VILNIUS - The European basketball championship is being held in Poland from Sept. 7-20. TV sets showing basketball will be the main attraction across Lithuania. The expectation for European medals is high now throughout the country. According to a delfi.lt survey, only 26 percent of Lithuanians will not watch the tournament, EuroBasket 2009. On the eve of the championship, Lithuania played its exhibition game against Spain, which currently is the world champion. This game in Vilnius was a mini-Waterloo for Spain.
On Sept. 4, in front of 11,000 non-stop screaming fans at the Siemens Arena in Vilnius, the Lithuanian team hammered Spain 94 - 72. It was Spain's first loss since the final of the Beijing Olympics, where Spain was defeated by the U.S.
"The host team even without their stars, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Ramunas Siskauskas and Rimantas Kaukenas gave a sweep to poorly looking Spain," wrote the Spanish sport newspaper As. The newspaper also emphasized that it is the first loss in a friendly game for Spain in four years.
"Lithuania beat Spain like a drum," wrote the EuroBasket 2009 official site.
After the game, Sergio Scariolo praised the atmosphere in the Vilnius Siemens Arena. "I want to thank the audience, which has created a fantastic atmosphere. The crowd was enormous," Scariolo said.
The Lithuanians shot the ball well, hitting 12 of 25 three-point shots from long range, to just two of 16 for the Spanish team. Jorge Garbajosa, the Spanish team's star, was extremely nervous and periodically and unsuccessfully tried to provoke some boxing on the court.
After the game, Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius appeared on the court to congratulate the Lithuanian players. His economic policy, however, is highly unpopular and about 73 percent of Lithuanians view him negatively, according to the social research company Baltijos Tyrimai. No wonder that the audience was booing and whistling when he showed up. Earlier, during the game, the same noisy booing was provoked by the appearance of Parliament Chairman Arunas Valinskas, who was courageous enough to watch the game in the arena. He is the most unpopular politician in Lithuania, according to the Baltijos Tyrimai (77 percent of Lithuanians view his activities negatively).
During the press conference after the game, Ramunas Butautas, coach of the Lithuanian team, accented the team spirit of his players.
"The team spirit is our main gun," Butautas said, also emphasizing the team's intense and successful play on defense.
Earlier he said that he will hand in his resignation in case Lithuania will not be among the top five in Poland. The first five places in the European championship give the right to participate in next year's world championship in Turkey.
Of course, Butautas would be happy to invite all the best Lithuanian players to his team. However, NBA players Zydrunas Ilgauskas of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Darius Songaila, who this summer switched from the Washington Wizards to the Minnesota Timberwolves, as well as European superstars Arvydas Macijauskas, Jasikevicius, Siskauskas and Kaukenas, could not join because of injuries, fatigue or personal problems. Linas Kleiza, Marijonas Petravicius, Simas Jasaitis and two Polish-origin twin brothers, Ksystof and Darjus Lavrinovic, known in Lithuania as "broliai" ("brothers" in Lithuanian), are expected to be the main force in the newly shaped Lithuanian national team.
Lithuania is the European champion for 1937, 1939 and 2003, while in 1995 Lithuania got silver, and in the previous European championship (which is held once every two years) in 2007, Lithuania got bronze. Russia with its American coach David Blatt is the current European champion. During the pre-EuroBasket 2009 friendly games, Lithuania defeated Russia 66-61 in a friendly game in the arena in the northern Lithuanian town of Panevezys.
The Lithuanian national team will not be the only Lithuanians at EuroBasket 2009. Lithuanian Kestutis Kemzura is coach of the Latvian national team. Latvia has all its best players on its national team this year. Kemzura says it is the best Latvian team in the history of Latvia. Indeed, it even managed to defeat Lithuania by two points in a friendly game in Riga during the early stage of warm-up, before the EuroBasket 2009.
Jonas Kazlauskas, former Lithuanian national team coach, will be the coach of the Greek national team for EuroBasket 2009. Greece has one of the richest national basketball leagues which, in some cases, is able to pay more than NBA teams and attracts some Lithuanian players onto its clubs. For example, Kleiza, after four years with the NBA Denver Nuggets, will play next season on a Greek club. Kazlauskas was awarded the title of best European coach when, in 1999, his Kaunas Zalgiris club became champions of the Euroleague which is made up of the best European clubs and now includes two Lithuanian clubs - Kaunas Zalgiris and current Lithuania's champion Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas.
Basketball is called the second religion in Lithuania though some say it is the first. Lithuania has participated in the Olympic Games since 1992. The Lithuanian basketball team was bronze medalist at the Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney Olympics while in the last two Olympics, it came in fourth. The only other team which managed to be among the top four of the last five Olympic Games is the U.S.
Lithuania was the first team which did dare to challenge the American Dream Team of NBA stars. In the Sydney Olympics, Lithuania lost 85-83 to the Americans in the semi-final. The U.S. was then saved by the referees, believe many fans, who felt the referees allowed the American stars to play too physically on the court. Argentina and several European national teams, including Lithuania, wrote into their basketball history books some victories against the U.S. national team later during the Olympic Games and the world championships.
Some 2,000 Lithuanian fans have already booked their tickets for the EuroBasket 2009 in Poland. The number will increase if Lithuania reaches the semi-finals. During the championship, the Lithuanian beer company Svyturys will open its temporary outdoor pubs in the Polish towns of Wroclaw, Lodz and Katowice.
According to Lithuanian sports analysts, the main contenders for medals in Poland will be Spain, Lithuania, Greece and Serbia. Lithuania's expectations are still high despite their defeat in the first EuroBasket 2009 game, on Sept. 7; Lithuania lost to Turkey 84 - 76.
The next European basketball championship will be held on Lithuanian courts in Vilnius, Kaunas, Siauliai, Panevezys and Klaipeda in 2011. The London Olympic Games of 2012, also considered by Lithuanians to be a "fight on home court" because of the 250,000-strong Lithuanian community in the UK and the unpopularity of basketball among Britons.