TBT’s chief sports contributor Victor Shestopalov reports from this year’s European Basketball Championship, which took place early this fall in several countries.
Hard to say whose idea it initially was, but splitting one major tournament between several cities and countries has become a norm in the modern world of sports. Like almost everything else, this concept has its pros and cons. The obvious pro is the opportunity for more people to witness the spectacle live. But if you are a sports fan from one of the Baltic countries, you had to secretly wish for the whole of the 2015 European Basketball Championship taking place in Riga, Latvia alone. Not just its first stage.
Nonetheless, in early September, the beautiful Riga Arena hosted a preliminary group round of this year’s Eurobasket. Like back in 2009 when this venue was the epicenter of the Women’s European Basketball Championship, the mood for the big game was just right all across the Latvian capital. There were special tents all over the city, where fans could mingle, converse and buy different basketball paraphernalia. One of those, called “Bralukas” (brothers) was an idea of two particular Latvian fans of Lithuanian basketball, who put it up to symbolize neighboring countries’ basketball friendship and heritage. Even Latvia’s taxi drivers couldn’t stop talking about the games.
The uniqueness of this Riga phase of Eurobasket was in its draw, though. Group D of the tournament pitted six teams against each other: the Czech Republic, Belgium, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. With all due respect to the first three countries, I called this group none other than the Baltic Sea Basketball Championship. It was a perfect chance to witness such a local tournament inside a grand Eurobasket. You couldn’t help but cherish this opportunity even more, as Baltic basketball was always a highly skilled game, especially in Lithuania. Smart guard play, crisp passes, swift fast breaks and on-point shooting were on display from all Baltic teams.
Lithuania, true to form, showed off some of the finest skills and cruised through the group stage. For example, Mantas Kalnietis was arguably the best point guard of Eurobasket, leading the tournament with respectable 7.8 assists per game. The highlight of his play was the semifinal game, where Lithuania beat Serbia 67:64 and Kalnietis (9 assists) personally outplayed ball wizard Milos Teodosic (3 assists). What made Lithuania even stronger and ultimately made it possible to win the silver medals was its front line. NBA big man Jonas Valanciunas (8.4 rebounds per game) was dominant on the paint; sharp shooting forward Jonas Maciulis (53.8 percent from three-point line) provided fire power from the perimeter and versatile substitute Mindaugas Kuzminskas (8.7 points, 5 rebounds) did all the rest.
Silver finish in Eurobasket behind only the Spain is undoubtfully a big success for Lithuania. But the team which, by my estimation, achieved even more during this tournament was Latvia. Finishing the group’s stage in second place, Ainars Bagatskis squad drew up very solid Slovenia team in the first round of the knock out stage. That’s where the Latvians played their best game of the month, prevailing in the end with the score of 73:66. Having a very limited 8-player rotation, Bagatskis used every one of them to the best of their abilities. Veteran guards Kristaps Janicenoks and Janis Strelnieks led the way and the rest has followed in the light version of Lithuanian high skills basketball model. And one could only wonder how much father Latvia could go, if it had a solid big man like Valanciunas or Pau Gasol from Spain. But after very talented Andris Biedrins threw his career away, there are just no good centers to be found in Latvian basketball.
The final standings of Eurobasket put Lithuania in second place, Latvia in eighth and Estonia in 20th out of 24 teams. The Most Valuable Player of the Championship was bearded Spaniard Pau Gasol. Two Lithuanians Jonas Valanciunas and Jonas Maciulis made the all-tournament team. And Latvian Ainars Bagatskis should have been named the best coach for how he handled a much-depleted roster. By the FIBA rules two top teams, Spain and Lithuania, will represent Europe in the basketball tournament of 2016 Olympic Games in Rio-de-Janeiro.
Besides all these fancy statistics, it’s important to once again highlight all this good basketball spirit and the sense of brotherhood that accompanied Riga’s part of the Eurobasket. People being united through a passion for sports is one the most precious accomplishments of human kind in my book of life. And this very spirit was so much visible around Riga Arena during these September days, that one can already start wishing for the next Basketball championship to take place in the Baltics.
Laura Purina contributed to this report.