Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - The Sporting Life

By Blair Jackson
As my San Francisco Giants went through the recent World Series, my personal ritual included wearing a different Giants shirt each night when I'd watch the games. Unfortunately, our team was so efficient—dispatching the poor overmatched Detroit Tigers in just four games—I never got a chance to wear my favorite shirt: a Giants “Stealie” (the “SF” logo inside the “Steal Your Face” skull) that I bought years ago at a game. Yup, it was team-sanctioned, sold inside the stadium. Giants reserve catcher Eli Whiteside wore a version of it in the big victory parade on Halloween, just as he did in the 2010 champions' parade. Way to go, Eli!

SF Giants catcher Eli Whiteside shows his colors at World Series celebration on Halloween.

The fact that such a shirt exists—and that you can find a Stealie shirt or decal with just about any professional (or college) sports team's logo—says something about the relationship between Dead Heads and sports fans. It turns out We Are Both Everywhere.

But what's the connection? It's got to be more than just being fanatical about two things at once.

Paul Grushkin's 1983 book, Grateful Dead: The Official Book of the Dead Heads, devoted a two-page spread to David Gans' cogent analysis of how Grateful Dead concerts are like baseball games, noting: “No two are ever alike. The plays are always different, and there's always fresh hope. Sometimes the game's an all-timer even though individual performances are sloppy; sometimes everybody plays great but the team loses anyway …

“You can cherish the great victories and triumphant seasons and chart them across decades, or you can go simply for the enjoyment of tonight and to hell with the standings. Like all the great teams, the Dead have their pennant years and bleak innings, perfect games and whippings, hits and foul balls, heroes and goats … Like big-league fans, Dead Heads are as varied as the game is long. There are score-keepers who record every detail for statistical analysis and a place in the Hall of Fame; camera buffs and video freaks; armchair umpires, die-hards, groupies …”

I do believe that there is a connection between the unpredictability of sports and that of the Dead experience. Is the incredibly exciting and satisfying rush that a home run or a long touchdown pass provides that much different than the thrill of recognition that accompanies the opening notes of a killer “Scarlet Begonias” or “Dark Star” or an end-of-show “Sugar Mag”? Part of it is feeling in sync with the crowd, the notion of sharing a group experience.

I don't think I was aware of a specific relationship between the Dead and the Giants until the start of the 1993 season, when Jerry, Bob and Vince sang “The Star Spangled Banner” on opening day. It was a particularly momentous occasion, because for much of the previous off-season there were strong indications that the Giants would be sold to a group that was determined to move the team to Tampa, Fla. However, the National League did not permit the sale; instead, a new group of local owners were found and the Giants were saved! It seemed fitting that members of another San Francisco institution—the Grateful Dead—were on hand to celebrate the city's good fortune! Jerry and Vince wore black satin Giants jackets (Bob was in his usual polo shirt), and the three sang like angels.

In the years since Jerry's death, the relationship between the Giants and the Dead family has strengthened even more. The past three years, on or around Jerry's birthday, there has been a “Jerry Garcia Day” game at AT&T Park, complete with a Dead cover band playing GD songs atop the visiting team's dugout before the game, Garcia bobbleheads (two of the three years), and various special stadium party activities to raise funds for charity. The first year, Bob, Phil and Furthur's Jeff Pehrson sang the National Anthem. The second year it was Bob, Phil and Giants Third Base Coach (and musician and fan of the Dead) Tim Flannery. This past August, on Jerry's 70th, Bob, Flannery and Jackie Greene did the honors. (Bob also played with Flannery's band at a benefit in Napa last winter for Brian Stow, a Giants fan who was severely beaten and critically injured following the opening day game against the Dodgers in 2011.)

Bobblehead Jerry from 8/1/12 Giants game.

Back in the late '70s and through the '80s, however, the Dead's main link to sports seemed to be to professional basketball, via the group's close relationship with World's Tallest Dead Head and 1993 Hall of Fame inductee Bill Walton. Despite some derision, Walton never hid his love of the band; indeed, he told anybody who asked him what the Dead had meant to him and how listening to the band had helped him as an athlete. He was a fixture at Dead concerts for many years (you couldn't miss him if he was there!) and even went to Egypt in '78. The band and crew reciprocated by rooting for his teams—the Portland Trailblazers, the San Diego (and L.A.) Clippers and, finally, the Boston Celtics. I can still picture Ram Rod and Mickey Hart wearing Kelly-green Celtics jackets everywhere in the late '80s. I even recall being at a a Dead show—can't remember the year or place—where instead of playing music over the P.A, before the show and at the break, they blasted the live broadcast of one of Walton's playoff games through the sound system instead, annoying commercials and all.

(It's been great seeing Walton remain part of the Dead scene in the post-Jerry years, taking on the Bill Graham Father Time role at New Year's spectaculars, being a member of the Rex Foundation Advisory Board, and showing up at various Dead-family concerts and events as his busy schedule permits.)

I would be remiss, too, if I didn't mention the Dead connection to the Lithuanian Olympic basketball team in 1992. A member of NBA's Golden State Warriors (the Bay Area team) named Sarunas Marciulionis was eager to have his homeland of Lithuania—recently free of the iron grip of the Soviet Union—represented in basketball at the Barcelona Olympics, but they were seriously underfunded. The Grateful Dead came to the rescue by providing some much-needed money—as well as the team's bright tie-dyed uniforms, which depicted a skeleton dunking a basketball on the jersey.

Strangest and coolest Olympic jersey EVER!

There must have been some magic in Greg Speirs' shirt design, because the underdog Lithuanian team ended up winning a Bronze medal that year. Man, all that tie-dye looked great up on the winners' stand! Earlier this year, Marciulionis told NBC, “[The International Olympic Committee] didn't want us to do it. They wanted us to wear suits and ties. But we decided that we would wear the tie-dyed T-shirts we got from the Grateful Dead. The Dead had stood behind us when we didn't have any money.” The shirts also became big sellers in the U.S. (and a common sight at Dead shows) and helped finance Lithuania's participation in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

A new documentary about the '92 Lithuanian Olympic basketball team, called The Other Dream Team, was released in the past month and, not surprisingly, the Dead's involvement in the story is featured prominently, as it should be. The film's trailer gives you a nice condensed version of the tale.

What I'd love to hear from you folks is your thoughts on the Dead and sports—as fans and also as participants: For instance, I know lots of folks who fuel their treacherous ski runs and scenic bike rides with Grateful Dead music. Personally, I'm just a brisk walker, but I can't imagine doing that without a hot Dead show to keep me company.


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Joined: Jun 6 2007
This just in...

Our Dead Head Giant above, Eli Whitside, was picked up on waivers yesterday by the Yankees! We'll miss him, but at least he's going to another good Dead Head town! And we still have Tim Flannery...

Thanks for mentioning Phil Jackson, rdevil. I'd forgotten about him...

slo lettuce's picture
Joined: Jul 20 2012
rdevil........soldier field '92?

that was my first concert. actually scored tickets 7th row from stage center and i never knew until now that phil j. walked across the stage! where the hell i was?.........god, that was a great time!!! :))))))) lol

rdevil's picture
Joined: Nov 2 2007
Phil Jackson

some great comments here, I never knew about the 85 reference to Kansas City, wow, that hurts but is still, somehow cool.
Let's not forget about the second most famous basketball deadhead, Phil Jackson. Loved seeing him walk on stage before a Soldier Field show in 92, basketball in hand and wave to the crowd. The next year (I think) they played some of the NBA finals broadcast over the PA during drums and you could look into the sky boxes and see that every tv was playing the Bulls game.
In 91 my friend brought a battery operated tv into the deer creek show and cause a bit of commotion, people trying to see what the fuss was all about, some being dissapointed and walking away, others very excited. I wasn't sitting with him but he swears the Bulls caught fire and came from behind just as Bobby broke into Miracle.

Syracuse78's picture
Joined: Jul 15 2010
Eagle -- that buffalo show

Eagle -- that buffalo show was 11/9/79. I was there and knew it was special when it was happening. Unbelievable energy! Big parts of it were released on Road Trips Vol. 1, No. 1 and the bonus disc.

Fun story about your lacrosse game.

Joined: Apr 4 2008
Big Red

Good reading, thanks Blair. Congrats to all the Giants fans out there. You sure have a plucky bunch to pull for. In regards to Walton, a big ol' happy 60th to Big Bill. My buddy and I met him at the Final Four in New Orleans last year, and he was very friendly and outgoing, shouting "Aiko Akio" before taking a photo with us both. Get back truckin' on, Bill!

Joined: Nov 8 2007
Dancin'> Franklins and Goaltending

When I was 16 and a sophomore in high school (spring 1983), I was a lacrosse goalie for our high schol varsity team -- all 5'4" of me at about 120 lbs. but a heavyweight when it came to the Dead and the inspiration they gave me. I recall one day on the way to an away game, best buddy and fellow dead fanatic, Sam and I listened to a killer Dancin in the streets>Franklins Tower from Buffalo (I forget tthe date -- late '70's as I recall -- Blair or anyone out there, if ya know the show I'm talkin about please refresh me w/ the date so i can down load it -- I really should be a release . . . .hint, hint, Lemieux (sp?)), both us plugged into his walkman (if ya recall those days of cassettes and walkmen) which had intakes for two headphones. We didn't speak a word to each other sitting next to each other on the bus (wink, wink) to the game -- I was MEZMORIZED by the jet-fueled playing the band was raging through -- focussed and intense, getting my mind right for a game against a team that should have blown us away. From the first moment of warm-ups to the final whistle I could do no wrong -- I was totally and completely "in the zone" -- the Dead's intensity had stayed inside me -- I could see the shape of fluid play happening before it happend, anticpating shots well in advance of their wind ups, and where the ball was heading before they were even shot. I made about 28 saves to 8 goals which is unheard of in lacrosse -- not tooting my horn, just shaing that the Dead's energy manifested itself through the way I played --- all stemming from that Dancin'> Franklins from Buffalo. At one point the OTHER TEAM stood up and cheerd for me. At one point, in the fourth quarter I thought that I was making TOO MANY SAVES and people would be suspect of me and thought about actually letting some shot go in, but alas, I could not do that. It was a day I'll take to my grave thanks to the Grateful Dead. Now that's a fine mixture of sports and our beloved band!

gratefaldean's picture
Joined: Jun 22 2007
My avatar

Kind of rolls my twin obsessions into one handy image...

Deadicated's picture
Joined: Jun 4 2007
Pre-, post-

I, too, include the Dead in my runs, but they're before and after. I like to drive to where I run, usually about 15 minutes and then listen for another five while putting on my running attire. I like to keep my ears at the ready while I run which means whatever tune I had been listening to right before I went out keeps playing in my head. Then, when I've finished and all the endolphins are in place, that Bird Song or Playin' will come on and the experience gets better. Let's see ... what do we have for this morning ... ah, the continuation of 10/02/72. That'll work. Thanks Dead.

Underthevolcano's picture
Joined: Feb 6 2008
I almost forgot...

My Buddy wears the Lithuania basketball shirt when we go to shows-never fails to get a bunch of positives from Heads.

Joined: Jan 13 2009
Dead for Heallth

I too take the Dead along on most mt. bike rides, back country ski trips or runs. I've had Jack Straw power me up hills many a times. Garcia's ripping guitar solos on Brown Eyed Woman is always nice....Crazy Fingers can trance me for a few miles on the bike, Cold Rain and Snow is fitting on a Vermont snow day as I head into the woods for the day. In fact, as I think about it, the Dead has brought my "healthier" side of life more alive......
As for for the Dead at a game....I brought my daughter to her first baseball game when she was 1. We were in Philly. Between innings I went to concessions for some drinks and left her with my wife and friends. While in line a lady was wearing a Garcia hand print shirt. Furthur had just started and I'd seen them a few times, so naturally I asked if she had seen them. Well that question sparked a longer conversation. As we talked I realized I'd better get back to my seats. I was walking back up to the seats and looked at the jumbo tron and saw, my daughter on it! She was being held by my buddy and it had "First Game" plastered on it. So I missed that moment. When I got back they asked what took me so long......I told them about my conversation and of course my wife responded with, "the Dead got him again".......yep, they got me was all good though, the moment was captured on camera.....


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