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Salvation from the “dead”: how Grateful Dead helped the Lithuanian basketball team get to the 1992 Olympics

Rockers sponsored the team, which had no funds after the collapse of the USSR. In return, athletes wore a colorful uniform with skulls.

In early May, between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Russia and Lithuania, a conflict arose due to a dress from Adidas with the Soviet coat of arms and the inscription “USSR”. In Lithuania, the thing was called “imperial nostalgia”, and the Russian side remembered the Lithuanian basketball players who spoke for the Soviet national team. A few days later Adidas took off the dresses from the sale.

During the dispute, the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs recalled the Lithuanian basketball team, which won bronze medals at the 1992 Olympics. But the team went down in history not only thanks to the result, but also because of the circumstances of the trip to the Games: the American rock band Grateful Dead sponsored athletes after the collapse of the USSR and helped them with a form – colorful T-shirts with skeletons that became legendary.

Collecting money for the national team

In March 1990, Lithuania became the first country to announce the withdrawal from the USSR. Immediately afterwards, the basketball team, in which several Olympic champions were assembled, began to think about how to go to the 1992 Games in Barcelona. At that tournament former republics acted under the neutral flag as the “United team”, but Lithuania wanted to be separate.

There was only one problem – the country did not have money for sports tournaments.

The initiative in their hands took the famous basketball player Sharunas Marchulionis, who by that time had left to play in the US, bypassing the rules of the USSR State Committee for Sports. For several months he was looking for funds for the Lithuanian team: coach Donnie Nelson recalled that the athlete traveled to different parts of the country for several dozen dollars.

Marchulionis in one of the versions of the national team of Lithuania
Marchulionis in one of the versions of the national team of Lithuania
At one point, Marciulionis received a call from representatives of the American group Grateful Dead – some of the founders of psychedelic rock and participants in the legendary Woodstock festival. The musicians invited the player to their garage and offered financial assistance.

Can you imagine this in our days? I’m in the garage at the “Grateful Dead”, with their atmosphere of grass? Yes, I would fill up every drug test, they simply did not do it then.

Sarunas Marciulionis
basketball player

Ceremony with skeletons

Drummer Mickey Hart noted that the sponsorship of the money was not very significant – about five thousand dollars. But along with this Grateful Dead provided them with a party of colorful T-shirts and shorts with the symbol of the group – skeleton and skulls. The design was to appear on the musicians’ tape for a concert in Boston, but they transferred all rights to the Lithuanians.

There were several versions of T-shirts: in the most popular skeleton scored from above in the basketball ring. Thanks to the support of Grateful Dead, the Lithuanian team still came to the Olympics in Barcelona. And then T-shirts became one of the main phenomena of the Games.

One of the variants of T-shirts for the national team of Lithuania
One of the variants of T-shirts for the national team of Lithuania
In official matches Lithuania played not in the form of a rock band, but in standard white and green T-shirts. But the basketball players went in colorful sets everywhere: on the streets of Barcelona, ​​in training and official events.

In the match for third place Lithuania beat the “United team” and took bronze medals. At the award ceremony athletes were supposed to wear a special form from the Olympic Committee, but they changed it to T-shirts with skeletons. Together with them in the same T-shirt came the president of Lithuania: during the celebrations in the locker room he was splashed with champagne with a single suit.

Effect of T-shirts

After the awards ceremony, T-shirts began to be discussed all over the world. Even before leaving for Lithuania, players began to receive offers to sell them for hundreds of dollars. Basketball players organized an auction and donated funds to children’s charity funds.

Going to awards in the form of Grateful Dead became a Lithuanian tradition, and T-shirts became a popular souvenir in all basketball tournaments. For several years the revenues from the kits provided the Lithuanian team. At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, colorful sales outstripped T-shirts unbeaten in those United States Games games. One of the original sets is now on display in the official Basketball Hall of Fame.

T-shirts also became part of pop culture. For example, one of them can be seen on the heroine of the series “Friends” Phoebe.

In 2012, the Sundance Film Festival presented a documentary about the Lithuanian national team called “Another Dream Team” – the story about the help of the Grateful Dead was told by the basketball players themselves. And users of social networks and Reddit, after 26 years after the Games, still boast of rarity things with bright colors and skulls.

The help of rock musicians is still remembered and sportsmen. “Grateful Dead” believed in us when we were nobody and nothing, “- said Marchulionis.

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