At the finish, sweet and improbable, full of emotion and
ramifications beyond just a single day, the Lithuanian players
found each other in celebration. Sarunas Marciulionis rushed
from the bench, where he had been chained by fouls for two
excruciating overtimes, and wrapped 36-year-old teammate Rimas
Kurtinaitis in a joyful embrace. Arvydas Sabonis, forced to
play, 48 of the game's 50 minutes on fragile knees before
fouling out with 2: 16 left in the second overtime, slapped at
injured teammate Arturas Karnisovas with a towel, both of them
"It was lucky," Marciulionis would say later, trying to make
sense of a victory that had at times seemed impossible. But the
Lithuanian team, which in its four years of existence has
endured so much, helped create that luck in beating Croatia
83-81 in double overtime at Morehouse College last night. As
pure athletic spectacle the game stands on its own, a riveting
show on the opening night of the men's basketball tournament
that will be hard to match over the next two weeks.
But more than that, this game accentuated the fact that the very
best of the non-Dream Teams in the field--Lithuania and Croatia
and Yugoslavia--are on a curious quest. Go for the silver seems
to be their charge, which runs contrary to the spirit of any
competition, Olympic or otherwise. The outcome of the
Lithuania-Croatia game was critical to that charge because both
teams knew the loser would almost certainly play the United
States in the semifinals, and thus have no shot at the silver
medal. The top four teams in each of the two six-team pools
advance to next week's quarterfinals, and the team finishing
second to the U.S. won't face it again until the gold medal
game. "In our pool we want to be second, that's obvious," said
Marciulionis, who plays for the Denver Nuggets.
The U.S. started the march to its seemingly inevitable gold
medal with a 96-68 victory last night over Argentina at the
Georgia Dome. In one of the preludes to Lithuania's stirring
victory, Yugoslavia gathered itself in the final minutes and
beat Greece 71-63. That victory was the first step toward what
many had assumed would be one of the most emotional moments of
the basketball competition: a semi-final game next week between
Yugoslavia and Croatia. But Lithuania stood as the principal
obstacle to that happening.
July 20, 1996
With 3:08 left to play in the second overtime, Croatia held a
77-74 lead and seemed poised to win. Lithuania was without NBA
and international veteran Marciulionis, the soul of not just
this team but of Lithuanian basketball, who had fouled out with
26 seconds left in regulation. And it was without Karnisovas,
who had sprained his right ankle and left the game with 2:55 to
play in the first overtime. "That was a very dark moment for our
team," Marciulionis said of the losses.
The burden of survival fell to team captain Kurtinaitis, the
star of the Soviet Union's epochal semifinal upset of the John
Thompson--coached U.S. collegians at the Seoul Games eight years
ago. A 6' 4" guard whose forte has always been the outside
shot, Kurtinaitis made a three-point basket with 2:57 remaining
in the second overtime and was fouled on the play. He converted
the free throw--a four point play--to put Lithuania in front
Toni Kukoc, the Chicago Bull whose appearance in the game was
doubtful because of a broken left (shooting) thumb, was fouled
on a three-point attempt at the other end and made all three
free throws to put Croatia back in the lead 80-78 with 2:44
left. Then came what seemed to he the death knell for Lithuania:
Sabonis, who was brilliant last season as a rookie with the
Portland Trail Blazers and who finished this game with 20
points, 14 rebounds and three assists, picked up his fifth foul
on a charge. He trudged to the sideline and stood at the end of
the Lithuanian bench, arms folded like a giant statue.
Croatia, however, turned the hall over twice in the next minute.
Finally, with 1:06 to play, Kurtinaitis drilled a three-pointer
from the right side, putting Lithuania back on top 8l-80. The
Lithuanian bench stood and shook fists at the sky. Dino Radja
of Croatia, who just finished his third season with the Boston
Celtics, tied the game by making a free throw with 51 seconds
left. But with 28.3 remaining, Kurtinaitis drew a foul and made
one of two free throws for an 82-81 Lithuania lead.
Croatia put the ball in Kukoc's hands, as it had, without
success, at the end of regulation and the first OT. This time
with just under 20 seconds to play, he gave it up and 6'4" guard
Rytis Vaisvila of Lithuania would not let him get it back. Two,
three, tour times Croatia passed the ball, never getting it to
the best player Europe has ever sent to the NBA. Croatia's best
chance of avoiding the Dream Team in the semis evaporated when
Veljko Mrsic missed a forced jumper.
Kurtinaitis, subsequently was fouled with 2.7 seconds left and
made a free throw. Kukoc's desperate full-court heave fell
short at the horn, and the celebration began.
In a postgame interview, it was Marciulionis who translated
Kurtinaitis's answer to questions about his role in the game.
"He feels he's a supporting player," said Marciulionis. An
uncomfortable grimace came to Marciulionis's face. "I wouldn't
say that, but...."
Kurtinaitis's heroics ruined Kukoc's 33-point performance,
including a stretch in the second half when he scored 15 of his
team's 17 points. He had practiced with Croatia one day earlier,
quieting speculation that the hand he had injured in an
exhibition against Canada two weeks ago would sideline him for
the opener. But Croatia coach Petar Skansi did not start Kukoc.
"Most of the time we prepared without him," Skansi said. "He
has a broken [thumb]; I wanted to see if we could play the game
Croatia trailed 7-2 and appeared lifeless with just more than
five minutes elapsed, so Kukoc was inserted and he played the
next 45 minutes. "It was a very important game for us." he
said. "If we beat them we could finish second in our group,
which would leave us the easier way to the final."
Kukoc dominated large stretches of yesterday's game, displaying
the open-court flair that had made him a legend before he came
to the U.S. But he couldn't squeeze off a shot with the game
tied at the end of regulation, and he just missed a tip-in that
would have broken a 72-all tie at the end of the first overtime.
Now his Olympic future is uncertain. "I feel plenty of pain."
he said of the thumb injury. He did not rule out missing
several games. More painful than the thumb is the likelihood
that bronze looms in his future.
Yugoslavia, the favorite in the B Pool, opposite the Dream Team,
Lithuania and Croatia, lacks not in the least for star power,
most notably Vlade Divac, the 7' 1" center who was recently
traded to the Charlotte Hornets after seven seasons with the Los
Angeles Lakers. He is joined by 26-year-old Predrag (Sasha)
Danilovic, a smooth 6' 7" guard who missed most of his first NBA
season last year with the Miami Heat because of a wrist injury,
and 6'9" forward Zarko Paspalj, who played briefly for the San
But only one of these NBA types impacted Yugoslavia's late
awakening against Greece. Even as Yugoslavia coach Zilimir
Obradovic tried to put Divac back into the game in the final
three minutes, Divac's replacement, Zeljko Rebraca, scored
twice, pushing Yugoslavia in front 60-58. With 1:26 to play,
Danilovic drained a trey for a 63-59 lead, sealing a win that
should help keep Yugoslavia away from the same dark
possibility--a semifinal game against the Dream Team--that
Lithuania probably avoided.