TRADITIONAL POST-GAME: After the game, Kaunas Zalgiris and Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas fans were shouting at each other outside the Vilnius Siemens Arena. Later, some fights broke out and policemen with vans appeared seemingly out of nowhere to cool down the atmosphere by beating some of them up.
VILNIUS - On May 24, 10,000 spectators in the Vilnius Siemens Arena were screaming and shouting when Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas won the title of champion of the Lithuanian Basketball League for the second time in a row. It won the final game in the series against its eternal rival, Kaunas Zalgiris, 4-3. The score of the seventh and decisive game was 80:71 (15:16, 20:18, 19:9, 26:28). The hero of the game became Milko Bjelica, Rytas’ Belgrade-born player with Montenegro citizenship, who scored 24 points. Both teams, though dominated by Lithuanian players, have players from countries of the former Yugoslavia. Due to the extremely tough game, Mario Delas, a Croatian with Zalgiris, described the final series as “Balkan wars.”
Zalgiris arrived in Vilnius with high hopes for victory. “We have done it before and we can do it again,” Marcus Brown, former player of the NBA and now a Kaunas Zalgiris veteran, said.
The Lithuanian Basketball League’s final, which is a best-of-seven-series, is the main annual event of Lithuanian sport. On May 24, buses filled with Kaunas Zalgiris fans left for Vilnius. The buses were free of charge - Zalgiris’ owner paid for them. A special train was organized for the evening of May 24 to bring them back to Kaunas.
In recent years, the rivals of the final series have been the same - Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas and Kaunas Zalgiris. Zalgiris has been winning more times mostly due to more expensive and therefore, better players, though Rytas has always been strong in team spirit. Rytas was the champion in 2000, 2002, 2006, and 2009. The other years belonged to Zalgiris.
This year’s final series was the weirdest ever. Last fall, Zalgiris was on the edge of bankruptcy when Vladimir Romanov, multimillionaire and the biggest shareholder of the Ukio Bankas, decided to buy 75 percent of Zalgiris’ shares and save this most famous team of his childhood town. Before making that step, Romanov was known mostly as owner of the Edinburgh Hearts football club, which he bought several years ago when it was also close to bankruptcy. Romanov was controlling every move of his players on the pitch of Edinburgh and it made him the most controversial person in the Scottish capital. He started to demonstrate the same control-freak attitude in Kaunas Zalgiris. Romanov was changing the coaches as often as with Edinburgh Hearts. This means really often.
He fired two Zalgiris coaches during the season before the final series started. There were three different coaches for Zalgiris during these final series: Romanov decided to fire coach Darius Maskoliunas after the second game of the final series when Zalgiris lost in Kaunas. Maskoliunas, despite the owner’s anger, went with his team to Vilnius for the third game, where Zalgiris lost in a very even and dramatic match. Then Romanov told his security guys not to allow Maskoliunas to enter the Kaunas basketball arena. Kaunas fans were not happy with such moves by Romanov and staged demonstrations against him in front of Ukio Bankas in Kaunas as well as during the fourth game in the Kaunas arena. Romanov accused Maskoliunas of losing intentionally. Romanov also accused the Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas owners (who are owners of the daily Lietuvos Rytas and Lietuvos Rytas TV as well) of trying to win by bribing him. Jonas Vainauskas, head of the board of the Rytas team, said that he will ask the court to make its judgment regarding such statements by Romanov. Maskoliunas and Lietuvos Rytas owners deny all accusations.
In the past, Romanov also accussed publicly, conspiracy and cheating in Scottish football as well. “I came to the conclusion that there is no football in Scotland. It is just show business, where the champion is chosen in advance,” Romanov told daily Lietuvos Rytas on Jan. 16. However, in 2006 Hearts, having then nine Lithuanian players, won the Scottish Cup.
“I’m insulted as a coach because of all this gossip. We work a lot and now we are forced to listen to those purchase-sales of games. I’m ashamed that people from Europe are calling and asking about those purchase-sales, not about the finals,” Rimas Kurtinaitis, coach of Rytas, said during the press conference after his team’s victory on May 24.
During the fourth game, Romanov appointed Zalgiris player Darius Salenga as coach, and Zalgiris won. Later, Romanov handed the coaching over to Brown, another Zalgiris player. It is the first time ever when one of the finalists was playing without an acting professional coach.
After the final game, Rytas player Steponas Babrauskas told Zalgiris player Mantas Kalnietis that Rytas did not buy the victory. Kalnietis responded that they did not sell it. The traditional Freddie Mercury song “We Are The Champions,” and Tina Turner’s “Simply The Best,” blared in the Siemens Arena. After the game, during the press conference, Zalgiris player Arturas Milaknis said that Rytas deserved its victory. Meanwhile, Rytas players, after a crazy celebration on the court with happy fans, were drinking champagne and smoking champions’ cigars in their dressing room.
After the game, outside the Siemens Arena, Kaunas Zalgiris and Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas fans were shouting at each other. Later, some fights started and policemen with vans appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, to cool down the atmosphere by beating some of them up.
There was a lot at stake for Rytas during this series. The victory guarantees Rytas their place in the Euroleague for next season, while Zalgiris has such a place in the Euroleague for life, due to its high historical contribution to basketball in Europe.