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When The Grateful Dead Helped Lithuania Win Basketball Olympic Bronze

Culture | August 23, 2020

A shirt featuring the dunking skeleton, nicknamed 'Skully,' designed as a Grateful-Dead-appropriate mascot for the Lithuanian team. Source: buinesswire.com

When Lithuania's men's basketball team played at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, they did so with help from the Grateful Dead. The relationship with the long-running rock group was evident from the tie-dyed t-shirts team members wore when they weren't on the court, featuring the image of a slam-dunking skeleton. Why did the Dead step in to help a team from a former Soviet republic compete -- and win a bronze medal -- in the Olympics? Because freedom!

Playing for something much bigger than themselves and basketball. (peanutsandpopcorn.wordpress)

The 1992 Olympic Games were dominated by an unprecedented collection of NBA legends. Previously, NBA players were barred from the Olympics but thanks to an embarrassing loss to the Soviet Union in 1988, various factions worked to change that. They formed the much-heralded, “Dream Team.”

However, in that same Olympics, another basketball “Dream Team” from Lithuania was fighting for something much bigger than sports. Lithuania had just gained its independence from the Soviet Union. It was the basketball-loving country’s first opportunity to represent itself on the international stage since 1939. This is the unlikely story of the Lithuanian men’s basketball team: an underdog squad of oppressed athletes that got an unlikely assist from the iconic Grateful Dead in their campaign for national pride.

Soviet Oppression

The four members who were forced to help the Soviet Union win gold in ’88. (dvdizzy)

When Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union divided Eastern Europe with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Lithuania and other Baltic states became part of Russia. Immediately, the Soviets began their oppression by conducting mass deportations.

Over 7 years, 130,000 people including women and children were sent to labor camps. Nearly 30,000 of those people died due to poor living conditions. Those deportations did not include another 150,000 political prisoners sent to Gulags. When the Soviets won the 1988 gold medal in men’s basketball, four of the five starters were Lithuanian. They were forced to stand and honor the flag of the country that systematically killed their countrymen and women by the thousands.    

Playing For Your Oppressor

The band had their back when no one else did. (hypegalore)

Arvydas Sabonis, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011, and Sarunas Marciulionis, who would also play in the NBA, helped the Soviets succeed in international competitions for years. During those years, they smuggled everything from jeans to hotel soaps back to their own country to help support their families.

Despite being the most dominant player in Europe for years and dubbed "a 7'3'' Larry Bird" by Bill Walton, Sabonis could never earn a living in the NBA thanks to Soviet control. Marciulionis made a break for the NBA the same year the Berlin Wall came down. However, the Soviets were just as likely to let him leave as they were to send him to Siberia. 

Independence And The Grateful Dead

Showing appreciation for the Grateful Dead. (sportshistoryweekly)

In 1990 as the Soviet Union crumbled, Lithuania made a bid for independence. 14 people were killed and over 700 hundred were injured as Soviet forces attempted to reassert control in what would become known as the “January Events.” Thanks to Iceland and other European countries, Lithuania got their independence two years before the next Olympics. This set up their first opportunity to represent their country on the biggest international stage in nearly 50 years.

Unfortunately, Lithuania was flat broke but the players banded together in hopes of paying their own way to the Olympics. Marciulionis, who was playing for the Golden State Warriors at the time, worked with assistant coach Donnie Nelson to help raise money for the Lithuanian National team. 

After a newspaper article detailed their plight, Nelson received a call from the Grateful Dead’s representative. Dead Members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh expressed their love, not only of freedom but of basketball and offered to help out the team.

Marciulionis went to a Grateful Dead concert where he identified “a strange smell." After the concert, he went backstage. There the boys gave him some Grateful Dead tie-dyed T-shirts and cut him the check that sent the men’s Lithuanian basketball team to Barcelona for the Olympics.

When the Grateful Dead backs your team, you might as well wear it on your sleeve. Designer Greg Speirs came up with the character of Skullman or Skully, a dunking skeleton. T-shirts printed with Skullman and ti-dyed in Lithuania's national colors became standard warm-up wear for the team.

Revenge Is Best Served Cold

Their best player Arvydas Sabonis missed the medal stand because he has already started the celebration. Apparently, he also spent the week destroying shot-putters and discus throwers at arm wrestling. (bleacherreport)

After admirably acquitting themselves during pool play, the Lithuanian team ended up in the Bronze medal game against none other than the Soviet Union. The Lithuanians fought with 50 years of oppression driving them and thousands of lives lost to the Soviets. At one point, Valdemaras Chomicius, one of the four players who won gold for the Soviets in ‘88, sustained a forehead gash from a Soviet elbow. The Lithuanian President, Vytautas Landsbergis, who was in attendance told him, "Don't worry, you're spilling blood for Lithuania."

Left: Lisa Kudrow wears a Lithuania tie-dye on 'Freinds.' Right: Jonah Hill in the official 'Skully' tie-dye. Sources: Sneaker Report; Esquire

The Lithuanians arose bloody and victorious taking a momentous win for themselves and their country. Traditionally, winning teams wear their warm-ups while receiving their medals. However, Marciulionis had other ideas. When the team proudly received their Bronze medals alongside the American Dream Team, they were wearing their tie-dyed Grateful Dead shirts.

Lithuanian basketball, the Grateful Dead and tie-dye have been inexorably linked ever since, with the "Skully" t-shirts becoming a popular hipster look to this day.

Tags: Lithuania | Rare Facts And Stories About History | The Grateful Dead | The Olympics

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!