BASKETBALL-ADDICTED: Lithuanian fans.
VILNIUS - On Aug. 28, the World Basketball Championship, which is held every four years, began in Turkey. The championship is shown on TV in 183 countries. All of Lithuania’s games are shown on the huge screen in the Rotuses Square in front of the old Town Hall in Vilnius’ Old Town. The young Lithuanian team has a goal to be among the top 8 in the championship and to prepare for the 2011 European championship, which will be held in Lithuania. The U.S., the current world champion Spain, Serbia, the current world vice-champion Greece (led by Lithuanian coach Jonas Kazlauskas), Lithuania, and Turkey are among the favorites in the championship.
Lithuanian coach Kestutis Kemzura, who refused to continue to coach the Latvian national team when he got the proposition from Lithuania, received a “no” answer from eight leading Lithuanian basketball players whom he invited to join the national team. Only four Lithuanians took part in the Beijing Olympics, where Lithuania was, as usual since 1992, among the top 4 finishers (a better result in the Olympics has been achieved only by the U.S. basketball team). Among coaches of participating teams, only Mike Krzyzewski, coach of the U.S., got more “no” responses from invited players. The U.S. team, consisting of NBA players, has only one man from last season’s top 5 NBA players – Kevin Durant. The leader of the Lithuanians will be Linas Kleiza of the Toronto Raptors.
“Kleiza is a big part of our team,” Kemzura said in the Vilnius airport, leaving with his team for Turkey. He promised “cleverly speedy” basketball. “There is no psychological pressure for high expectations on us. It would be a different story if we would go there with all the stars. Not having psychological pressure, we can play well,” Mantas Kalnietis of Kaunas Zalgiris said.
Indeed, only Antanas Sireika, coach of the Lithuanian national team in the 2003 European championship in Sweden, when Lithuania for a third time got gold medals, said that he believes that Lithuania will win the World Championship in Turkey.
Lithuania is slightly going mad due to basketball now. DnB NORD Bankas tied its interest rates on bank deposits made on the eve of the championship to the number of Lithuanian victories in Turkey. The Elektromarkt supermarket chain, selling electronic items, made a promotion campaign involving Philips, LG and Samsung TV sets with an 84 centimeter diagonal – those who bought one before and during the championship, from Aug. 20-Sept. 12, will get an 11 percent discount for each Lithuanian victory (though there are probably some additional limiting conditions, as is usual in such campaigns).
Lithuania will play its group stage in Izmir. The Lithuanian embassy sent its consular official to Izmir due to the arriving hordes of Lithuanian fans. “Basketball is the most important thing in Lithuania, more than anything else. Basketball is not only a sport, basketball is a life philosophy, it’s religion. They are all basketball people, they know the game, they are all coaches, they are all players, you feel and smell basketball everywhere. So every time you have an international competition, you have thousands of Lithuanians coming, wherever the competition is,” Maurizio Gherardini, managing director of Canada’s national team, told Canada’s thestar.com.
On Aug. 28, Lithuania played its first game against New Zealand, nicknamed the Tall Blacks, and won 92:79. Although New Zealand performed haka, a Maori war chant and challenge with many aggressive sounds and movements before the match, the Lithuanians were not scared. Their problem was to stop Kirk Penney, the main sniper of New Zealand and a former player with Kaunas Zalgiris and still able to order chicken in Lithuanian, who scored 37 points, almost half of New Zealand’s points. Kleiza was the best among the Lithuanians with 27 points scored.
On Aug. 29, Lithuania played against Canada, coached by Leo Rautins, son of a Lithuanian mother and Latvian father. He speaks Lithuanian and had a desire to play for the Lithuanian national team in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where Lithuania got bronze, but unfortunately he played for the Canadian national team before, when Lithuanian liberation from the Soviets was as yet unclear. He therefore had no right to switch his national teams later. His son, Andy Rautins of the New York Knicks plays for the Canadian national team in this championship. Andy has a tattoo on his hand reading “Andrius,” which is the Lithuanian version of his name.
Despite all of those compatriotic relations of both teams, the fight was fierce and Lithuania won, 70:68. The main problem for the Lithuanians was very bad luck at the three-point line and the injury to Robertas Javtokas, captain and the center of Lithuania’s team, who got injured playing against New Zealand and appeared in the match against Canada for just four minutes. Lithuanian players could not force themselves to start looking seriously at Canada until the middle of the third quarter, when they were in a 17 point deficit. Only then did the Lithuanians start to move quickly and work hard in their defense. Kleiza with his 18 scored points and 10 rebounds was the best Lithuanian, again.
On Aug. 31, Lithuania, supported by its army of crazy fans in Izmir, defeated current world champion Spain, 76:73. The game scenario was similar to the one against Canada. Lithuania rallied from an 18-point deficit in the third quarter due to its brilliant defense. Lithuanians won the final quarter, 23:9. Kleiza finished with 17 points while Jonas Maciulis and Martynas Pocius both put up 13 points.