Bouncing a ball around and dunking it into a net is Lithuania’s number-one passion. Of course, there’s much more to the sport than that – strategy, technique, tight teamwork, blink-of-an-eye moves, shifty footwork… and whenever there’s an important game on, everything else in the country switches off. Flags fly on cars, an intense fervour grips virtually every man in the country, and a festival erupts if there is victory.
The national team is consistently one of the best in the world, and Lithuanians have been among the strongest players in the USA’s National Basketball Association (NBA) league. Many locals say they have the magical ‘basketball gene’ – they’re invariably tall, quick-thinking, stubborn under pressure and highly competitive.
But where did it all start? The first official match dates back to 1922, when a team called Lietuvos Fizinio Lavinimo Sąjunga (Lithuanian Physical Education Union) beat a Kaunas team by 8 points to 6. Steponas Darius, later known for his 1933 transatlantic flight, was in the winning team. Though born near Kaunas, Darius spent ages 11 to 24 in the United States, returning to Lithuania in 1920. He was also in Lithuania’s first national football team. In 1926, he published the country’s first basketball rules.
In those days basketball was a simpler game with fewer rules – just a court, basket and players. Locals quickly took to the sport, especially from 1934 when the Physical Culture Palace was built in Kaunas, the interwar capital, with a court and 200 seats inside. Incredibly, in 1937 and 1939 the national side went on to win the EuroBasket European championships, beating Italy and Latvia in the respective finals, and the women’s team came second to Italy in 1938.
Tragically, the outbreak of World War II destroyed for decades any further hopes of national glory. Some players fled westwards to escape the Soviet occupation, later reaching countries such as the US and Australia. Others were deported to Siberia. There, survivors like Jonas Butrimas were able to build a basketball court, which “allowed us to have dignity, to retain our sense of humanity”.
Playing for victory
Right from the time the first Soviet national team was formed in 1947, Lithuanians were an essential part of the team. Local stars were always among the Soviet Union’s most famous players and Russian teams adopted Lithuanian tactics and techniques. Some of the biggest clashes within the Soviet Union were between the two giants CSKA Moscow and Žalgiris of Kaunas. In 1986, Žalgiris won the Intercontinental Cup in Argentina, and their triumphant return home drew a massive crowd.
It wasn’t just about basketball at that time but about the nation too. At many key matches in still-occupied Lithuania, fans would defy the rules and fly the national colours, though it was not until after independence was regained in 1991 that boys could find posters of Lithuanian players to pin on their walls.
After independence, the national sport and its stars retained their magical significance. At the next big tournament, despite the social chaos and hyperinflation that dominated that period, the new Lithuanian national team managed to win bronze at the 1992 Olympics. Another bronze came in 1996 and then again in 2000.
A year after winning EuroBasket for the third time in 2003, Lithuania beat the US ‘dream team’ in the group stages of the 2004 Athens Olympics – only the fourth time the Americans were defeated on the Olympic stage and a key landmark in the history of the game in Lithuania. But the team later lost to Italy in the semis.
The women’s team has been successful too, winning silver in the first ever European women's basketball championship in Rome in 1938. Like the men, Lithuanian women were integral to the success of the Soviet women’s team which won 17 Olympic medals, eight of them gold. Trumping their pre-war success, the Lithuanian women's team won gold in the 1997 EuroBasket event – a peak they have unfortunately not since matched.
Players and teams
Kaunas-born, 7ft 3in (2.21 m) Sabonis, perhaps Lithuania’s greatest ever player, was always a towering presence in the centre of the court with unique vision when passing and an incredible range when shooting. Although the likes of Sabonis and Marčiulionis were quickly snapped up to play in US NBA teams where they won fame and fortune, both invested earnings in setting up ‘basketball schools’ back home – Sabonis in Kaunas, Marčiulionis in Vilnius. If a coach in an ordinary school ever spots promising talent in a young local player, he can suggest a move to one of these highly respected basketball schools.
In 1997, when the editor of the newspaper Lietuvos Rytas bought the Vilnius club Statyba, the masterful Kaunas team Žalgiris suddenly had a powerful rival. The two clubs have dominated the national league ever since, with Rytas reaching an all-powerful position in 2009 winning almost every trophy going – Lithuanian and European. Today they are trying to claw back from a five-season trophy drought, finally winning the King Mindaugas Cup in February 2016.
Lithuania has other great teams, such as Neptūnas Klaipėda, Panevėžio Lietkabelis and Vytautas Prienai-Birštonas, all of which did well in the same 2016 tournament. But Žalgiris and Lietuvos Rytas – Kaunas and Vilnius – are still the ones to beat, buoyed up by lucrative European league contracts. Žalgiris recently signed a fresh ten-year contract with the EuroLeague. And while talented Lithuanian players continue to be courted by wealthy clubs in other countries, the Žalgiris roster includes players from France, Germany, Canada, Australia and Brazil.
Lithuanians are proud that they’ve had some really strong players in the NBA, with Sabonis and Žydrūnas Ilgauskas being among the very best. Today the finest Lithuanian player in the NBA is probably Jonas Valančiūnas, who was reared in the Lietuvos Rytas stable and now dazzles fans of the Toronto Raptors. But some talented players have not reached the top; the likes of Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Domantas Sabonis still need to fully prove themselves.
Lithuania has some first-class stadiums too, constructed or patched up in time for the country hosting the 2011 EuroBasket championship. The finest and most successful is Žalgirio Arena (zalgirioarena.lt) in central Kaunas, a huge venue on an island in the River Nemunas used for concerts, events and festivals as well as sports. Basketball matches there are regularly sold out, but if you want to experience the electric atmosphere of a high-level match in Lithuania, that’s where you should go.
The popularity of basketball is unrivalled in Lithuania, though runners-up are swimming – inspired by superstars like Rūta Meilutytė, Olympic gold medallist and world record breaker – and football. The strength of the game in the Lithuanian soul is such that Lituanica, a team made up of emigres in London, is one of the best clubs in the UK.
Lithuania has a winning culture – but this also brings with it a certain danger, of losing that 100-year-old passion for the game if it ever sustains a run of losses on the international stage. The national team continues to be among the best in the world, a fact especially respected given the small size of the country, and basketball has always been the sport Lithuanians are most confident at winning. Through its magical teams and its talented young players, it must stay in the top tier at all costs.
- A big thank you to Martynas Suslavičius for his expert insight for this article.