Bulls' Artūras Karnišovas recounts powerful Olympics experience

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Karnišovas recounts powerful Olympics experience originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

There’s a well-circulated and memorable photo of a 21-year-old Artūras Karnišovas from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

He’s sitting cross-legged on the sideline, in his full Lithuania national team uniform, taking pictures of famous future Hall of Fame players from the U.S. Dream Team like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley.

Players he had just competed against minutes earlier.

“Those were rock stars,” Karnišovas said in an appearance on the Bulls Talk podcast. “I’m a sophomore in college and had to guard Barkley.”

Karnišovas appeared on the Bulls Talk podcast in advance of the Bulls' trip to Paris, the first time the Bulls have played there since 1997 when it faced Karnišovas' professional Olympiacos team at the McDonald's Championship. The Chicago Bulls' executive vice president of basketball operations detailed that experience, his compelling backstory and the 1992 Olympics journey.

As part of that journey, how did guarding Barkley go?

“Did not go well,” Karnišovas said, laughing. “I fouled out. And I’m sitting on the sidelines like, ‘Nobody is taking pictures.’ So I’m sitting there with like 2 minutes to go and we’re down by 45. I start taking pictures. The funny thing is we got the film back and there were pictures of me in those pictures, so somebody else obviously took some pictures while we were playing. I was just caught on film doing that.

“But absolutely not embarrassed because those were our idols at that time and the separation between NBA players and internationals back then was so huge. The margin of victory was so great. And then year by year, it got closer. At that time, it was still surreal.”

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What’s even crazier is Karnišovas taking those pictures, Lithuania’s 127-76 loss to Team USA and its eventual bronze medal at those Barcelona Olympics aren’t even the most surreal part about the experience.

No, that came when Karnišovas flew back from Seton Hall University to Lithuania for the first time in three years since receiving KGB clearance to become the first player from the former Soviet Union to play college basketball in the U.S. at the height of the Cold War.

Lithuania had declared independence from the former Soviet Union in March 1990, a process that unfolded slowly and months after Karnišovas left his parents and friends without speaking English to live with a Lithuanian family and pass college entrance exams before attending Seton Hall in 1990. In January 1991, the Soviet Union launched military action against Lithuania, a seismic event only intensified by it coming in the pre-Internet days, forcing Karnišovas to keep in touch with his family via letters and long-distance phone calls.

When Karnišovas returned to try out for Lithuania’s first Olympics as an independent country, freedom from Moscow still felt odd as he navigated those first weeks at home.

“Somebody’s gonna knock on my parents door and they’re going to take me to military,” Karnišovas said of his initial mindset, alluding to what used to be a mandatory stint for teenagers to serve for Russian forces. “It took me, like, first couple weeks to understand that I think I’ll be OK. Now we can focus on basketball.”

Then came the saga of funding for Lithuania, a story powerfully told in the wonderful documentary “The Other Dream Team.” Lithuania had two stars in Arvydas Sabonis and Šarūnas Marčiulionis, who had helped the former Soviet Union win a gold medal at the 1988 in Seoul, South Korea.

Marčiulionis became the first Soviet player to enter the NBA the following year, playing for the Golden State Warriors. The team’s coach, Don Nelson, knew members of the rock band The Grateful Dead, who were sports fans and long-time philanthropists.

The band helped fund Lithuania’s Olympic dream.

“Our obligation was just to wear the tie dye,” Karnišovas said, laughing, referencing the longtime preferred wardrobe choice of the band and its followers. “I enjoyed it. I remember being on the pedestal and getting a bronze medal and I had a tank top and shorts on, both tie dye.”

Then of course came the symbolically powerful bronze-medal game against the Unified team, which was comprised of the post-Soviet Union states. Lithuania prevailed 82-78.

“We knew we couldn’t lose that one,” Karnišovas said. “We always called getting the bronze medal in the Olympics was like a gold for Lithuania because you know you’re going to see USA in the semis. It was always a lot of pride to represent your country.

“I’ve made those comments before that playing for Lithuania and coming back every summer for the national team was the basketball that I loved. With some guys, we played every summer. It was (great) relationships and we played a style that was selfless."

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