Lithuania's Christmas dream comes true

  • 2009-12-17
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

HE'LL BE BAC K?: Sarunas Jasikevicius, holding the Lithuanian tricolor high when his team received bronze medals in the European championship, EuroBasket 2007, in Spain.

Lithuania got its most desired Christmas gift. Last September, Lithuania was not among the top five national teams in EuroBasket 2009, and therefore had no right to participate in the 2010 World Championship because of such a poor result. Lithuania won once and lost five games to crash out of EuroBasket before the quarter-finals. However, on Dec. 12, after a meeting in Istanbul, the Central Board of FIBA, the international basketball federation, awarded with wild card entries to next year’s FIBA World Championship the following teams: Lithuania, Germany, Russia and Lebanon.

There were 14 candidates to get the wild card, including such countries as Great Britain and Poland. The four wild card owners will join the other 20 qualified teams. The 2010 FIBA World Championship will be played in Turkey in the cities of Ankara, Kayseri, Istanbul and Izmir between Aug. 28 and Sept. 12, 2010. FIBA’s decision to invite Lithuania was caused by several factors. One of them was Lithuania’s basketball history. The Lithuanians won gold medals at the EuroBaskets in 1937 and 1939, and had star players in many of the USSR teams in the decades that followed, including Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis and Rimas Kurtinaitis - three starters on the gold-medal winning 1988 Olympic team.

Lithuania claimed bronze at the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics, gold at EuroBasket 2003, silver at EuroBasket 1995 and bronze at EuroBasket 2007. Another factor forcing the invitation of Lithuania was its army of many thousands of loud and extravagant fans who dominate each basketball international event, wherever Lithuania’s participation takes place. On the eve of the meeting of FIBA’s Central Board, the most active Lithuanian fans, headed by their unofficial leader Tomas Balaisis, sent a letter to FIBA. Balaisis is known to an absolute majority of Lithuanians by his nickname Sekla (“Semen” in Lithuanian). He is proud of his nickname and wears a ZZ Top-style beard. Sekla enjoys his status as a celebrity in Lithuania. “As you know, in Lithuania, basketball is the most important and most popular sport. It draws legions of fans to arenas in Lithuania and abroad.

This whole country lives from one championship to the next. The entire world already knows about Lithuania’s colorful, slightly mad, loud, drum-beating fans. Most basketball-lovers from other countries envy us our great numbers,” the Lithuanian national team fans’ letter reads. One more reason for the wild card being given to Lithuania - EuroBasket 2011 will be held in Lithuania. The previous EuroBasket held in Lithuania took place in 1939, one year before the Soviet invasion and occupation. The condition to get a wild card slot was also payment of 500,000 euros to FIBA. Just a few months ago, the Lithuanian Basketball Federation was very skeptical about the possibility to gather this sum of money during this time of economic crisis. However, they finally did find some rich sponsors.

“The sponsors made a miracle. The patriots did reach out their helping hand,” Vladas Garastas, president of the Lithuanian Basketball Federation, said at a press conference on Dec. 9. Actually, almost all of those patriots are foreign-owned companies having their business in Lithuania. The sum was donated by Kauno Grudai, DnB Nord, Orlen Lietuva, Viasat Lietuva, and Poker- Stars. According to Mindaugas Balciunas, secretary general of the Lithuanian Basketball Federation, there is great possibility that some of the Lithuanian superstars who did not play in the last EuroBasket will join the Lithuanian national team for the 2010 World Championship. According to Balciunas, there is a good chance that Rimantas Kaukenas of Real Madrid, and Sarunas Jasikevicius (former husband of Linor Abargil, Israeli top model and Miss World 1998) of current Euroleague champion Panathinaikos Athens, will play for Lithuania. Jasikevicius is used to being the leader and soul of the Lithuanian national team. This team’s leader, who in 2007 signed a two year contract worth seven million euros (after taxes) with the Greek Panathinaikos club, was the most missed Lithuanian at EuroBasket 2009. This year he did not join the Lithuanian national team because of fatigue. Jasikevicius plays the point guard position. This position was the weakest position in the Lithuanian national team at EuroBasket 2009. Jasikevicius is definitely the best Lithuanian player in the point guard position.

Balciunas also expressed hope that Ramunas Siskauskas, the leader of CSKA Moscow, and Darius Songaila of the NBA New Orleans Hornets, will change their minds. Earlier both men said that it is too difficult for them to play for the Lithuanian national team during the breaks in between their regular seasons. Balciunas also hopes that Zydrunas Ilgauskas of the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers could play for Lithuania. This man of 2.21 meters, nicknamed by Americans as Big Z, has played for the Cavaliers since 1996. In 2005, Ilgauskas signed a contract extension with the Cavaliers. The deal was reportedly worth over 55 million U.S. dollars (37.5 million euros) over five years. Ilgauskas wanted to play for Lithuania in the 2008 Summer Olympics. However, the Cavaliers did not permit him to play due to his injury history. Arvydas Macijauskas could also be helpful in Turkey in 2010. He did not play in the last EuroBasket because of injuries and the legal case with Olympiacos Piraneus over his four-year nine million euro contract, which was canceled by the Greek club after his injury. Macijauskas is recovering after an Achilles’ tendon injury.