'I Have To Open People's Eyes'

Sarunas Marciulionis of Lithuania brings the same fire to striving for prosperity for his homeland as he does to playing for the Warriors
November 09, 1992

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.'

"But there's an underlying theme to everything he has done—coming to the NBA, putting together the Olympic team, setting up his projects in Lithuania and living his life in general. If he believes something is right, he doesn't believe anything anybody says to the contrary. He's going to pour everything physically and emotionally into that thing, no matter what. And if anybody doubts him, they might as well pour gasoline on his fire. Method? There is no method. Rooney goes. Rooney conquers. Exactly the way he plays basketball."

Laimute Drazdauskaite was seven years old when she fell from a bicycle and suffered a spinal injury. Years later, after marrying Juozas Marciulionis, she aggravated that old injury so badly while giving birth to their first child, a daughter, Zita, that she wound up bedridden for a year and a half. Doctors told her she could have another child only at her peril. But Laimute was determined to have a son, and when she did, she named him Raimondas Sarunas, invoking with the second of those names a feisty warrior knight from Lithuanian folklore.

In life, Sarunas seemed to manifest the same determination his mother had shown during his birth. Three times before he turned 10 he won a Lithuanian age-group tennis title, and he did so ambidextrously, switching the racket from right hand to left, swatting nothing but forehands. Zita found her athletically prodigious little brother so astonishingly different from their mother, a strict geography teacher, and their father, an engineer with sad eyes and a winsome manner, that she sought out an astrologer for an explanation. "His stars are very good," says Zita. "His zodiac is Gemini. He wants to be in movement, he wants to be with people."

Sarunas's passage into adulthood can be traced precisely to a February day in his 13th year. In his idle time he had taken to fashioning homemade explosives in the backyard area of his family's high-rise apartment building in Kaunas. He would stuff matchboxes with gunpowder and set them on fire to impress younger kids from the neighborhood. But on this day he misjudged the length of a fuse. The explosion melted a hole through the synthetics of his jacket, singed away his hair and eyebrows and left his face disfigured. A bright winter's day suddenly went dark.

Marciulionis remembers best what he heard later that day, still blind, in the emergency room: the mothers of children with lesser ailments exclaiming to their young, "Oh, don't look at him!...He's so young—what a shame!" Over the three weeks of his hospital stay Sarunas had to be quarantined because his looks so frightened the other children in the pediatric wing that they couldn't sleep at night. Repentance welled up in him. Oh, I'll be good, he vowed. Just give me my sight back and make my face normal again! A month after he was admitted, after taking several cycles of eye medication, his vision had completely returned. Eventually his face healed, too. "It was a kind of miracle," says Marciulionis, whose parents still keep a box with some of the burnt skin scaled from his face. "I had a lot of time just to think about life. When I see these blind children at the school, in the back of my mind I am them."

Swearing off all basement pyrotechnics, Sarunas threw himself into basketball. He played in the parking lot behind his apartment building, under a backboard he had cobbled together himself. Even in the most basketball-crazed regions of the U.S. the game doesn't dominate the people's sporting consciousness the way it does in Lithuania. During the early 1980s the powerful Zalgiris team of Kaunas won three Soviet club championships, victories Lithuanians celebrated as the next best thing to independence. With its 7'3" center, Arvidas Sabonis, and clever point guard, Vitoldas Masalskis, Zalgiris so captivated the public that every clerk in every liquor store in Marciulionis's hometown knew this: If a customer came in asking for a Sabonis, he wanted a big bottle of vodka; if he asked for a Masalskis, he wanted a small one.

At the University of Vilnius, where Marciulionis studied journalism, he played only in the odd basketball tournament "to defend the colors of my school," he says. But even this limited exposure attracted the interest of the junior coach at Statyba, the most important club in Vilnius and Zalgiris's archrival. The next year he played with Statyba, and then came an invitation from Moscow to try out for the Soviet junior national team.

Marciulionis was too thrilled to consider the political implications of playing in the colors of Lithuania's occupiers. "We were proud when we were wanted by the Soviet team," he says. "To be picked from 260 million is a great distinction." He made the team but played rarely. Then, at the Junior World Championships in Spain in the summer of 1983, he entered the second half of a game against the U.S. with the Soviets trailing by 15 points. "I played really hard," he says. "I scored, had a couple of steals and turned the game our way. From that point on I felt all my frustrations were worth it."

His frustrations would continue, but by now Marciulionis was conditioned to reinterpreting them as challenges. He would miss making the 12-man Soviet senior national team three times before breaking through in 1987, when at age 23 he was the sensation of that summer's European Championships in Athens.

It was shortly after his coming out in Athens that officials of the Lithuanian Communist Party handed him a speech they wanted him to deliver to an audience of thousands of workers drawn from all over Vilnius. The speech made a case—a defensible one—that Lithuania's greatest sports triumphs had come under the Soviet system. But it went further, suggesting that those triumphs were the result of that system. Marciulionis wanted no part of implicitly bad-mouthing Lithuanian independence. The officials suggested, without much subtlety, that he think hard before rejecting the proposal: His final exams at the university were coming up. He and his wife, Inga, were in line to receive an apartment. His place on the Soviet senior team, freshly won, wasn't yet secure. Marciulionis winces while recalling the day he addressed the workers. "It's one thing I wasn't tough enough about." he says, "but they tried to scare me. They said I could have everything I wanted to have if only I did this."

There were other reasons it behooved Marciulionis to give in. The sports ministry had been swept along by the same wave of change—perestroika—then breaking over Soviet society, and the government would soon promise members of the national basketball team that they would be free to sign contracts to play abroad if they won a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics. Changes in the Soviet Union did not go unremarked Stateside, either, especially in two NBA front offices, those of the Warriors and the Atlanta Hawks. In theory no team stood to benefit from the Soviet Union's liberalized policies more than the Hawks, whose owner, Goodwill Games impresario Ted Turner, was already well connected in the Kremlin. Golden State had chosen Marciulionis against the rules in 1987 when he was eight days too old to be eligible for the draft; thus conventional wisdom around the NBA held that he would eventually be "assigned" to Atlanta by Goskomsport, the government-run sports corporation, with Goskomsport taking its usual outsized cut of the deal. But in '89, as winter turned to spring and power started flowing away from Moscow, the Warriors, for reasons we shall see, now held all the aces.

Marciulionis had first met Donn Nelson during the summer of 1985, when Nelson played for Athletes in Action, a touring team. Marciulionis knew little English and Nelson no Lithuanian, and at first that limited their interaction to vague kindnesses and pleasantries translated through third parties.

Two years later came an episode that helped cinch Marciulionis's friendship with Donn Nelson. When Marciulionis was in the town of Panevezys with Statyba to play in a tournament, there was a knock at his hotel room door. The man at the door, whom Marciulionis did not know, bore the traditional Lithuanian welcoming gift of homemade bread. He told Marciulionis his story: His teenage son suffered from a rare heart condition. Hospital after hospital had said it couldn't provide the boy with an artificial heart valve, the only thing that would keep him from dying in a matter of months. "This is what I have," the man said, offering the bread. "I give it to you."

Marciulionis did the only thing he could: He appealed to his new American friend. Donn canvassed the States, trying vainly to acquire an artificial valve. Finally, with the help of Nelson's mother. Sharon, and the congregation at her Milwaukee church, Marciulionis and Donn were able to bring the boy to the U.S. and introduce him to Dr. Jim King, a heart specialist, who performed the operation.

By collaborating in fixing a stranger's heart, both plumbed what was in each other's and found much in common. After the 1988 Olympics, Marciulionis invited Nelson to Lithuania, where for three months he lived with Marciulionis in Vilnius. The two staged a series of clinics around the increasingly restive republic.

On June 23, 1989, without the approval of Goskomsport, Marciulionis signed for a reported $1.3 million a year with the team that, he says, "cared about my future more than I did." People told him he was crazy. They told him he would wind up in jail. But Marciulionis still had in his heart a little of the rebellious boy who had built bombs in his backyard. Marciulionis gambled that the fraying regime had much more pressing things to worry about than keeping a basketball player from seeking his fortune abroad. He was right. Marciulionis was not only the first Soviet citizen to sign with an NBA team; he was also the first Soviet professional athlete not to have to kick back so much as a kopek to the Kremlin, "I hate when somebody takes from me," says Marciulionis, who has donated a refrigerator and money from the Children's Fund to that boarding school for blind children. "Don't take from me. Because"—here he gestures, spreading his hands out from his heart—"I can give."

Don Nelson guessed it would take three seasons for Marciulionis to develop into a productive NBA player. For a while that timetable seemed foolishly optimistic. "Everything was coming at him at oblique angles," says George Shirk, the San Francisco Chronicle basketball writer who introduced Marciulionis to the Grateful Dead backstage at a concert in Auburn Hills, Mich., thus forever altering the course of sporting haberdashery. "As an Eastern European playing in the Bay Area for a tough coach, he might as well have been on the moon. His first trip to the Safeway completely weirded him out. He and his wife were hoarding vegetables as if they weren't sure they'd still be there the next day."

On the floor the mental pressures to please his coach short-circuited Marciulionis's intuitiveness, that unfettered part of him that makes his game so effective. Finally, in a hotel coffee shop in Cleveland during the middle of Marciulionis's second season, Nelson sat down with his still-unbroken colt and confessed to being at a loss over what to do with him. Marciulionis asked that he simply not be ridden so hard. "We came to an agreement that we would concentrate on just a few things," Nelson says. "I stopped trying to make him a perfect player." Meanwhile Marciulionis picked up more and more English. And his teammates finally accepted that, with the ball and a path to the basket, "he has," as Chris Mullin puts it, "a certain gift."

Now NBA teams are clue-free as to how to stop him. He was the highest-scoring nonstarter in the NBA last season, with 18.9 points a game, and runner-up to the Indiana Pacers' Detlef Schrempf for the Sixth Man Award. No guard shot a better percentage from the floor. And among the league's players, only Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler and Karl Malone produced more than the one point every 1.55 minutes played that Marciulionis turned in with his peculiar style, which the Dead might call Not Fade Away.

"My personality is that I hate to miss," Marciulionis says. "Yet I know that it's impossible to make 100 percent of your shots. But I'm not comfortable with that logic. So when I drive to the basket, I have less chance to miss and more chance to get fouled or pass off. A basket or free throws or an assist. Three options. This is my logic."

It is a logic that doesn't take into account the hazards lying in wait in NBA lanes, hazards that caused Marciulionis to miss 10 games last season, and another 32 the season before that, with strained knees and bruised hips. With all the basketball he has played since the end of last season, it's amazing that the broken right fibula that will sideline him for the first three weeks of this season wasn't suffered on the court but in the woods in Lithuania, where he fell in September while jogging the day before he was to fly back to the U.S. for camp.

As all out as Marciulionis plays for pay, consider what he did while playing for pride. Against the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in the Olympics, Lithuania held a 19-point lead five minutes into the second half, only to lose 92-80. It was bad enough that Lithuania's first loss as a new nation should come to Russians-by-any-other-name. Worse, the defeat put the Lithuanians in a semifinal against the unbeatable Americans. If the Lithuanians were to win a medal, they could now only get a bronze.

As it happened, Lithuania met the CIS in a rematch for the bronze medal. Marciulionis scored 29 points in that 82-78 victory, which followed an enervating, sleepless night. The feelings that set in when the game ended, remembers Donn Nelson, who served as an assistant coach for the Lithuanian team, made the moment seem like "a wedding, a funeral—every emotion you can ever feel, all combined. All of a sudden tears started flowing from this rock of a guy. This was the most powerful moment I've ever experienced in sports."

It is probably safe to say that no Olympian who had ever won gold in a previous Games has ever been so happy with a bronze. "They are two completely different things," Marciulionis says. "Most athletes finish their career after winning the gold, because it's a dream. But this bronze is like a beginning, a new era. The gold was for each of us; but the bronze—we knew who we were playing for."

It isn't yet noon, and already this has been another exasperatingly typical Vilnius day. Earlier this morning a busted pipe left guests at the Hotel Sarunas with no hot water. Now Marciulionis is at the Statyba team's gym, the temporary home of his basketball school. He gestures disgustedly at a puddle that has formed on the sideline under a leak in the roof. "We had a new roof put on, right?" he asks, rhetorically. "And look at the quality. We pay them. They do a bad job. Now we have to go to court for arbitration." Such is life in Lithuania these days—water where you don't want it, no water where you do.

"Without hard times, people don't appreciate the good times," says Marciulionis, "but I think my nation has had enough hard times. So I'd like to change the mentality of the people like that." He snaps his fingers. "People have to understand the need to work, to work hard. There are too many people with foolish ambitions."

Lithuanians use a Western word to describe some of these people who have interposed themselves between what their country is and what Marciulionis would like it to be. The word is Mafia. You can see the wise guys in Vilnius and Kaunas, in small groups, with leather jackets and cellular phones and too much time on their hands. They settled one internal matter a few months ago, in an abandoned Soviet Army barracks behind what will soon become the Vilnius campus of the Marciulionis Basketball School, by splattering the walls with brain matter.

Being a businessman in such an environment requires a measure of delicacy. Marciulionis avoids the cafès where the mobsters hang out, for fear that they may take him for a mark. But he has an array of friends and acquaintances—from basketball, from his youth in Kaunas and from the six different schools he attended—and some of these people tell him that the Mafia respects him for how he has attained success. "They know that I didn't get it from my dad and didn't get it from the lottery," he says. "They know that my hands and legs fed me." And so they let him be.

Yet even as he lays the bricks of the new Lithuania, he receives some brickbats, too. It's the honest, workaday Lithuanian citizen who's likely to regard Marciulionis with envy. Those who are still part of the great mass, with so little, suddenly have this prosperous public man to scrutinize, and for them it is just as easy to say he should do more as it is to say he does so much. "You hear people say that he does these things for charity only as a tax shelter," says Ritis Sabas, a member of the Vilnius University basketball team. "You hear them say, 'We're working hard, and he gets money for nothing.' I say to them, 'Man, you should work as hard as he plays.' "

To forestall such criticism, Marciulionis, who this season will earn $1.5 million from the Warriors, lives a cleaved life. One half is marked in the East Bay by a Mercedes and fine Chinese cuisine and a comfortable house; the other in Vilnius's Old Town by a simple Lada auto and szepeline dumplings and that spartan apartment. (His marriage to Inga, a former Soviet junior national team player herself, has suffered as he has taken on causes as if they were mistresses; she and their five-year-old daughter, Krista, live separately from him in the Bay Area.)

It's a mystery why Lithuanians carp at Marciulionis and spare Sabonis, Lithuania's other world-renowned millionaire basketball player and a star in the Spanish League, who isn't near the philanthropist Marciulionis is. Sabonis blew off the medal ceremony in Barcelona—"I was too drunk," he explained—and the Lithuanian people blithely forgave him. It may be a simple matter of Sabonis's stature, mythical as well as physical, exempting him from the standards people seem so eager to apply to his smaller countryman. But shouldn't Marciulionis be just as mythical a figure? Shouldn't there be a place in the folklore for Sarunas the Warrior, heir and namesake to Sarunas the warrior?

The shoulders alone merit the place. They seem broad enough to assume the weight of all that he takes on, yet they slope so sharply that one can imagine things forever being at metaphorical risk of rolling off them. Marciulionis says he's not a religious person, so there must still be a fair amount of the old regime's quixotic ideal of social equality rattling around in him—how else to explain his sense of obligation? But there's enough Ayn Rand at his core that he believes it's his duty to step in and do. Atlas-like, what an entire state once did.

And so, to him, it rankles that cab drivers in his country make more than surgeons, that gestures of kindness (and not merely his own) are met with suspicion, that one man's success begets another's jealousy. This is "antilogic," he says. "The Baltic Road show of unity [the 1990 human chain that stretched across the Baltic states] was a great example of people working together. I cried when I saw that, people linking hands from Vilnius to Riga to Tallinn.

"You see, people stay together when they face a really dangerous situation. But right now we are fighting over small things, just killing each other over them. I can't understand how a nation can be so strong in the face of danger and so weak in times of peace."

He joked that "challenge" is his middle name, after telling you earnestly that Sarunas is. Yet, in a sense both are at his core, the goal and the warrior. They coexist unstably, fuel for some perpetual internal-combustion reaction that animates him, moves him forward all the time. Is something analogical? Is some wrong in need of setting right? Surely there's an explanation up ahead; surely there's a solution, if only you drive, drive to the goal.

PHOTOANTONIN KRATOCHVILAt a church in Vilnius, Marciulionis ponders his nation's fate. PHOTOTIM DEFRISCONBA rivals have learned that Marciulionis possesses a special drive. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHThree lives: Marciulionis with Soviet gold (left), Lithuanian bronze and Warrior assistant Nelson. PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN[See caption above.] PHOTOSAM FORENCICH[See caption above.] PHOTOANTONIN KRATOCHVILLaimute and Juozas (above, with Sarunas and Zita) named their son for a warrior. Now they admire the spoils of Olympic battle. PHOTO[See caption above.] PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEINAt a Lithuanian fete in Los Angeles in October, Marciulionis embodied the festival's theme.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)