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On This Date in Sports: November 3, 1989: The Russians are Coming

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Sarunas Marciulionis and Alkesnader Volkov become the first Soviet-born players in the NBA. Both were members of the 1988 team that won the Gold Medal at the Seoul Olympics. Marciulionis playing with the Golden State Warriors, scores 19 points in his debut, as the Warriors lost to the Phoenix Suns 136-106. Volkov meanwhile spent most of the game on the bench and was scoreless in a 126-103 loss to the Indiana Pacers.

As the Cold War was coming to an end, long-held barriers that prevented stars from the Eastern Bloc from joining North American sports leagues were coming down. A week before the fall of the Berlin Wall, two Soviet Born players made their NBA debut. Each had been a member of the 1988 Soviet Union Gold Medal winning team at the Seoul Olympics.

Sarunas Marciulionis was the more well known and developed player. Born June 13, 1964, in Kaunas, Lithuania, he had caught the eye of Donnie Nelson, the son of Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson. After winning the Gold Medal in 1988, Marciulionis signed with the Atlanta Hawks. However, the deal was voided when the team failed to get the contract to the league offices as he was unable to obtain permission to leave. Over the next year, Nelson began working with the Soviet government to permit him to come to the NBA. At the same time, Lithuania was working for its independence. With Sarunas Marciulionis as a symbol of Lithuania, the Soviet Union relented and allowed him to sign with the Golden State Warriors for a three-year contract worth $3.8 million.

Aleksander Volkov also made his debut at the start of the 1989/90 season. Not as well known as Marciulions, Volkov was born March 28, 1964, in Omsk, Russia. Raised in Ukraine, Volkov was the first Soviet player to be chosen in the NBA Draft as he was selected in the sixth round of the NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks. Ted Turner owned the Hawks at the time. He had a relationship with the Soviet Government thanks to the formation of the Goodwill Games as an Olympic type event that was staged between the Soviet Bloc countries and NATO nations in 1986 as a response to Olympic boycotts in 1980 and 1984. Turner had once invited several members of the Soviet team to workout with the Hawks. Once players got the clearance to play in the NBA, Volkov signed with the Hawks. Volkov played just one minute in his debut and was sparing, averaging only 13 minutes per game in his rookie season. He would play just two NBA seasons before having a career in Europe.

Sarunas Marciulionis would see significant playing time with the Warriors as he averaged 12.1 points per game. The 1991/92 season would be Marciulionis’ best NBA season as he finished second in voting for the Sixth Man Award, with a career-high 18.9 ppg. That year he played a big role in helping the newly independent Lithuania get a Bronze Medal in Barcelona. Injuries would slow Sarunas Marciulionis the rest of his career, as he played just 30 the following year and missed the entire 1993/94 season. Marciulionis would play just three more years with three different teams (Seattle Supersonics, Sacramento Kings and Denver Nuggets).