A Bill Walton Back Story

Bill Walton, who has passed away at 71, was a basketball star at UCLA, an NBA regular season and finals MVP, and two-time NBA champion. Walton was also a fan of Arvydas Sabonis, “a combination of Kareem, Larry Bird, and Pete Maravich,” with “this incredibly spectacular game.”

When Sabonis was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011, he asked Walton, a huge Grateful Dead fan, to be his presenter. Before the ceremony, Sabonis reached into his suit pocket and gave Walton one of the original T-shirts from the 1992 Olympics. For Walton “It was as emotional and powerful of a moment as I’ve ever had in my life,” and for Sabonis as well.

Sabonis hails from Lithuania, deeded to Stalin, along with Latvia and Estonia, in the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and retained by the USSR after WWII. That forced Lithuanian stars to play for the Soviet Union. After the fall of the USSR, Arvidas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis and fellow countrymen sought to play for Lithuania in the 1992 Olympics, but the country lay in ruins. Enter Golden State Warriors assistant coach Donnie Nelson, who was seeking to sign Marciulionis.

The pair wondered if the Grateful Dead’s philanthropic foundation would support the Lithuanian team. The foundation cut them a $5,000 check and had their logo designer send a box of tie-dyed T-shirts in red, yellow and green, Lithuania’s national colors, with an image of  a skeleton dunking a basketball.

In the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the Lithuanians squared off against Russia for the bronze. The Lithuanians prevailed 82-78, with Marciulionis scoring 29 points and Sabonis 27. The victors posed with their Grateful Dead T-shirts, now collectors’ items of the highest order. Sabonis gave Walton one of the originals, a proud moment in his storied life. The Portland Trailblazers and Boston Celtics star now joins his idol Bill Russell, 11-time NBA champion, who passed away in 2022.

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