A village basketball hoop in Lithuania, where basketball is an obsession. (Napoleonasss/Adobe)

What the Grateful Dead did for the Lithuanian Olympic basketball team

Basketball is an obsession in Lithuania, and in 1991 the newly independent nation wanted nothing more than to showcase its talents on the world stage at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

But the Baltic nation of fewer than 3 million people, still recovering from Soviet efforts to crush its rebellion, had no money. Then, in an unlikely twist of fate, members of the Grateful Dead saw a newspaper article about the Lithuanians’ situation. Fans of both basketball and freedom, the musicians cut the team a check. They also sent over a crate of tie-dyed T-shirts in Lithuanian colors, depicting a skeleton dunking a basketball.

It was game on.

At their first Olympics since 1928, the Lithuanians toppled China, Venezuela, Brazil, and others, making it all the way to the bronze medal match.

Their opponent, in a made-for-Hollywood matchup, was the Unified Team, made up of the remnants of the former Soviet Union. All of Lithuania stopped, tuning in to the game on radios and television.

The Lithuanian national team donned their tie-dyes on the podium in Barcelona in 1992.
Mike Powell/Film Arcade

At one point, Lithuania’s president came down from the stands to check on a player who suffered a gash to the forehead. “Don’t worry about it,” the president told him. “You are spilling blood for Lithuania.” After a close battle, Lithuania pulled off a six-point victory. Words couldn’t express the euphoria, player Rimas Kurtinaitis recalled in a documentary about the Cinderella run, “The Other Dream Team”: “You need to be there.”

In a nod to their Haight Street benefactors, the Lithuanians donned their Grateful Dead tie-dyes on the podium. Years later, team member Arturas Karnisovas told CNN the band had gained a following in Lithuania.

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