A basketball legend coaching Lietuvos Rytas

  • 2009-11-12
  • Interviewed by Francisco Javier Gregorio

Rimas Kurtinaitis wasn't just a Lithuanian basketball player, he was one of the best players in Europe in the '80s and '90s and is considered a basketball legend. He is now the head coach of Lietuvos Rytas, the main basketball team in Vilnius. However, he started his career as a coach in 2002 in Baku Gala, Azerbaijan, and after that he was with the Lithuanian national team as assistant coach. Nevertheless, he is famous because of his brilliant career as a player. It's difficult to list all of his trophies and championships. Maybe for athletes the best competition is the Olympic Games, when Kurtinaitis was on the gold medal team in Seoul in 1988 playing for the Soviet Union, and playing for his home country he received another two medals 's bronze - in 1992 at Barcelona and 1996 in Atlanta.

He was on the winning team for the European Championship in 1985. Being a player on the Lithuanian national team, Kurtinaitis won a silver medal in the European Championship in 1995. Talking about clubs, he played on some of the best European teams, for instance, CSKA Moscow, Zalgiris Kaunas and Real Madrid, finishing his career in 2002 on BC Kiev in Ukraine. Kurtinaitis was even the Lithuanian Sports Minister from 1997 to 2001.

He played at the shooting guard position and was one of the best scorers of his time. In fact, he is the only non-NBA player to participate in the NBA All-Star Three Point Contest, in 1989. One notable characteristic as coach is his penchant in developing young players. Lietuvos Rytas is one of the youngest teams in the Euroleague but they are a strong team in the Lithuanian and Baltic leagues.
The Baltic Times met with Rimas Kurtinaitis to analyze this year's basketball season and have a look back over his career.

Lietuvos Rytas has won nine of its first ten matches. What is your impression of the first month of competition?
Some of these matches haven't been so difficult because they have been against teams in our local leagues which aren't like in other countries, like Spain, with 18 important teams. These results are important but we can't pay attention only to these matches; maybe Euroleague can show us our level. We have a very young team and we are training very hard.

Are you satisfied with your team this season?
Yes, of course. I am preparing my team to practice good basketball; we are training every day at a very good level. In our club everything is more difficult because we aren't a rich club, we don't have rich American players. On our team the individuals aren't the most important thing, we have to play like a team. I have been a player and I know the most important thing in basketball is to practice hard and to play harder every day. We have much interest in Serbian players and we are trying to dominate the Balkan and Russian market. I am really very satisfied with my players.

What are the main goals of Lietuvos Rytas for this season?
As I have said, we don't have a lot of money and this is a big handicap. Nevertheless, in the Euroleague we are trying to be in the top sixteen, to be with the sixteen best teams in Europe. Moreover, we will try to make it to some finals and to win some of them, the Lithuanian Basketball League (LKL), the Baltic Basketball League (BBL) and the Federation Cup. It isn't easy to win these titles but it's more difficult to defend them; for example, we have to defend the LKL and the BBL and it will be difficult.

In the Euroleague, Lietuvos Rytas is in a difficult group (group B, with Unicaja, Olympiacos, Efes Pilsen, Partizan Belgrade and Orleanaise), what are the possibilities to get to the next round?
We won our first match at home against Efes Pilsen with a very strong defense, which is very important for us. It was a big step. This is a very strong group but, as I have said, we will try to be among the sixteen best teams. The favorites to win the Euroleague are the same teams as in other years, for example Panathinaikos or Barcelona. I have also seen Real Madrid and they have a very good team, they are in good physical condition. But of course, I don't know what is going to happen because in this competition anything is possible.

How do you see the Lithuanian Basketball League (LKL) and the Baltic Basketball League (BBL) developing this season?
Latvian and Estonian teams have actually a lot of economic problems, so Lithuanian teams should be better, we have stronger players here. I know it isn't very correct to say, but maybe Zalgiris and Rytas are the only teams which can win both competitions. We are usually in the finals. Zalgiris is going to be our main rival.

Do you have the same motivation when you are playing in the Euroleague as when you are playing in the LKL, or in the BBL?
Of course, we never change our attitude. For us, it doesn't matter if we are playing LKL, BBL or Euroleague. We have to play hard in every match. We always play hard because, for example, we have to demonstrate that we are the strongest team in the LKL and in the BBL. I try to instill these ideas in my players.

What are the differences between being a player and coach?
When you are a player you have to think more about yourself, do you pass or throw the ball. However, when you are coach you have to think about everything. Moreover, the job is very different. Players have, for example, very grueling physical work while coaches have other types of fatigue, mental tiredness; we are every time nervous about the match and about our decisions. I think it's more difficult to be coach.

What do you prefer, to be a player or coach?
For sure a player, but I am old, and anyway, I finished my career at the age of 41. The best life is when you are a student, but when you finish your studies you have to find a job and it isn't so fun like when you were student. Something similar happens with this. Everything is easy when you are a player. Everybody looks at you, they admire you, you can play incredible games… but when you are coach everything is more difficult. You are the one responsible for your team and if the team doesn't play in a good way you have to ask yourself what is wrong, maybe the players, the strategy, the coach…

Do you consider yourself a basketball legend?
I don't know. People should say if I am or not. I know it's very difficult to play in a lot of championships or to win a lot of medals, but I only tried to be the best player.

What are your best memories of your professional career?
My best memory is winning the Olympic gold. After that, playing with the Lithuanian national team and having the luck winning other Olympic medals, in Barcelona and Atlanta, for my country. As far as my career with clubs goes, my best memory is to have played with Real Madrid. Since I was very young I always supported Real Madrid, in football and in basketball. It was my dream come true to play two seasons for Real Madrid, from 1993 to 1995.

And your worst memory?
Maybe when I played in Chalon, in France [the 1996-97 season]. I had a very young coach and we lost six consecutive matches, only by one point, and in the final seconds. This French coach blamed me for those losses and the club decided to cut my contract. At least I can remember in my last game in our arena that everybody stood up, applauding me, for ten minutes, but this memory is one of my worst.

Why didn't you play in the NBA?
When I was a very strong player it was impossible for us to leave the Soviet Union and play in the United States, because we were a closed country. We recovered our freedom in 1991, when I was 30 years old, so it wasn't a good time to go to the NBA. For example, Sabonis and Marciulionis could play there because they were younger than me and their physical condition was better than mine for the NBA. Now there are a lot of European players playing in the NBA and they have the same level that I had 25 years ago. I wasn't born at the right time.

What are your wishes for the future?
I think my first wish is to coach with some European clubs and to win the Euroleague; I am working for this in the next years. I know the coaching market is very busy with a lot of good coaches, and it is very difficult but I have always fought for getting the maximum in my life. For example, I wanted to win an Olympic gold medal and I achieved it. I would like to train the Lithuanian national team but now I am concentrating on the clubs; it's very difficult to train the national team and a club, both at the same time.

Rimas Kurtinaitis is from Kaunas. Is it therefore difficult to coach Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas?
Very difficult. It's very similar, for example, between Real Madrid and Barcelona. It's more difficult when I play in Kaunas, but this is life and liberalism. For sure, I am from Kaunas, my parents and my family, too, but my job now is in Vilnius. I have played in a lot of countries and clubs, so it's normal.