Basketball diaries

  • 2002-03-14
  • Tassos Coulaloglou
If basketball is like a religion in Lithuania, then Sarunas Marciulionis is one of its gods. But to say the National Basketball Association star is just a former basketball player would do the man no justice, as Tassos Coulaloglou discovered.

Marciulionis became a member of the U.S.S.R.'s junior team in 1983 and in the 1988 Olympics won gold with his team. In 1989 he became the first Soviet player to sign with an NBA team. He played for the Golden State Warriors from 1989 to 1994, and later Seattle, Sacramento and Denver, where he finished his career in 1997. He led the Lithuanian national team to win bronze in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics.

In Vilnius he built the Sarunas Hotel and a basketball school named after and subsidized by him, where kids hone their basketball as well as life skills.

He is president of the Lithuanian basketball league, but his biggest contribution to European basketball has been the creation of the Northern European Basketball League, a European version of the NBA. He's now busy building a huge sports and leisure complex in Vilnius called the Forum Palace.

How did it feel to go from the Soviet Union to the U.S.A., to the best league in the world?

We experienced life a little when we traveled with the Soviet team. My first time in the States was in 1983, with the junior team. The first year was tough. I couldn't speak the language. The philosophy was different.

The Atlanta Hawks, a very good team, came to play Vilnius in spring 1988. I understood then that the U.S. level was very high, but we were not far behind as individuals. A team game is a team game though. They complained that we Europeans didn't play defense well but that we were better shooters. So it equaled out.

In the U.S. it was a real street mentality. It's just man-to-man on the floor, and proved to be about how physically and psychologically tough you are. We see more of an American style now in European basketball.

The NBA life is, of course, less realistic than for regular citizens. I never went to poor areas, never lived with them and experienced shortages of things. You are served so well, and have no problem with having luxurious things. You know where you're going and what you're doing. You live within a frame, like a sort of botanical garden.

How were you able to leave the U.S.S.R. so smoothly? Where were the bureaucratic barriers?

The same lawyers used by Gary Kasparov, the chess player, helped me leave as a free agent under international labor laws. These let you sign any deal with any company in the world.

You won gold in the Soviet team in 1988 and two bronzes with the Lithuanian team. Which do you cherish most?

Well, gold is gold. Bronze with the independent team is bronze, and bronze again in 1996 was also bronze, because of my knee and the pain. It's very hard to defend a privileged position. Personally, I think the toughest was the 1996 medal. Us older guys knew what the price was to win and lose, so maybe we were too hard on the youngsters. We were demanding them to work the same way we did - the same intensity in practice as in the game. Hard on the court and hard off the court. Some guys who didn't get much playing time just read the paper during practice, while we were taking additional shots. So we said to those guys that we didn't want to have them on the team, that we'd win with 10 guys. That got into the Lithuanian media, who wrote we were hazing the younger guys like in the military.

Then I had my knee problems. I'd had surgery two months earlier, and I never recovered from that. Instead of two months on crutches, I was playing again after two weeks.

Why build a basketball school?

I had the opportunity. I wanted to do something good for children. As a kid my grandmother had to knit socks for me. Even shoes were a luxury.

And a hotel? Did you always plan on having your own business?

Basketball isn't forever. What was I going to do, work for someone else? Do charity for the rest of my life? Basketball is the summer of your life so that's why during my playing years I also had to think about my future.

Why did you feel it was necessary to start the Northern European Basketball League?

The basketball level in Europe is not as high as it is in the U.S., but individual players can compete in the NBA. So the club situation is a poor organization. FIBA, the international basketball association, is an amateur association. For basketball to be competitive with other sports it's got to have the right administration, the right promotion, the right PR concept. If you're a singer you are getting paid, you use the promotional machine. It exploits you, but you are getting something. Here you have to pay for everything yourself. If you are a basketball player or a club, you often have to pay for travel and accommodation, for a license...

With the NEBL we've centralized rights and for clubs we cover referees, travel expenses, meals, hotels. We work locally with the clubs and try and promote basketball in the community starting with floor management, ticket sales, the media and PR. But it's not easy. Different countries have different levels of basketball.

We have over 19 countries, and 15 TV deals, most of them prime time. We care about basketball. We care about its development, because nobody else can do that.

What is the future of Lithuanian basketball?

Some things you can predict and others you can't. One thing is certain, that the Lithuanian league can't generate more money than it is making now. You can't expand with more clubs. If you can expand with more clubs and with more sponsors, Lithuanian players will leave the country to play for other clubs. The tradition we started where players always come back to the national team is a good one. But club competition is hard to predict. For the top level to be successful you have to have arenas. The lowest number you need is 10,000 spectators and in Lithuania we just don't have that.