Saturday, October 9, 2010

Exclusive reportage from Lithuania: from Sabonis to the next superstars, the country where basketball is an art

Lithuania is a european country with an area of 25,200 square miles situated along the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea and its population is approximately 3.5 millions. Religion is Catholic..but if you ask any lithuanian what is his religion he will answer: Krepsinis! Needless to translate, it's basketball.
Yes, basketball is the main sport practised with unbridled passion of the people of this country. It's amazing how any person in any place, on the street, at the bars, at work talk about ball. The history of basketball in this country is founded in the first decades of the last century, imported by an aviator, Steponas Darius. If you think that the days in the Baltic region are long and cold and that darkness comes early, we can deduce that this was the ideal sport to keep fit, stay together and have fun in the appropriate facilities.

Arvydas Sabonis
 The Lithuanian National team won two European Championships in 1937 and 1939, just before the II World War. Pranas Lubinas was the coach who helped popularize basketball in the country and was called the "Grandfather of Lithuanian basketball". Meanwhile, Lithuania was annexed by the former Soviet empire but Lithuanian players kept forming the core of the Soviet National team. That was especially for the historical 1988 Olympic where the russian basketball National team won the Gold medal. That fantastic squad had four lithuanian talents such as Valdemars Chomicius, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Sarunas Marciulonis and Arvydas Sabonis. That time the games at international and domestic level between Zalgiris Kaunas and CSKA Moscow were epical. This challenge is still alive nowaday when the teams play at Euroleague level, where Zalgiris and CSKA is like an ultimate fight for upsetting the archrivals on and off the court.
The disintegration of the Soviet empire finally makes Lithuania an independent country in 1990.
Sabonis was in the past and still is a true legend for the Republic of Lithuania. Nicknamed "Prince of the Baltic" he was one of first players with great tonnage (220cm tall and 130kg) with the ability to play like a guard. He was equipped with pianist's hands, had a soft touch and his fundamentals basic movements just comparable to a dancer. Furthermore, his vision of the game was spectacular and his IQ superior.  He was also the first baller to play in the NBA even getting over there maybe after spending his best years of the career in Europe. Unfortunately he could sign in the NBA only at 30 years old.
Once the political situation changed with the dissolution of the former Soviet empire Sabonis was free to go to America, but first he opted to play in the Spanish league for 6 years, 3 at Valladolid and 3 in Real Madrid, where he became a global star. In 1995 Sabonis finally landed in the NBA, and although a 30 years old veteran with no experience of the American basketball he had an impressive impact on the team that hired him, the Portland Trailblazers. He was the first european ever to play as a starter producing big-time numbers, averaging 14ppg, 8.1rpg, 1.8apg and 1.07blk.
Sabonis and the shooting-guard Marciulonis with the Golden State Warriors opened the door to the next talents on the world stage like Sarunas Jasikevicius, Ramunas Siskauskas, Darius Songaila, Mindaugas Zukauskas, Saulius Stombergas and many others.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas
 One thing stands out immediately when you scout the Lithuanians: their basketball is close to perfection in every detail.  But where you can see the lithuanian trademark is shooting: they are deadly shooters. Behind every shot there are hours, months and years of hard work. The accuracy of the Lithuanin players prove that. It does not matter if you are tall 2.30 or 1.50..shooting in Lithuania is a pure art. Yes, over there it is not a fundamental..but art.
They really have dozens of lethal shooters: the most recent names are Sarunas Jasikevicius, Saulius Stombergas, Dainius Adomaitis, Ramunas Siskauskas, Rimantas Kaukenas, Mindaugas Zukauskas, Arvydas Macijauskas, the twins Darius and Ksistof Lavrinovic and even the NBA star Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a 220 giant who runs and plays smoothly like a guard.
Unfortunately nowadays the fundamentals of basketball are no longer treated and trained like in the past. Today we all focus mainly on physical talent and athleticism. But if you are romantic and want to see again the old school basketball fundamentals, the ones that still make the difference in the game, then take a trip to Lithuania. No matter where or which city. Lithuania is a small country, you can easily choose to stay in any city, from the capital Vilnius to Kaunas, from Klaipeda to Siaulai, from Panevezys to Kedainiai..and if you really want to see the fundamentals still taught and practised, you don't need to attend a spectacular game of the Euroleague or of the Lithuanian LKL league..go to any gym where you can attend a practise of some youth program and you will soon realize that the talent, the enthusiasm, is still alive in the Lithuanian kids like it was for the past generations and this way you will see the big-time players of tomorrow!

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