familiar with Sarunas Marciulionis only through his fairly brief, injury-ridden career in the NBA, his inclusion in the Hall of Fame class of 2014 may be a surprise. For those familiar with his overall body of work, the only surprise is he wasn’t inducted sooner.
In 1989, a year after leading the Soviet Union to Olympic Gold over David Robinson, Mitch Richmond and Team USA, the burly shooting guard became the first Soviet player in the NBA, prompting headlines around the world.
But Marciulionis never considered himself a Soviet. He is Lithuanian, and when his country was freed from Soviet occupation he orchestrated its basketball team’s participation in the 1992 Olympics, backed by funding from Bay Area natives the Grateful Dead. Marciulionis led Lithuania to an epic win over the Russians in the Bronze medal game, and his team famously took the medal stand in custom-designed tie-dyed t-shirts. (The whole episode was later the subject of the film, The Other Dream Team.) At the 1996 Olympics, Marciulionis and Lithuania did it again.
To Warriors fans, Marciulionis was a main cog of the popular Run TMC teams—a player with the skill level and basketball IQ to hang with the likes of Chris Mullin, but who also gave them a dose of brute physicality.
Marciulionis dropped by the media room at Oracle Arena for a press conference before Monday night’s regular-season home finale, as the team recognized his Hall of Fame induction.
SLAM: How does it feel to be back in this building?
Sarunas Marciulionis: Good! My pulse is racing, I feel up. I’m proud to be a Warrior. The atmosphere is still here, I can feel it [motions to heart].
SLAM: Do you still pay attention to the team’s games?
SM: Yeah, we have delayed games back in Lithuania, and in the wintertime when I’m in San Diego I can catch the games there.
SLAM: Can you talk about your involvement in youth basketball in Lithuania?
SM: We’ve had an academy there for 22 years.
SLAM: What is the talent level like in Lithuania today compared to when you were growing up with so many good players?
SM: It’s very hard to compare. What I can tell you is that when we play in the World Championships, there will be six or seven players from my academy. I think it’s pretty good.
SLAM: When you came to the NBA, were you nervous about all the expectations placed on you?
SM: You don’t feel what you don’t understand. It’s kind of like, you have two hands, I have two hands. I just wanted to play hard and compete. It’s always a challenge to play against big names, but I didn’t know those names when I grew up. You always have to adjust your game; that’s what I teach kids and coaches now. Every single night is different. You have to evaluate your opponent, evaluate your own game, and know how you’re going to play. It’s always, always analysis.
SLAM: I’ve heard that Nellie (Warriors coach Don Nelson) was extremely hard on you when you got here. How did you get through that?
SM: I guess because my English wasn’t good enough to understand everything. I had lunch with Mully (Chris Mullin) and Garry St. Jean (one of Nelson’s assistant coaches) and we remembered those times. Mully was acting like Nellie, and having a conversation like it was me and Donnie (former Warriors assistant coach Donnie Nelson, Nelson’s son). [Raises voice, motioning to Donnie] “Tell your boy…” He wasn’t talking to me. It was like, “Tell your boy!” He was too high up to talk to me directly.
SLAM: It seems like the number of European players is starting to drop. What do you think the reason is for that?
SM: This is a serious question. This is what we’re analyzing back home. I think that in Europe scouts and agents are so much involved, especially in the Balkans. Now you see a kid who is 14, you can see that he’s talented, but he’s got so many people around him and I guess he loses touch with reality. That’s a problem. Evaluation should be different than scouts going to see a few games. What is his background? How hungry is he? When we came we were hungry. We were hungry for basketball and hungry for money. This is a different situation.
SLAM: You were a very physical player, and were always willing to take a charge or give a charge. Did you play contact sports as a kid, like boxing?
SM: How to earn respect from Nellie? How to earn minutes? You have to do something.
SLAM: What was Arvydas Sabonis like as a young player? We only saw him in the NBA after he’d had severe injuries, and he was still great.
SM: I’ve known him since we were 10. When you’re older, especially bigger guys, brains and skills come together. What is the word? Synergy. When he was younger he made many turnovers and mistakes. When you see he passes the ball that well, imagine how big an amount of turnovers he made when he was young to get that feel for the game.
SLAM: What was the chemistry like on the Warriors teams you played with?
SM: Imagine how much flavor Tom Tolbert brings to the locker room. (Tolbert, now a Warriors radio announcer, had just visited with Marciulionis.) Every morning he walks in and you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what he’s going to wear on his head, or if he’ll be wearing slippers. But everybody understood each other. They came for basketball, not for stats.
SLAM: Has the public perception of you changed since the The Other Dream Team came out?
SM: It helped young people understand it, but this is not your pain. For older people it is a good reminder about those moments and those feelings. But for the young generation it is kind of a history lesson.
SLAM: Did Nellie call you after the Hall of Fame announcement?