The story around the bizarre link between The Grateful Dead and the Lithuanian basketball team is about as beautifully strange as life can get. That said, this love story ends with a happy ending as the Soviet’s took home the bronze medal at the Olympics—an achievement that couldn’t be done without the help without a dosage of help from The Dead.
The unlikely coupling began in 1991, a time when the iconic band helped sponsor Lithuania’s heroic basketball team who, during this period, had the masses of talent but were lacking the finances to fulfil their potential. Their underdog story, safe to say, was one that The Dead couldn’t help but fall in love with.
Going into the event, Lithuania had its freedom from the Soviet’s after securing independence but one thing they lacked was money. The result, of course, was that if their talented basketball team wanted to fulfil their dreams of taking part in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics then they need to secure sponsors to make this pipedream an actuality.
Star player Šarūnas Marčiulionis was plying his trade in the NBA for the Warriors and worked alongside Golden State’s assistant coach Donnie Nelson to raise funds in the U.S. for their attempts to reach the 1992 Olympics. Marčiulionis was a well-known name in the States and was hero-worshipped in San Francisco which then led to local sportswriter, George Shirk, writing a piece about their ordeal in the San Francisco Chronicle. This managed to get the desired message across with the Lithuanian basketball team’s struggle suddenly becoming widely known.
One of the people who was fascinated with the piece was the Dead’s PR manager Dennis McNally who then proceeded to show it to the band who were just as intrigued by it as he was. Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh stated that not only were they huge freedom fighters as well as basketball fans and immediately wanted to do whatever they could.
The band then invited Marčiulionis and Nelson to a Dead concert and, after the show, Marciulionis later claimed to sniff “a strange smell” in the vicinity which would, of course, be a more than familiar fragrance for any devoted Deadhead.
The band agreed to fund transportation costs for the team (about five thousand dollars) along with Grateful Dead design for the basketball jerseys and shorts for the team to wear in the competition. The Lithuanians then miraculously managed to win the bronze medal in the most triumphant fashion possible, by defeating Russia in the third-place play-off.
It was the first time that Lithuania had played for their flag in 50 years and it wouldn’t have been possible without the Grateful Dead’s immense generosity. While it wasn’t a spectacular sum of money, it still remains a collaboration that nobody in the world of professional sport or music expected.
The jerseys that players such as Marčiulionis donned during their triumphant Catalonian summer have become part of popular culture not only in Lithuania but beyond. Sales of the tie-dyed T-shirts continued after the tournament and the skeleton art’s creator, Greg Speirs, donated 100% of his profit which was over $450,000 to continue to fund the team as well as Lithuanian children’s charities — which is a beautiful gesture in the spirit of The Grateful Dead.
See some footage, below.