“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Sarunas Marciulionis – The Lithuanian machine
It was August 28, 1982, the day of the final of the junior European Championship, played in Bulgaria. In the big game, the finalists were the USSR and Yugoslavia. On one side, Jose Biriukov, Igors Miglinieks, Valeri Tikhonenko and Sarunas Marciulionis; on the other, Drazen Petrovic, Velimir Perasovic, Danko Cvjeticanin, Stojko Vrankovic. The Soviets won 97-87 after a great first half (55-35). One year later, in Palma de Mallorca in the final of the second junior World Cup, the USSR lost to the United States 82-78 even though it had a stronger team with Arvydas Sabonis (29 points), Alexander Volkov, Tiit Sokk, plus Tikhonenko, Marciulionis and Miglinieks. The Americans also had a solid team with Kenny Walker (22 points) and Scott Skiles (15).
Those were the first two finals, the first two medals, in the successful career of Sarunas Marciulionis, who was born in Kaunas, Lithuania on June 13, 1964. He remains one of the greatest Lithuanian players ever and one of the European pioneers in the NBA. While it’s true that in Bulgaria, Marciulionis didn’t have a starring role, by 1983 his influence on the Soviet team was starting to get noticed.
From Kaunas to Vilnius
As a kid, until he was 10, Marciulionis played tennis in his native Kaunas. But after growing 11 centimeters in one year, he was kicked out of the sport for being “too big.” The next stop was the basketball court. Left-handed, strong and with evident talent, he progressed quickly, but it wasn’t easy to earn a spot in Zalgiris, the cradle of so many Lithuanian talents. After talking to his parents, he decided to move to Vilnius to join the rival Statyba – today known as Lietuvos Rytas – where he played from 1981 to 1987. In September of 1987, he finally got to wear the jersey of Zalgiris. In that year’s Intercontinental Cup, played in Milan, Marciulionis was invited to reinforce the team due to the fact that Sabonis was injured. It didn’t help much, however, because Zalgiris finished last, eighth, while the Tracer Milan team with Mike D’Antoni and Bob McAdoo defeated the FC Barcelona by the score of 100-84.
In June of 1987, Marciulionis experienced both disappointment and great joy in succession. In the title game of EuroBasket in Athens, Greece defeated the USSR overtime 103-101 thanks to 40 points by Nikos Galis. Marciulionis scored 16 points, Valdis Valters 23 and Tikhonenko 17, but it was not enough to stop one of the biggest surprises ever in EuroBasket. Only eight days later, in the NBA draft, Marciulionis was chosen by the Golden State Warriors with pick number 127 in the seventh round.
Gold in Seoul and NBA debut
Before leaving for the NBA as one of the European pioneers, Marciulionis put the icing on the cake of his European career with the gold medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. The foundation of that great USSR team was formed by the big four Lithuanians – Marciulionis, Sabonis, Rimas Kurtinaitis and Valdemaras Chomicius – in addition to Volkov, Tikhonenko, Sokk, Miglinieks, Alexander Belostenny and Sergei Tarakanov. After losing to Yugoslavia in the first stage, 92-79, the teams met again in the final. The USSR was not the favorite but won by a clear 76-63 score with 21 points by Marciulionis in 36 minutes. He made 7 of 11 two-point shots, 3 of 6 three-pointers and 4 of 4 free throws to go with 3 rebounds and 6 assists. Sabonis added 20 points, but Marciulionis was the soul of that team.
On November 3, 1989, Marciulionis made his NBA debut. And he did so in style despite his team’s 136-106 loss to Phoenix. The starting five for Golden State was Chris Mullin (24 points), Mitch Richmond (8), Tim Hardaway (0), Rod Higgins (15) and Uwe Blab (2) from Germany, while off the bench they had Marciulionis (19 points in 24 minutes), Terry Teagle and Manute Bol.
Thus, started the NBA career of one of the best Europeans to ever play in the league. Although interrupted by several serious injuries, Marciulionis played seven seasons with the Warriors, Seattle SuperSonics, Sacramento Kings and Denver Nuggets for a total of 363 games. He scored 4,631 points for an average of 12.8. His career high was 35 points against the New Jersey Nets in 1992.
At 1.96 meters, Marciulionis was a shooting guard but he could play point easily thanks to his solid technique. His physical power also allowed him to grab a lot of rebounds. In the NBA, he pulled 9 rebounds several times while his assists record was 10. If I had to choose one element of his game to highlight, it would be his precise shooting. His fighting character was another thing that helped him become a great player.
At the 1989 EuroBasket in Zagreb, Marciulionis, Sabonis, Chomicius and Kurtinaitis played for the USSR for the last time, winning the bronze medal. Marciulionis, coming off his first NBA season, was that team’s best scorer, with an average of 18 points. Their dream of playing for a Lithuanian national team came true three years later, at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Lithuania had previously been European champion in 1937 and 1939, prior to losing its independence. Now, after going through the Olympics qualifying round in Zaragoza, the Lithuanians won the bronze medal for their again independent country. Marciulionis and Sabonis – who had been born the same year in Kaunas – led the way to that historic medal. Marciulionis averaged 23.4 points and Sabonis 23.9.
In a surprise, however, Lithuania failed to qualify for the 1993 EuroBasket in Germany. Without Sabonis, who was injured, and with Marciulionis not at 100 percent, the team couldn’t get through the Wroclaw preliminary phase. Much later, I interviewed Marciulionis and he told me that Wroclaw was the worst moment of his career. He shouldn’t have traveled in the first place because he was injured. Once there, although he had committed to helping in any way he could, he was physically unable to do much.
The great final in 1995
I have been following basketball for more than 50 years, watching an average of three or four games per week. If you were to ask what my favorite game was in all that time, I would have a hard time finding an answer. I won’t even bother trying. But I am sure that among the best five I ever saw was the 1995 EuroBasket final in Athens between Yugoslavia and Lithuania. Yugoslavia won 96-90 in an offensive festival and a great show put on by stars on both sides.
It was the game of a lifetime for Sasha Djordjevic of Yugoslavia, who finished with 41 points on 9-for-12 three-point shooting. But on the other side, there was Marciulionis, with 32 points on 8 of 9 two-pointers and 3 of 5 threes. That was also the famous game in which Predrag Danilovic dunked over Sabonis; the game in which Sabonis scored 20 points and pulled 8 rebounds, one less than Vlade Divac; and the game in which a young Dejan Bodiroga confirmed his great talent with 12 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, as did Arturas Karnisovas, with 19 points for Lithuania. Yes, it was a great final, with the added spice of controversial refereeing decisions.
The following year, at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Yugoslavia won their battle in the semis, 66-58, but Lithuania found some consolation with a new bronze medal after beating Australia 80-74 behind 30 points from Sabonis, 21 from Karnisovas and 16 from Marciulionis.
The following year, after a season in Denver, Marciulionis retired. In 2014, Marciulionis was honored by being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and one year later, he was given the same distinction by the FIBA Hall of Fame.
Sarunas Marciulionis, the Lithuanian machine.