VILNIUS - From July 22 - Aug.1, the European championship for 18-year old players was held in the Siemens Arena and Lietuvos Ryto Arena in Vilnius. Sixteen national teams took part. On Aug. 1, the final game was observed by a roaring 13,000 spectators in the Siemens Arena during which Lithuania crushed Russia, 90-61. The end of the game was clear already after the first quarter, which finished with a Lithuanian lead of 28-9. “With this kind of support, we would win even if we would have no legs,” Deividas Pukis, the Lithuanian team’s master of three-points shots, said after the match about the fans’ support during the final match. The obvious superstar of the championship was 210 centimeter-tall Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas, who got the award as the championship’s most valuable player. There are little doubts about his future career in the NBA in case he makes such a choice. Valanciunas is now a player on the Euroleague’s club Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas.
In fact, the real final was the semi-final match of Lithuania vs. Serbia, which the Lithuanians won 67-66. The Lithuanians managed to liquidate a 13 point gap in the final quarter by using pressing defense throughout the court. In another semi-final, Russia thrashed Latvia 73-42. In the game for the bronze medals, Latvia won against Serbia 75-49. The Serbs were exhausted after their battle against the Lithuanians - this became obvious in the second half of their game against Latvia. The Lithuanian audience gave a standing ovation to the Latvians during the final minute of their match against the Serbs.
On the eve of the championship, Lithuania, Spain and France were considered to be favorites to win the gold. However, after the group stage, only one favorite remained, and this was Lithuania. The Lithuanians won their first match against Ukraine easily, 81-61, as well as their later matches against Poland 87-66, Slovenia 90-68, France 104-63, and Spain 77-58. The only complicated fight at the group stage for Lithuania was the brotherly battle against the Latvians – Lithuania won 78-75, though this match did not mean much and the Lithuanians probably had not enough motivation to play hard. The quarterfinal match against Greece was just an entertainment for Lithuanians – Lithuania won 84-51.
Lithuanian players were taking this championship seriously. “We don’t read the Internet. We switched off our mobile phones. We hope that the spectators will be our sixth player on the court,” said Lithuanian player Dovydas Redikas about his team’s psychological concentration for the tournament in the team’s press conference on the eve of the championship. Indeed, Lithuanian fans created fantastic atmosphere during the championship.
Both arenas were unusually full, as for a championship of the 18-years-olds and the public was indeed the sixth Lithuanian player on the court. The Lithuanians were thirsty for basketball after a couple of months’ break in all Lithuanian, Baltic and European tournaments. “Welcome to the capital of basketball country,” Vilnius Mayor Vilius Navickas said during the opening ceremony of the championship, stating the simple truth – Lithuania is the only European country where basketball is the undeniable sport No. 1.
The championship was observed by many NBA scouts who were looking for new stars. The new talent searchers for the San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers, Washington Wizards, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Houston Rockets (the scout of the latter club is Arturas Karnisovas, former player of the Lithuanian national team) were carefully noting each move on the court of would-be NBA legends. Some living legends were present as well. Arvydas Sabonis, the most famous Lithuanian basketball player of all time, observed how his son, Tautvydas Sabonis, plays for the Lithuanian team. Although Tautvydas is only the seventh or ninth player in the Lithuanian national team of 18-year olds, his patriotism is worth appreciating – he lives in Spain and he received offers of Spanish citizenship several times, but he refused because of the will to be a part of the Lithuanian national team.
Linas Kleiza who signed his contract for the next NBA season with the Toronto Raptors also watched the first matches and the final game of the championship in Vilnius. Now he is training with the national team in Lithuania for the world basketball championship in Turkey, which will be held from Aug. 28 - Sept. 12. Lithuania will play its group stage in Izmir, which is situated near the sea. Therefore, the migration of Lithuanians to Izmir will be especially high at the end of August because basketball can be combined with beach pleasures there. However, while the Lithuanian national teams of youngsters are always among the favorites in the international tournaments due to the high professionalism of Lithuania’s basketball schools for kids, the Lithuanian adults have a problem: usually several of the best Lithuanian players do not play for the national team due to chronic fatigue after a season in the world’s superclubs as well as injuries and various personal life issues which are not foreign to every sports celebrity. For example, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who for the coming season moved together with LeBron James from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat, never represented the Lithuanian national team, mostly due to injuries.
The world championship in Turkey is considered to be a rehearsal for the renewed Lithuanian national team before the main event for all Lithuanians – the European basketball championship in Lithuania in September 2011, universally referred to as EuroBasket 2011. It will be held in the arenas of Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipeda, Panevezys, Siauliai and Alytus. This will be the second time Lithuania has hosted EuroBasket. The first time was in 1939, when Lithuania became the European champion for a second time.
On the eve of the European championship for 18-year old players, Vilnius Vice-Mayor Gintautas Babravicius expressed hope that leaders of FIBA Europe will be so impressed with the championship’s organization that they will give Vilnius the right to have a final match of EuroBasket 2011. Indeed the championship’s arenas and hotels for 18-year olds were of higher level than those during the EuroBasket 2009 in Poland. However, during the European championship for 18-year old players, the FIBA Europe delegation visited Kaunas and got so fascinated with the quick progress of construction of new ultramodern basketball arena in Kaunas with capacity of 14,500 seats (Vilnius Siemens Arena, although currently probably the best in Europe, has officially only 11,000 seats though the final of Aug. 1 was attended by 13,000 spectators) that they decided to hold the final match of EuroBasket 2011 in Kaunas.