Tuesday, July 31, 2012

How the Dead Helped to Make Olympic History

"This is all a dream we dreamed one afternoon long ago."

The phrase "Dream Team" is synonymous with United States basketball, based off the 1992 Olympic team that won gold in Barcelona. That team's roster of course, is a virtual who's who of basketball prominence.When one thinks of the greatest players who have ever played in the NBA, many members of this team come to mind.

There's Michael Jordan, Larry BirdMagic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, and Patrick Ewing. The roster reads like a handbill passed out at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

In the relatively short history of men's Olympic basketball, the United States have dominated the Gold Medal winnings, bringing home the gold 13 times since the game's inception at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The Soviet Union has won the gold twice, with Yugoslavia and Argentina, each once.

The Soviet Union has had some great teams, especially in the '50s and '60s when they took the silver throughout, finishing 2nd only to the United States in each of the four Olympic games from 1952 through 1964. Finally in 1972 the Soviet Union earned a gold medal, and again in 1988.

They have not been in the medal round since.

This is due, in part, to the fact that in 1990 Lithuania became the first republic to declare it's independence from the Soviet Union. Lithuania has a rich history of producing top-notch basketball players and many of these athletes were a part of the great Soviet teams that battled their way into the medal rounds during the Olympics. In fact, in 1988, the last year the Soviet Union earned a medal (they won the gold),  the top three scorers on the Soviet team were of Lithuanian heritage.

As one can imagine, defecting from the Soviet Union took great courage.

It meant new freedoms for the Lithuanian people but these freedoms came with huge sacrifice. There was violent opposition and financial instability. As a republic within the Soviet Union, Lithuania shared in a planned economy. When they broke away they suddenly found themselves in a free market society and, consequently, at square one in terms of  being financially sound. There wasn't a lot of money, and when the Olympics rolled around in 1992, the prospect of sending it's basketball team to Barcelona to compete seemed pretty dire. As a country that had just gained it's independence, it wasn't financially feasible to compete at this time.

Then came an offer of help from a very unlikely source.

A little ol' rock and roll band from the United States known as the Grateful Dead heard about Lithuania's plight, and  took it upon themselves to sponsor the team and send them to Barcelona.

The Grateful Dead created merchandise with a Lithuanian basketball flair, and sold it at their concerts. It sold like hotcakes and the proceeds were more than enough to finance a Lithuanian trip to Spain, thus allowing the team to compete as an independent country for the first time on the world stage.

""It was really wonderful," Mickey Hart told CNN in 1996. "They were not financed at all, and they were real underdogs, and what was happening in their country was just terrible."

Inspired, the team battled into the medal round and beat the Commonwealth of Independent States, (formerly the Soviet Union), 82-78 to ensure a spot on the medal platform. Then predictably, they lost to the United States in the semi-final. There were no glimpse of disappointment however, as for a team who was almost unable to compete at all, a bronze medal in the Olympics was a truly incredible and welcome achievement.

As a token of their appreciation to their sponsors, the Lithuanian basketball team wore tye-dyed clothing during the award ceremony.

The Grateful Dead sponsored Lithuanian basketball team
accepts their bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics.
While the American Dream Team is made up of legendary basketball players, the Lithuanian team is the stuff that dreams are made of. Their story is that of fairy tales and for the men who played on that team, it was literally a dream come true. Lithuania has made it back to the medal round twice since then, proving for a fact that they are an international basketball power. And to think that they may have never gotten a chance to play had it not been for a little ol' band from San Francisco.

God bless the Grateful Dead.


Anonymous said...

Love this :-) STC

42N said...

I never heard that story. Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

I have one of those shirts! What they (GD) did for several generations

Unknown said...


Karolinka said...

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1606829/ there is a movie about Lithuanian team

Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

So, this is a great article, but it leaves out an important detail of how the Dead came to support the Lithuanian National Team: Bill Walton, former Portland Trailblazers star, father of current LA Lakers coach Luke Walton, and HUGE Deadhead. Walton was a big booster of the Lithuanian Team, and I believe he's the one who put them together with the Dead, who he knew personally. There are probably articles detailing this somewhere, but I haven't located them yet.