Taking On The World – Lithuanian Long Shots: Basketball The Baltic Way (Travels In Eastern Europe #62)

While walking around Vilnius I began to notice something strange, attached to many of the light posts were basketball goals. Above them were banners heralding the fact that Vilnius would soon be hosting the next World Basketball Championships. It was also a signal that Lithuania’s most popular sport is basketball. In Europe, just as in the world at large, football is the dominant sport. And this dominance is most pronounced in larger countries such as Spain, Germany, Great Britain and France. The chances of Lithuania or any other small European nation making a run at a World Cup title are minuscule. Unlike football, basketball requires only five starting players. To field a world class side, a team only needs a couple of excellent players or a starting five that gels at the right time. Putting together a world class basketball squad is something Lithuania has done time and again, going all the way back to the 1930’s.

After the Soviet Union collapsed at the beginning of the 1990’s and the reconstruction of the Baltic nations, I distinctly remember hearing Lithuanian names for the first time. The two I recall most prominently were Sarunas Marciulonis and Aryvadis Sabonis. Both were excellent basketball players who would go onto careers in the National Basketball Association (NBA). This was my first hint that the sporting prowess of the Soviet Union was a distinctly multi-ethnic affair. Many of the best Soviet sportsmen were not ethnic Russians. At first this seems a bit odd, because “the Russians”  was a term synonymous with the Soviet Union. Ethnic Russians were  80% of the total Soviet population, but there were millions of Soviet citizens from other ethnic backgrounds as well. Many of these made a name for themselves, especially in athletics. Some groups such as the Lithuanians already had strong athletic traditions that the Soviets built upon.

Nationalist sentiment - Lithuanian and historical Vytis flags displayed by fans during EuroBasket

Nationalist sentiment – Lithuanian and historical Vytis flags displayed by fans during EuroBasket (Credit: globalite)

A Point Of National Pride – Tipping Off
Basketball in Lithuania owes much of its popularity to the nation in which it was invented, the United States. Lithuanians came to America seeking a better life throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. While working their way up the economic ladder, many of them spent leisure time playing basketball. In 1935, ethnic Lithuanians from around the world were invited back to their ancestral homeland to take part in a World Lithuanian Congress. Lithuanian-American basketball players fielded a team at that event which captured the imagination of their compatriots. The American influence grew the following year after Frank Lubin, whose parents were both born in Lithuania, led the United States to the Gold Medal in the 1936 Summer Olympics. Lubin followed up this success by traveling to Lithuania and coaching basketball. The popularity of the sport began to soar within the country.

In 1937, Lithuania played in its first international competition, the EuroBasket tournament. Due to the play of several Lithuanian –Americans, who had been late additions to the team, they won the championship. Two years later, Lithuania hosted the event and won again. World War II effectively ended Lithuania’s reign as European champions with subsequent international competitions cancelled for the duration of the conflict. Following the war, Lithuania was subsumed into the Soviet Union. Its star basketball players became the force that would lead the Soviet side to a silver medal in the 1952 Summer Olympics. They starred in future Olympics as well. Many Lithuanians were able to channel their nationalism through basketball. Kaunas’ Zalgiras squad often played their hardest when facing the top Soviet team, CSKA Moscow. The games were a point of national pride and became de facto contests between Lithuania and the ruling regime. Basketball was cathartic, allowing Lithuanians to show their patriotic pride short of a full-scale revolt, which would have been met with deadly force.

The first great Lithuanian National Basketball Team - EuroBasket 1937 champions

The first great Lithuanian National Basketball Team – EuroBasket 1937 champions

Giants & Giant Killers – Olympian Achievements
When representing the Soviet Union, ethnic Lithuanians played as though they had something to prove. One of the greatest upsets in Olympic Basketball history and arguably the Soviet Union’s greatest basketball victory in international competition would never have occurred without a triumvirate of Lithuanians leading the way. At the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea, the Soviets faced off against the tournament favorite United States in a semifinal match. Marciulonis, Sabonis and Rimas Kurtinatis combined to score 73% of their team’s points. Kurtinatis was on fire, leading all scorers with 28 points. The Soviets prevailed 82-76 over a United States squad that was filled with players that would go on to memorable NBA careers. It was a stunning upset. Coincidentally, it would also be the last Olympics where Lithuanians competed for the Soviet Union.

When Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, the small Baltic nation of just three million people was finally able to field a truly national team. It had been over half a century since Lithuania had competed on their own internationally. They were good enough to make a lasting impression. In 1992, the Lithuanians played as an independent nation in an Olympic Basketball competition for the first time ever. They went on to win a bronze medal in Barcelona. In both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics they managed to duplicate that feat. In the latter, they came close to pulling off another miraculous upset of the United States. In the semifinals, they met an American squad filled with star NBA players. The pre-1990 days when the Soviets put players on the court who were amateurs in name only was no more. Those virtual professionals had been heavily subsidized by the Soviet state.

Now it was the United States sporting a team with real professionals, taken straight from the NBA, the world’s premier basketball league. All-stars such as Jason Kidd, Gary Payton and Kevin Garnett faced off against a Lithuania team with only two players who would make it to the NBA, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Darius Songaila. And both Jasikevicius and Songaila would be journeymen at best. What the Lithuanians had in their favor was a cohesive team that had mastered the fundamentals of basketball. These traits helped them push the American squad to the limit. They nearly became the first team to defeat American professionals in the Olympics, losing a close contest by just two points.

Sarunas Marciulionis - one of Lithuania's greatest basketball stars

Sarunas Marciulionis – one of Lithuania’s greatest basketball stars (Credit: 517design)

A Victorious Expression – Nationalistic Sentiments
Lithuania has secured its place as one of the more formidable basketball teams in the world, a threat to beat the very best. That tradition has continued during the 21st century, with a couple of fourth place finishes in the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games. In addition, they won the bronze medal at the World Championships in 2010. Basketball is a crucial part of life for most Lithuanians, acting as an expression of sporting prowess and nationalistic sentiment. It allows this small, relatively quiet nation a place on the world stage. A place where they can take on all comers and enjoy the pride and pleasure of victory.

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