- Today's NBA is loaded with international players, but it wasn’t always that way. What follows is a glimpse into the earliest chapters of the NBA’s global boom: the final years of the Soviet Union, the 1988 Olympics and the experience of one NBA pioneer.
Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part oral history examining the NBA's international takeover. Check back Thursday for the stories of Dirk, Giannis, Kristaps and more.
The 1992 U.S. Dream Team is largely credited with starting a revolution across European basketball. For the NBA, though, the revolution came a few years earlier. In 1989, the league welcomed a wave of eastern European players led by Vlade Divac from Yugoslavia, Alexander Volkov from Russia, Drazen Petrovic from Croatia, and Sarunas Marciulionis, a 25-year-old shooting guard from Lithuania.
Marciulionis adopted basketball as a full-time passion midway through his childhood. But even as he took to the game, it wasn't clear that he'd be a superstar. While friends like Arvydas Sabonis were marked for a bright future early on, Marciulionis took longer to establish himself. He went to college and studied journalism, he played club basketball in Lithuania, and while the Soviet National Team monitored his progress as part of its juniors program, he was cut from the senior team three times throughout the 80s.
When he finally made the senior national team in 1987, he'd grown into a bruising two-guard who could score at every level. That's when his career took off. He starred at the European Championships in Athens, he helped the Soviets shock the world a year later, and eventually, he began thinking about the NBA.
The league’s international era began with Marciulionis and his peers. It also began with a Christian basketball team touring the Soviet Union, and a scout who was making $25,000-a-year working for his father. And it began with the Olympics in Seoul, not Barcelona.
Below, his story is told by the people who lived it.
ALEXANDER WOLFF (former SI senior writer, author of Big Game, Small World): I remember talking to Sarunas's sister. She told me that he had won some big tennis title in Lithuania, but he had done it by hitting nothing but forehands. He's a lefty, but he would switch the racket over and hit righthanded forehands instead of backhands. That's emblematic of not just the way he played, but his whole personality.
CHRIS MULLIN (Marciulionis's Warriors teammate): Before [Marciulionis] went through the league, the scouting report was probably, "Here's this European guy, probably a spot-up shooter, let's get into him and be aggressive." But that whole thing was flipped. He was more physical than any guard in the league.
DON NELSON (Marciulionis's first coach): My son Donnie played international basketball against Sarunas, so he turned me on to the international game.
DONNIE NELSON (Don's assistant coach): I was playing for Athletes in Action. It was a Christian basketball team, a goodwill team that went all over the world. We had gone behind the Iron Curtain. At the time, Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union. I think I held Sarunas to about 40 points. After the game the two teams went to dinner. There was somebody on their side who spoke English. And after a guy torches you, there's a certain bond. So through a third guy, we developed a little relationship.
MARCIULIONIS: We weren't really able to talk. You know, the language barrier. It was more like dog language. Like how dogs can understand humans, but can't speak. But I liked when people were smiling and excited, paying attention. That part was very attractive. [Donnie] was someone who was very positive toward me.
DONNIE NELSON: Everyone knew who [Soviet center] Arvydas Sabonis was, and there were some other potential players, but no one thought you could ever get them out of the Soviet Union. So when I went over there, it wasn't with the idea of scouting.
MARCIULIONIS: At that time there was no media coverage about the draft, how it works. We had no idea [that Sabonis had been drafted by the Hawks in 1986]. He didn't know, either, what the draft was about. We had the Iron Curtain, you know? So we had no information at all.
DONNIE NELSON: A year or two later Athletes in Action played the Soviet senior team in a three-game series in America—in San Diego, in Sacramento and at the Forum in L.A. Sarunas and I recognized each other. And that trip is where we started to talk seriously about the NBA.
MARCIULIONIS: I remember this I-5, and all those freeways on top of each other. It was very impressive. We drove from San Diego to L.A. It was like first love.
DONNIE NELSON: It was right around Halloween. [The Soviet players] just loved all these people walking around with bags and masks. And then we went to the Hard Rock Cafe, and we introduced some of the locals to the Soviet team. They had an absolute blast.
MARCIULIONIS: Now, after how many years, I'm still going back and spending winters in Solana Beach and La Jolla. San Diego stuck in my brain. It was a dream place.
DONNIE NELSON: This was in 1987. There was some talk among the [Soviet] team that "Hey, if we end up winning the gold medal in '88...." The rumor was that they would be given strong consideration to let them go and play in the NBA. I think [Soviet coach] Alexander Gomelsky was telling the guys that, and he was one of the all-time motivators. Nothing motivates a human being more than freedom, I can tell you that.
MARCIULIONIS: We had to trust Gomelsky. And I don't think it was joke, but of course it wasn't in written form, either. Somehow if we were going to win, always there was a kind of promise that he was going to help us to leave.
After losing its opening game to Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union won seven in a row, including an 82–76 semifinal victory over a team of U.S. collegians and a 76--63 win over Yugoslavia in the gold medal game, in which Marciulionis led the U.S.S.R. with 21 points.
DONNIE NELSON: That's when things really started to ramp up. [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev [indicated] that local republics would be given more autonomy over their natural resources. So what we did was take an industrial argument and apply it to human beings. We made the case within Lithuania, "What's more of a natural resource than a guy who was born and bred here? Sarunas is more Lithuanian than a piece of grain." That started to resonate. The folks in Lithuania rallied around Sarunas.
DON NELSON: We actually went to the [Soviet consulate] in San Francisco. There were a lot of issues to work through.
DONNIE NELSON: If you look at the Soviet Union's history, there were a lot of things that were promised and then didn't happen.
KIM BOHUNY (NBA senior vice president, international basketball operations): The tricky part was, once they were allowed to go, where are they gonna go? And then you had [the Soviet sports committee] involved in retaining money from professional contracts. What would be their take?
MARCIULIONIS: There was a [recruiting] rivalry between Golden State and Atlanta. Because of the Soviet relationship with [Hawks owner] Ted Turner, [Moscow] wanted to send me and Volkov to Atlanta. But somehow, it was my choice.
WOLFF: I think the Soviets understood that there was a political problem. So many of these guys [on the gold medal team] weren’t Russian. And you know, ’88 was only a year or so before it all came tumbling down. So [the Soviets thought] if they gave them a little bit of freedom, they could maybe buy a little time.
BOHUNY: And then, how much control would they have over them once they got to the United States? For instance, Sarunas, he was really under the U.S.S.R. But when he got there he was saying, "I'm Lithuanian," and his entire country, three million people, were saying, "The first Lithuanian playing in the NBA, we're so proud.” They wanted him to talk about the country trying to break away from the Soviet Union. And [players] didn't know. Like, “is something going to happen if we say this?” We're in a country that has free speech, but it was really tricky.
MARCIULIONIS: I was happy I wasn't instructed either way. The Soviets didn't get on my back, saying "You [are] Soviet!" That was my own decision to come here and say "I'm Lithuanian." In the earlier days, friends of mine, they use to change their last name to make it [in America]. They were kinda embarrassed, because you know, nobody knows where Lithuania is. They didn't want to be treated like Russians. They told me later how they felt proud that I was kinda successful here and recognizing that I'm Lithuanian. It was, "Oh wow, he's saying he's Lithuanian."
In June the 6' 5", 200-pound Marciulionis signed a three-year, $3.9 million contract. He said he got to keep "more than half," but various reports estimated the Soviets took as much as 75%. In October he reported to his first training camp.
MARCIULIONIS: California, I visualized this nice vacation area. Palms trees, a beach. Then I got to San Francisco and it's, "No. No, you can't swim here." How can it be so cold? You can't get in the water?
BOHUNY: When the pioneers came over, they came from Eastern Europe, where at that point they just didn't have a lot of material things.
DONNIE NELSON: When you lived in the Soviet Union, part of every day is just getting food. It's a daily grind. So when [Sarunas] came over here and he and his wife walked into a supermarket for the first time, it was really hard for them to believe: the abundance, the selection, all the goods and services we have in this country....
MARCIULIONIS: I'd been to the United States, so I'd been to supermarkets. To say that I was, like, crying, that's probably a little bit too much. But yes, it was very exciting to see such variety of fruits and vegetables.
DONNIE NELSON: And then, obviously you had to teach someone how to open up a checking account. Where to get their driver's license. What's the daily routine. All of those things. I think I was more of a translator in year one than an assistant coach.
DON NELSON: [On the court] he was so gifted, and he'd been playing basketball against lesser players than he saw in the NBA, so he could get away with a lot of bad habits. You couldn't get away with that in the NBA. And I didn't speak Lithuanian or Russian. Sarunas knew very little English. So I tried to communicate through Donnie, and Donnie only knew about 100 words, so... it was frustrating for both sides.
DONNIE NELSON: At that point Sarunas and I had been through quite a bit together and there was a trust factor. [But] rookies lose games. Rookies make mistakes. That's not exactly music to a head coach's ears a lot of times. So my dad, historically, has been fairly hard on rookies. The most important thing is that Sarunas was treated like an American rookie. No special treatment. And I think part of my dad's methodology was to actually be a little bit harder on Sarunas so that the team would rally around him. And that did happen.
MULLIN: Sarunas just kept plugging away and kept his head down. We all go through trials and tribulations, and when you see how a person handles it, that really says a lot.
MARCIULIONIS: The guys on the team were very friendly and supportive. I learned a lot. Like Mitch [Richmond], all the time he was—how you say?— toying with me. Playing the two position against him, it was a very good experience.
DON NELSON: The players were in awe of what he was able to do, how strong he was and how competitive he was. We hadn't seen anything like him.
MULLIN: Look, Nellie's one of the greatest coaches of all time. Very innovative, very on the fly. Even for guys who've been around him, you gotta be on your toes; he'll change things quickly. So just imagine someone who just came over to this country, has the language barrier to deal with, and now he's dealing with the Einstein of basketball and trying to keep up.
DONNIE NELSON: I'm kinda glad that Sarunas's language wasn't so good. I don't think he knew half the things my dad was yelling at him.
MARCIULIONIS: Nellie wanted me to be better. And there were some times when he was making jokes, everybody's laughing in the first six rows, and I'm just running down the floor and I know, "So, he made a joke about me." But I don't understand, so I can't be frustrated. Like, "I know this is about me, but how bad? I don't know!"
DON NELSON: I remember one time, he'd committed another one of my cardinal sins, and I saw film of myself yelling at him. I made a change. I said [to myself], "You know, you're not doing a good job here. You're too negative."
MARCIULIONIS: In the middle of the second season there was a big conversation. Nellie just said, "Sarunas you're not improving. I give you a chance, but you're not where I want you to be. So help me help you."
DON NELSON: Once I told him, "O.K., I'm gonna change how I coach you," he took off.
MULLIN: I remember playing against the Bulls one night. Sarunas was shooting a free throw, and Scottie [Pippen] and Michael [Jordan] were kind of arguing about who was going to guard him. They were like, "Man, this guy's crazy. He's gonna run me over, man. You take him." So he had developed a reputation. He was kind of like a power forward playing two-guard.
After Lithuania secured its independence in 1991, Marciulionis spearheaded the movement to bring Lithuanian basketball to the '92 Games. With Donnie Nelson as an assistant, Lithuania beat the Unified Team—a squad made up of players from 12 of the 15 former Soviet Republics, including Russia—in the bronze medal game, with Marciulionis scoring 29 points.
MULLIN: He basically put that whole basketball program together by himself. You talk about a guy like Lenny Wilkens as a player-coach—that's something you'll never see again, right? Well, Sarunas was basically player, coach, GM, owner, marketing director. [He was] raising money with the Grateful Dead, guys from Apple were helping him, and he was doing all this during the NBA season.
MARCIULIONIS: The night before a game in Detroit, there was a [Grateful Dead] concert, and Donnie said, "Those guys are from Oakland. Maybe they can kick in something [for the National Team]." So we went and got introduced to the group, talked about the foundation they had. I had heard the name of the group, but I didn't know how many followers they had, and the music, how they hook people, and how it was really a culture. We had fundraisers in San Francisco, too, and they [all] kicked in.
WOLFF: I was talking to some shoe company rep just before the Olympics. He was kind of running Donnie down as being unpatriotic. And I'm thinking to myself, This is such an amazing story. It became a huge thing, and they got all this publicity. And all I could think was, "You're not doing your job, Mr. Shoe Company."
MULLIN: I remember Sarunas saying, "Chris, are you free tonight? We're having a little get-together in this bar in the city." We go there, the Grateful Dead are there selling T-shirts, and I'm like, "Well, this ain't gonna work." Sure enough, there they are on the medal stand with their Grateful Dead T-shirts. And I'm like, "Holy s---, it did work."
DONNIE NELSON: It was a magical time. You have the greatest basketball team ever assembled for America, and then standing next to them you’ve got Sarunas, as part of this freedom fighting team that literally beat the old Soviet team to win the bronze medal.
MARCIULIONIS: Everybody was celebrating and screaming. And I went to shower with my shoes on, with my full uniform, just standing there with one idea: It's not that I won, but what if I lost? The whole Olympic tournament, all those games, all those fundraisers, all the nation's excitement. And if you lose... I don't know what I would do with myself. I was so happy that it was behind us. Then, it was just happiness and tears.
Marciulionis returned to the NBA, but injuries cut his career short. He had stints with three more teams, playing his last game in 1996 at age 32. He returned home to Lithuania, where he manages several businesses and remains a hero to the basketball-crazed nation. In 2014, 25 years after his first season in the NBA, Marciulionis was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
MARCIULIONIS: There was a joke once. Tony Parker's father—we were hanging out before a game in Slovenia. He said, "Sarunas, you know how you could be a rich guy? You should go collect 2% from all the players who went from Europe to the NBA." I thought that was pretty funny.
DONNIE NELSON: When I first started in the league, old-school guys were like, "Those guys over there they don't understand, they don't guard, they won't fit in. " And then you had a wave of guys from the fallen Soviet Union, that next group that came through—Marciulionis, Volkov, [Toni] Kukoc; Sabonis came later—there was a period of time where those guys built the bridge of success.
MULLIN: He was really the first guy I can remember who came over [and] established himself. I think everyone else said, “Wow, we can do this.” Guys had been coming, and they were OK, but they weren't staying. Then Sarunas was on a great team, with really good players in front of him, and he had a huge impact on all of us.
DON NELSON: And then, that kind of opened Pandora's box.
Check back Thursday for Part II of our oral history and the stories of Dirk, Giannis, Kristaps and more.