VILNIUS - It was a dream come true for Lithuanian basketball fans: with the upcoming World Basketball Championship starting in August, four of their six players were back from the world's top league, the National Basketball Association (NBA), and on the court. But rather then practicing together for the upcoming championship, they where home serving as ambassadors of the game to help teach young basketball prospects from across Europe how to improve their skills.
Twenty-eight of Europe's most promising young players, six from Lithuania, gathered at the Sarunas Marciulionis Basketball Academy in Vilnius June 30 's July 3 to participate in Basketball without Borders Europe. The program is a joint venture between the NBA and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), which brings stars from the NBA to teach some of the finer points of the game of basketball and perform community outreach.
"The camp is not only about basketball. It's about teaching players discipline, respect, and living a healthy lifestyle. It's important for them to hear from our professional athletes what they have been through before they face it," said Arturas Karnisovas, senior manager for NBA Basketball Operations International and Olympic bronze medal winner with Lithuania's national basketball team.
The Lithuanian NBA players included Cleveland Cavaliers center Zydrunas Illgauskas, Chicago Bulls forward Darius Songaila, Indiana Pacers guard Sarunas Jasikevicius, and Denver Nuggets forward Linas Kleiza. The Atlanta Hawks' Georgian forward, Zaza Pachulia and the Philadelphia 76ers' Haitian center, Samuel Dalembert also participated along with a large number of NBA coaches and personnel.
"It's nice for our country as well as being good for the future of basketball in Lithuania that the kids come and the NBA comes," said Jasikevicius.
Players under 18 years old from 27 countries in Europe were selected based on their skill and leadership. In addition to coaching tips from some of the world's top professionals and coaches, they attended seminars about life off the court such as HIV/AIDS awareness, drug prevention, and education.
"Basketball without Borders Europe is being held in Lithuania not only to celebrate Lithuanians' passion for the game and our representation in the NBA but also to give back to the community," explained Karnisovas.
On July 2, in partnership with the Kazickas Family Foundation and the men's National Team, the NBA refurbished the basketball court at the Seskines Vidurine public school. The court was resurfaced and new backboards, rims, hoops, benches and fences were installed.
The program then moved to Kaunas where a new NBA Cares Live, Learn, and Play Center was opened at the Pagyne Children's Home, an orphanage close to the home of Ilgauskas. His donations were instrumental in helping fund the refurbishment of the home, which included structural improvements and new computers and books.
Basketball without Borders Europe finished with an All-Star game held at the Kaunas Sports Hall, where France's Lamine Samee took home MVP honors.
"It's amazing how the kids come with such emotion. They play very hard and also play together even though they barely know each other," said Jasikevicius.
Basketball without Borders was first held in Italy in 2001, and since then has expanded across the globe.