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Former Nugget Marciulionis enshrined in Springfield

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Sarunas Marciulionis appeared in just 17 forgettable games in a Denver Nuggets uniform. His entire basketball career, however, was anything but forgettable.

Ronald Martinez

Sarunas Marciulionis may be best remembered in Denver as the man who was traded for Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in June of 1996, signaling a sad and all-too-brief end to one of the funnest stretches in Denver Nuggets history from 1992 through 1996. Two days after Abdul-Rauf's departure, the Nuggets All-Star center Dikembe Mutombo signed with the Atlanta Hawks and the Nuggets would go into nearly a decade of NBA darkness.

It wasn't Marciulionis' fault that he was traded for Abdul-Rauf, nor was it his fault that he played on one of the worst teams in Nuggets history, the 21-win 1996-97 Nuggets (a team so bad that they didn't even lose enough to land a better chance at getting the first overall pick ... which became Tim Duncan).

And watching Marciulionis at that time - with his knees in such bad shape that his contribution on the court was minimal - I couldn't help but wonder what it would have been like to have had Marciulionis in his prime just a few years earlier, barreling through opposing defenses, getting to the free throw line and putting up points in bunches. Because unlike many Nuggets fans in the mid-to-late 1990s whom hadn't yet caught onto the looming international explosion of basketball, I had followed Marciulionis' career from playing for the USSR as they upset the USA en route to the gold medal in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, beating the Atlanta Hawks in a 1988 summer exhibition series in Moscow, through his days as the sixth man on the RUN TMC Golden State Warriors and then the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when he played for his home country of Lithuania on "The Other Dream Team", alongside current Nuggets associate GM Arturas Karnisovas, as they secured a bronze medal by defeating the same Russians they once played with.

Today, we watch so many foreign imports on NBA teams that we don't think twice when seeing an extremely long or hard to pronounce last name pasted across the back of an NBA uniform. But when Marciulionis joined the Warriors in 1989, the international movement was still in its infancy and Marciulionis is regarded by many as one of the first European-born NBA players to have a substantive impact on an NBA team, along with fellow Europeans Drazen Petrovic (Croatia) and Vlade Divac (Serbia), who also entered the NBA in 1989, and the German-born Detlef Schrempf, who had been in the NBA since 1985 but played college ball at the University of Washington.

Long before Manu Ginobili was confusing NBA defenses as a deadly, penetrating, left-handed, foreign-born sixth man, Marciulionis was doing it. And doing it extremely well.

For those who watched the 1988 Summer Olympics (or the USSR vs. Atlanta Hawks summer exhibition series during which the Soviets became the first foreign team ever to beat an NBA team, which they did in the third game of the summer series), it was no surprise that Marciulionis would have an impactful NBA career. In the Olympic semi-finals upset against a USA team that featured David Robinson, Danny Manning, Mitch Richmond, Dan Majerle and other future NBA stars, Marciulionis scored 19 points. And in the gold medal game against Petrovic and Divac's Yugoslavian squad, Marciulionis put up 21 points and six assists in a 13-point route.

Joining the Warriors in 1989, it took no time for Marciulionis to prove that he belonged by averaging 12.1 ppg on 52% shooting in over 22 minutes per game, while both Petrovic and Divac struggled to fit in with their respective teams.

The 1991-92 season and 1992 Summer Olympics were Marciulionis' opus as a basketball player, as he averaged nearly 19 ppg coming off the bench for Don Nelson's fast-paced, 55-win Warriors team (who were upset by George Karl's 47-win Seattle Supersonics in the first round of the playoffs ... that's right, a George Karl-coached team actually did the upsetting and not the other way around). And following his best-ever NBA season, Marciulionis led his Lithuanian squad to the bronze medal during the Barcelona Olympic Games, defeating the remnants of the USSR squad in a thrilling 92-88 final with Marciulionis leading the way with 29 points ... even though the Russian squad had bested them earlier in the tournament. And two games before the bronze medal game, Marciulionis went head-to-head with Brazilian superstar shooting guard Oscar Schmidt and scored 29 points while dishing out 10 assists in a 114-96 victory.

Marciulionis followed up on his 1992 Olympic performance by helping Lithuania to back-to-back bronze medals during the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games. With age and knee problems catching up with him, Marciulionis was still able to score 16 points and dish out seven assists in the bronze medal game versus Australia.

Despite joining the NBA as a 25 year old in 1989, Marciulionis' NBA career proved to be short-lived. Years and years of playing internationally in the Soviet basketball program followed by annual off-season dedication to his Lithuanian team finally caught up with Marciulionis. And after his 17-game tenure in Denver during the 1996-97 season, his NBA career was over.

But never forgotten.

On Friday night, Marciulionis joined his former teammate Mitch Richmond and former foe Alonzo Mourning, along with former NBA Commissioner David Stern, to accept his much deserved election into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. And it's fitting that Marciulionis would be enshrined alongside Stern, as it was Stern who did so much to build bridges across the world that enabled players like Marciulionis to break barriers and enter the NBA.

Like so many players who have come and gone from the Nuggets over the years, Marciulionis may not have left an indelible legacy when it comes to professional basketball in the Mile High City. But he certainly left an indelible legacy when it comes to basketball history and congratulations is in order to Marciulionis and his fellow countrymen from Lithuania who have done so much for basketball for so long.