The ice age could be coming to the NBA, but in a Baltic nation of only three million people—where past stars are grooming a golden generation—hoops couldn't be hotter
This is an article from the Aug. 15, 2011 issue
While the NBA is in lockout limbo, the heart of hoops beats strongly in the Baltics, in this, the Year of Lithuanian Giants. The trail to meet the most gargantuan Lietuvo of all, Arvydas Sabonis, has taken me to a dusty, two-lane road in the country's second largest city, to the youth basketball school bearing his name. Basketball is the only sport the 3.2 million Lithuanians truly care about—it's their second religion, after Catholicism—and their success is proportionately stunning. The national team is No. 5 in the world rankings, behind countries of 313 million (the U.S.), 47 million (Spain), 40 million (Argentina) and 11 million (Greece), and just ahead of countries of 79 million (Turkey) and 61 million (Italy). The under-19 team won the FIBA world championship in Riga, Latvia, in July. This year for the first time Lithuania had two first-round NBA draft picks: big men Jonas Valanciunas, who went fifth to the Raptors, and Donatas Motiejunas, who was chosen 20th by the Timberwolves and traded to the Rockets. And on Friday, their 7'3" forebear, Sabonis, will be the first Lithuanian inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame.
Sabonis resides in Spain but has returned to his homeland to serve as an ambassador for EuroBasket, the biennial continental championship, which Lithuania is hosting for the first time in 72 years. (It is staging the event, which begins on Aug. 31, with Olympic-level enthusiasm: Six new arenas have been built, and nearly all of the 110,000 tickets snapped up.) Now 46, Sabas was drafted by the Hawks in 1985 and the Trail Blazers in '86, but didn't arrive in Portland until '95, so Americans are accustomed to waiting for him, and this is what I'm doing in the upstairs lounge of his school. He appeared briefly, first eclipsing the light in the doorway, then towering over me, wearing a man-purse (they are, regrettably, en vogue in the Baltics), low-top black Chuck Taylors, shorts and a John Varvatos peace-sign-and-American-flag tee. In a deep voice he said, "Hello. You will wait here a minute," before stepping out to take a meeting.
It's near compulsory for Lithuanian legends to own basketball schools; Sarunas Marciulionis, the first Lithuanian to reach the NBA, in 1989 with the Warriors, has one in Vilnius. The rival Sabonio Krepsinio Mokykla, set in Sabonis's birthplace of Kaunas (pop. 350,000), in a neighborhood of drab, Soviet-era apartment towers, has a loud presence. Its bright-orange exterior is dominated by a billboard for Orange Virus, a homegrown street-hoops brand that seems to have been named after an imaginary chemical weapon. Orange Virus made the jerseys for the title-winning U-19 team, whose roster featured the relentless Valanciunas as its low-post star; Sabonis's middle son, Tautvydas, coming off the bench; and four former Sabonis-school pupils playing key roles.
In this lounge there are nearly 100 trophies won by Sabonio teams in a glass case; below them, 32 signed basketballs. On the shelf under the flat-screen TV, there is just one book: Lietuvos Krepsinio Legenda, 1920--1960—essentially, a pre-Sabonian basketball almanac. In Legenda is the story of the original Lithuanian giant, Pranas Lubinas. He was actually an American studio grip named Frank Lubin who was sometimes called Frankenstein Lubin by fans of his Hollywood-league AAU team at Universal Pictures, which promoted its films with barnstorming basketball tours. Lubin's coach, Jack Pierce, was a makeup man on Bride of Frankenstein, and Lubin was made up like the movie monster—complete with faux bolts on his neck—and sent into the crowd before games. But he was more than a sideshow; he was the team's star, a former UCLA starter who won gold for the U.S. in basketball's debut at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
Lubin's parents were born in Lithuania, and he accepted an offer, extended by a Lithuanian official during the Olympics, to visit. In what was not yet a basketball country—though Lithuanians were introduced to the sport in the 1920s by a former U.S. military pilot, they didn't even participate in the inaugural EuroBasket, in 1935—Lubin stayed for six months and became a basketball ambassador, serving as its first knowledgeable coach. "I made them toe the line with my style," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, nine years before his death. "I didn't teach them to be a one-man team, I taught them to pass it to the man who had the best open shot."
After Lithuania won EuroBasket 1937 with a handful of Chicago-born Lithuanians, earning the right to host in '39, the government built the first basketball-only venue in Europe, the Kaunas Sports Hall, and requested that Lubin return to coach the national team. Using a Lithuanian passport, he also played for the team, leading it to a second straight title and earning the country the right to host EuroBasket again in 1941.
World War II then changed the course of the nation: Lithuania, which had declared independence in 1918, was reoccupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, by Nazi Germany in 1941 and by the Soviets again after the war. Lubinas and his family fled in 1939 on a ship out of Estonia to the U.S., where he reverted to being Frank Lubin. Lithuania lost the man it would later call the godfather of its beloved sport, it lost EuroBasket '41, and for 50 years it lost its independence. What it never let go of was basketball.
My first sighting of Sabonis on this trip was in Arena Riga, where he lurked in the shadows of a luxury box, looking down at his son's U-19 team. In the stands was the Lithuanian fan-mob, which had staged a de facto occupation of the Latvian capital, tailgating, chanting, banging drums and buying about 10,000 of the 11,000 available tickets for the final against Serbia. Among the men in green LIETUVA shirts was their basketball federation's chief sponsor, an online sports-betting entrepreneur and mouthy professional poker player named Antanas Guoga, who goes by Tony G. (When the senior team failed to qualify for last summer's world championships in Turkey and needed 500,000 Euros to purchase a wild-card entry, Guoga anted up a sizable share. "Anyone in Lithuania would do this if they had enough money," he told me. With the TONYBET logo on the front of their jerseys, the Lithuanians took bronze.)
A poker-star sponsor is not the only curious aspect of the federation. While its president is an old school coaching legend—Vladas Garastas, 79, under whom Sabonis won three Russian league titles at BC Zalgiris from 1985 to '87, and bronze medals at the 1992 and '96 Olympics—its secretary general, 34-year-old Mindaugas Balciunas, is on a mission to change how the game is taught. Working with England's University of Worcester and his alma mater, the Lithuanian Academy of Physical Education, Balciunas helped create a master's degree program in European basketball coaching science at the academy in 2010—and has since persuaded four current members of the national team, including Raptors forward Linas Kleiza, to enroll and study a largely distance-learning curriculum that fits around their schedule. (Try to picture half of the Dream Team pursuing advanced degrees in the summer.)
"The reason Lithuania is so strong," Balciunas says, "is our system of coach preparation." His hope is that the country's greatest players will enter the field, but the entire state-school system—the backbone of youth development—is already populated by coaches with bachelor's degrees, which must be renewed every two years. The Lithuanians borrow from the States; in Balciunas's office in Kaunas, I saw an article on North Carolina's secondary break being translated, and he gave me a deeply detailed English-to-Lietuvos basketball dictionary. (The Sabonis special, an around-the-back pass, is perdavimas uz nugaros viena ranka.) But he would prefer that prospects develop at home. Balciunas has worked to cut the number of Lithuanians studying in the U.S. from roughly 90 to 30, because, he says, "When they go there, their abilities get worse."
With the biggest sporting event in the nation's history looming, Balciunas is noticeably nervous. The nation is "expecting that we win," Balciunas says, "and this will be very tough." He keeps mentioning that two potential starters, Kleiza and Jonas Maciulis, have been lost to knee injuries and that Lithuania is in a difficult group with Spain and Turkey. Federation elections are coming up in October; Garastas's term is up, and Sabonis is in line to be the next president. Failure to medal in EuroBasket will be viewed as catastrophic and could lead to further carping from critics in Vilnius—among them Marciulionis, who is commissioner of the Lithuanian Basketball League and has a frosty relationship with the Garastas regime. Balciunas knows that Sabonis has aims to be more than an ambassador. "It can get boring in retirement, even if you have money," Balciunas says. "What [Sabonis] needs is a new challenge."
We are a small country," Sabonis says, when asked why basketball is of such outsized importance in Lithuania, as opposed to the rest of Europe, "and basketball is the way for us to show the world that we are here."
The Western world only glimpsed Sabonis during his prime, before he suffered an Achilles tendon injury in 1986, at 22, from what he suspects was overuse by Soviet national-program coaches. When the U.S.S.R. had seen fit to unleash its mulleted, mustachioed wonder on international competition, his size and skill set were unmatched. Sabonis was fierce and unstoppable around the basket, but he could run and pass (frequently without looking) like a point guard. In a 1982 exhibition tour against American colleges, a 17-year-old Sabonis outplayed Ralph Sampson of Virginia, and after a win over Indiana, Bob Knight remarked that Sabonis "may be the best non-American player I've ever seen." Scouts salivated over him, Dale Brown tried to recruit him to LSU. But, Sabonis says now, "I never thought much about those things then, because they were impossible."
Not only did the U.S.S.R. refuse to release Sabonis to the NBA, it forced him into action at the '88 Olympics, even though he hadn't recovered from a second ruptured Achilles. Sabonis had just wanted to "go as a tourist," but he and Marciulionis helped lead the Soviets to gold over the U.S. in Seoul, at considerable cost to Sabonis's future health. He finally joined the Blazers in 1995 as a lead-footed, 30-year-old rookie, and he played capably for seven seasons, even averaging a double double in '97--98, but it was difficult to separate that image of him from the original. Tautvydas refrains from playing videos from his father's pre-injury days around him. "He's such a competitor," Tautvydas says, "that I think it hurts him to see [that footage] more than it hurts anyone else."
Lithuanians, however, are less likely to lament what could have been than they are to revere Sabonis as a symbol of national strength. The Russian championships he won with Zalgiris in the mid-1980s were an important show of power for a country that was gearing up for a fight for independence, and the Olympic bronzes he won in 1992 and '96 were immense sources of pride. Fans have been waiting for the next great Lithuanian big man to emerge ever since. They have hopes for the youngest Sabonis, Domantas, a 6'3" lefthanded forward who may be the country's best 15-year-old, but are more enthralled by Valanciunas, the MVP of the U-19s, where he averaged 23.0 points and 13.9 rebounds. "[Domantas] is the future of my family," Sabonis says, "but Valanciunas is the future of our country. We don't have another big man like him."
In Vilnius, at the Presidential Palace, as president Dalia Grybauskaite is pinning a medal on Valanciunas, it occurs to me that he is the first Lithuanian draft pick to have grown up in the time of independence. Lubin was imported and Sabonis reclaimed, but Valanciunas, born in 1992 in Utena, has always belonged to Lithuanians, and they cannot help but overcelebrate the golds he's won in the Euro U-16s, Euro U-18s and World U-19s. At this reception Garastas asks me, "Would Obama have honored the U.S. team like this if they won in Riga?"
Only the NCAA champs, I say; the American U-19 team would have returned without fanfare even if it hadn't finished a disappointing fifth. The U.S. has a basketball president, but so does Lithuania (Grybauskaite played in her school days), and it is a country in which basketball tends to eclipse politics. She takes time after the ceremony to ask Valanciunas's mother, Danute, how she raised such a strong boy. "Lots of love," she replies, "and lots of feeding. Lots of feeding."
On my way out of Lithuania, I drive to Utena (pop. 32,000), which Valanciunas calls a "small city, growing bigger, getting better." There are pockets along the route that remind me of Indiana: hoops on garages next to farmhouses, backboard poles set in dirt yards, a boy walking along the side of a highway in an Allen Iverson jersey. European big men have a reputation for being soft, but Valanciunas is a gritty country boy who just happens to be from another country. His mother is a nurse; his father (they never married) is a farmer, raising cows, pigs and chickens. He was a rower for the U.S.S.R. national team, who once told his son, "Throw that ball away; you have the long legs of a rower." But the boy was only interested in fishing and basketball. He loves Sabonis, but it is telling that a favorite Sabas YouTube clip is of the flashy passer punching an opponent in the face in 1986. "He was a real fighter, a famous fighter," Valanciunas says.
Due to his contract with Lietuvos Rytas, a Vilnius club team, Valanciunas must remain in the capital for one more season. He has lived there on his own since he was 14, when his mother and youth coach gave their blessing to an agent who spotted Valanciunas at the Utena Sports Center and asked to bring him to the big city. Valanciunas was soon placed under the umbrella of the national program, and he's expected to be a part of the senior team for the first time during EuroBasket. He hopes to live out Sabonis's prophesy, whispered in his ear after winning gold at the Euro U-18s, that Valanciunas would make many trips back to that podium. If he can keep growing bigger and getting better, Valanciunas has plans. "One day in Utena, when I finish my career," he says, "I would like to make a basketball school."
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