By Mary Eisenhart
One of Rex’s more unusual grants over the years was the one it gave the Lithuanian basketball team in 1992. Now the subject of a documentary film, the team represented the hopes and dreams of their entire nation, newly free of its Soviet occupiers in the wake of the Berlin Wall’s fall.
The Other Dream Team tells movingly of the small nation’s longtime passion for basketball, and how all its best players were forced to play for the Soviet Union. By the time the USSR collapsed, several standout Lithuanian athletes were in the NBA, including Arvydas Sabonis with the Portland Trail Blazers and Sarunas Marciulionis with the Golden State Warriors. With the 1992 Barcelona Olympics coming up, the Lithuanian players would have the first opportunity in their lives to play for their own country, and efforts began to make that happen.
It did, and the Grateful Dead and Rex were part of it.
“It was completely Grateful Dead luck of serendipity and synchronicity and fun nonsense,” recalls Grateful Dead historian Dennis McNally.
“It’s 1992, the Wall has fallen, and Lithuania is now free but broke,” he says. “Three or four guys in the NBA, including Rooney (Marciulionis) and Sabonis, are personally financing the team, but they’re not in a position to pay for all of it.”
In March 1992, McNally was on the road with the band, which was about to play Auburn Hills near Detroit, when he noticed the Golden State Warriors were in town, playing the Pistons the night after the Dead show. Being both a Warriors fan and good friends with sportswriter George Shirk, who traveled with the team, McNally invited Shirk to come to the concert and bring whoever he liked. The night of the show, Shirk arrived with Warriors head coach Don Nelson, his son Donnie Nelson, Warriors assistant coach and also coach of the Lithuanian team, as well as Marciulionis and some of his friends. Thanks to the fact that there were numerous Warriors fans in the Dead organization, notably Mickey Hart and longtime crew and family mainstay Ram Rod (Lawrence Shurtliff), the guests got the VIP treatment and had a fine time.
“As they’re leaving,” says McNally, “Rooney presents me a letter requesting support for the Lithuanian team. I went to Ram Rod and said, ‘This is weird, but it’s hip weird—why don’t you get Rex to deal with this?’”
Ram Rod thought this was a fine idea, and brought the idea to the Rex Foundation. “So the Rex says yes,” McNally goes on, “And Rooney’s ecstatic of course, and we get this message asking if Ram Rod and I can come and present the check in public, to encourage the public to donate also.”
So it was that in the spring of 1992, at halftime in a tense match between the Warriors and the Sacramento Kings, Ram Rod and McNally formally presented Marciulionis with a check for $5,000 for the team.
Meanwhile, in another part of the Warriors world, Mike Fitzgerald, son of the team owner and proprietor of a Phoenix-based business making tie-dye shirts with college logos, was inspired by this tale to commission a design of a basketball-dunking skeleton for a t-shirt tie-dyed in the Lithuanian national colors, as well as tie-dye warmup suits for the team.
In Barcelona, the Lithuanians beat the Russian team to win the bronze medal, then retired to the locker room for some heavy celebration with the president of Lithuania while the US Dream Team trounced its rivals for the gold. When it came time for the medal ceremony, the US team appeared on the podium with American flags draped over their uniforms—carefully covering the Adidas logo of the Olympics supplier because they were Nike endorsers. In contrast to this commercial obsession, says McNally, the happy Lithuanians “stumbled out, lit, onto the platform wearing their tie-dyes and t-shirts because they liked them. Well, a billion people were estimated to have watched that ceremony—and the next day Grateful Dead Merchandising started getting inundated with calls by people who wanted those t-shirts.”
A quick conversation with Donnie Nelson later, Grateful Dead Merchandising was handling the sale of Lithuanian basketball t-shirts, raising funds for Lithuanian charities.
“The marriage really was magical from the get-go,” said Donnie Nelson at a press conference in 1996 announcing a new collaboration for the 1996 team. “The Grateful Dead stood for independence, freedoms and celebration, and that’s exactly what Lithuania was going through at the time. … The Grateful Dead looked at us with kind eyes in ’92. Like I said, they sent us a check that helped us get to the Olympics, and without their help we never would have made it. So on the medal stand, when we stood next to (Warriors player) Chris Mullin and the Dream Team, the original Dream Team, we wore Grateful Dead tie-dye t-shirts, in a way of saying thank you to them for believing in us when we were nobodies.
“And that experience was magical. After that event, we ended up coming back to the Bay Area, marketing the t-shirts, and as Dennis said, the t-shirts absolutely took off, exploded. And all of those monies were sent back to Lithuania, to the Lithuanian Children’s Fund, which is basically a children’s miracle network. The Olympics were over, we had no need for money, so those funds went to the Lithuanian Children’s Fund.”
At last year’s evening of Rex storytelling at TRI Studios, Bill Walton, Mickey Hart, and John Perry Barlow reminisced about the whole improbable saga.
We’re happy to have been part of this remarkable story, and we highly recommend checking out The Other Dream Team when it comes to your town.