These are Lithuanians, Young Enthusiasts; they’re supposed to look like that. This is 1992, and the Soviet Union had just broken up–it was a mutual decision–and so this would be the first time that Lithuania could have their own basketball team in the Olympics, and that was important to them because Lithuanians are nuts for basketball, and they’re good at it, too: in 1988, four out of the five starters for the Soviet Olympic team were Lithuanian.
Commies were all about the Glory of Sport: their athletes were selected at young ages and trained in academies; they may also have been educated. Drugs and beatings and (I’d wager) uncountable acts of child abuse and punishment for losing. In Soviet Russia, the cover of the Wheaties box went on you.
What does that mean?
Shh. I’m talking about history. Anyway, the Soviet system was basically a gulag archipelago of gyms, but there were also perks. Winning had its rewards, comrade. A new Lada. Dacha on the Black Sea. Extra potato. Or, maybe, you could get a ticket out from behind the Iron Curtain. The Ministry of Sport–seriously, it was called that–promised the four Lithuanians on that ’88 basketball team that if they brought home gold for Mother Russia, then they could go play for the NBA. (They’d have to send all the money back home, but it was better than nothing.)
The NBA’s the important part here, Younger Enthusiast, because it serves a position in the story of both carrot and stick. The Lithuanians’ desperation to get to the NBA led to them beating the United States and taking home the gold. Said beating caused America to stand up from its chair, shivering with rage and aching with fear at the terrible thing that it knew it must now do.
“Release the Jordan.”
And so in 1992, you had the Dream Team–Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, and eight other Hall-of-Famers who weren’t Isiah Thomas–and no matter what you promised a Lithuanian, no one was beating them.
I’m ahead of myself: remember how those rotten, collectivist, turnip-fucking cossacks promised the noble, brave, hardworking Lithuanians that they could go to America and play in the NBA in return for the medal? They lied. Only one guy was allowed to go, a 6’5″ shooting guard named Šarūnas Marčiulionis, and he ended up on the Golden State Warriors, who play in the city of San Francisco. This was ’89. Couldn’t speak the language, but he was outgoing and friendly and so he ended up going out with his friends a lot. Some of his friends were associates of a certain semi-defunct, choogly-type band.
On Christmas Day, 1991, the Soviet Union fell. (And God bless us, everyone.) Marčiulionis had one goal: put together a Lithuanian national team to compete in the Olympics, and kick the shit out of the Russians. He had the players, but not the money, and so he started asking around town. Up and down Market, and all around Lombard, and door-to-door in the Castro. He even brought his beggar’s bowl to Front Street.
The Dead sent a check, and a couple boxes full of shirts and shorts. These were men who had grown up under Soviet rule: they were not familiar with tie-dye. The bright colors seemed right, though. Marčiulionis and the Lithuanians made it through the qualifying rounds, and went on to Barcelona. They played the Dream Team: 127-76. The score makes it seem closer than it was, but that wasn’t why they went to Spain.
In the bronze medal match, Lithuania beat Russia 82-78.
By now, the team had attracted sponsors and they had fancy workout clothes, but they wore their tie-dye onto the medal podium, both to show their national colors and to thank the Dead. Skully–that’s what they named the slam-dunking skeleton on the front of the shirt–is in the Basketball Hall of Fame, right alongside all the members of the Dream Team. We really are everywhere.
It is not clear whether or not the team’s fanny packs were provided by Bobby.