VILNIUS - Somewhere off the British coast there is a small island with its own independent soccer league. Unfortunately, the league only consists of two teams, who season after season battle it out against each other for the all-important title.
The same could almost be said about the Lithuanian Basketball League. Although the LKL consists of nine teams, there are in reality only two teams in contention to lift the trophy come the end of the season: Zalgiris Kaunas and Lietuvos Rytas from Vilnius.
In its 10-year history, the LKL has always been a two-way battle for the title between the teams from Lithuania's two main cities. Take last season for example: Zalgiris only lost one game in the league - against Lietuvos Rytas, of course - while the Vilnius-based team managed to lose four games. After going undefeated through the quarterfinals and semifinals, the two teams faced each other in the best-of-seven playoff for the title, with Zalgiris coming out on top.
And Zalgiris' dominance looks set to continue in the new season, which kicked off this month.
The two rivals both comfortably won their opening games of the season. Zalgiris beat Alita 113-81 and then Sakalai 104-74, while Lietuvos Rytas respectively thumped the same two teams 116-69 and 114-63.
New-signing Fred House impressed for Lietuvos Rytas as the best scorer in both games. The American guard was brought in as a replacement for Ramunas Siskauskas, who left to play in the Italian league for Treviso. Siskauskas was one of Lithuania's best players during the recent Olympic Games and will nevertheless be surely missed by Rytas, which is currently targeting other foreign players to further strengthen the squad.
Meanwhile, Zalgiris Kaunas has lost the influential American guard Ed Cota, but the team still looks stronger with the likes of the two young forwards Paulius Jankunas and Simonas Serapinas. However, the defending champions received a bit of a blow when its Latvian guard Ainars Bagetskis got injured in the Alita game and looks likely to be sidelined for the next three months.
Perhaps too much of Zalgiris' hopes for another title rest on the shoulders of one man, who isn't quite the colossal influence he used to be. But despite his 220 centimetres and 130 kilograms and the fact that he turns 40 in December, Lithuanian basketball legend Arvydas Sabonis is still incredibly agile and a vital member of the team. After returning to his native Kaunas to play out the end of his illustrious career, he immediately received the award as Most Valuable Player in the Lithuanian league and for the Euroleague Top 16 last season.
Today, the former NBA star is also a co-owner of Zalgiris Kaunas and has great plans for the club. Sabonis has established his own basketball school in Kaunas where 700 kids are currently enrolled, and he is also one of the main driving forces behind the building of a new basketball arena in the city.
But Sabonis is likely to be rested for most of the matches in the league due to his age. Instead, he is saving his energy for the upcoming matches in the Euroleague, where Zalgiris faces opponents of much higher quality. The team is expected to be a serious contender for the European crown, which it last won back in 1999.
Zalgiris will also participate in the brand new Baltic Basketball League, which starts in January 2005. The best teams from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will battle it out for the prestigious title as the best in the Baltics with the final round being played in Vilnius in April. But the final details of the league are still being arranged, and it's not yet known exactly how many teams will take part in the new "super" league.