3 MILLION VS. 1.3 BILLION: Watching the Lithuania vs. China basketball game on a big screen in Rotuses Square, Vilnius, on Sept. 7.
VILNIUS - More and more cars in Lithuania are decorated with Lithuanian tricolors. Small national flags became probably the most popular item here after Lithuania won all five of its matches at the group stage of the World Basketball Championship in Turkey.
On Sept. 1, Lithuanian students and schoolchildren in Vilnius and Kaunas hurried not to some parties to celebrate the beginning of the new school year, but to watch basketball on huge screens in central squares. On that day, Lithuania won against France, 69-55. Lithuania’s Jonas Maciulis, of Milan Armani Jeans, scored 19 points while Linas Kleiza of the Toronto Raptors, who is the Lithuanian team’s leader this year, scored 15 points. Last year, Kleiza made a break in his NBA career by choosing to play for Piraeus Olympiacos in Greece’s championship and the Euroleague and it obviously enriched his basketball IQ. Lithuania, in its usual style of this championship, rallied from a 15-point deficit in the second quarter due to its brilliant defense.
A day before, on Aug. 31, Lithuania, an almost completely renewed team since the Beijing Olympics and consisting of young players, defeated current world champion Spain 76-73. It is interesting that Spain is represented in Turkey by all its stars except Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers. However, his younger brother, Marc Gasol, of the Memphis Grizzlies is playing in this championship. “We smelled the blood now and nobody will stop us,” Kestutis Kemzura, the Lithuanian national team’s coach, said after the match against Spain.
The recent glory of the German, Paul the Octopus, who predicted successfully the football World Cup results, inspired Lithuanians to try the same trick with a 4.5 meter-tall six-year old male giraffe, Gudrutis (his name can be translated from Lithuanian as “Smarty,” or “Wily”), of the zoo in Kaunas – he predicted the results of three of Lithuania’s world basketball championship matches in Turkey. Gudrutis’ prediction was correct at the beginning – Lithuania won against New Zealand and Canada, as Gudrutis predicted. However, Gudrutis was predicting a Spanish victory over Lithuania. That prediction was shown on Lithuanian TV3 and it was probably the end of Gudrutis’ specialization in analysis of basketball. “We decided to leave Gudrutis in peace for some time. He is a southerner – so, what can you expect from him? It was probably better to choose a more typical Lithuanian animal, like elk or boar,” said Lithuanian TV3 anchorman, known by his nickname Saulens, before the match Lithuania vs. France.
Lithuania had a choice to lose intentionally to France, because such a loss would probably mean that Lithuania can meet the USA only in the final, not semi-final. However, Lithuania chose to be honest. Intentional losses choosing an easier rival in playoffs are more common to Greece, which was led in Turkey by Lithuanian coach Jonas Kazlauskas. On Sept. 1, Greece lost to Russia and the Greek media was full of shouts that the Greeks did this intentionally due to calculations about easier rivals in the playoffs. The Greeks, according to the Greek media, tried to avoid meeting Spain in the playoffs by losing to the Russians.
David Blatt, an American-Israeli coach of the Russian national team, described the Greek’s behavior as “kindergarten.” However, ironically enough, due to the unexpected victory of New Zealand over France, Spain came in second, after Lithuania, in its group and Greece met Spain in the playoff match of Sept. 4, where Spain defeated Greece.
On Sept. 2, Lithuania defeated Lebanon, 84-66, during its last match of the group stage. The best Lithuanians were Renaldas Seibutis of Bilbao Lugan Aro (17 points), Martynas Gecevicius of Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas (16 points), Tomas Delininkaitis of Greek PAOK (11 points), and, of course, Kleiza (10 points). One of the best Lebanese was Jackson Vroman, an American naturalized as a Lebanese citizen and former player of Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas.
There are more former players of this Vilnius club in the world championship: Matthew Nielsen of the Australian national team and Joao Paulo Batista of Brazil’s national team (Brazil lost to the USA by only two points in their match in the group stage). Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas’ eternal rival, Kaunas Zalgiris, also has its former players on other national teams in the world championship.
Good news came to the Latvians on Sept. 5 – the Lithuanian delegation in Istanbul managed to convince FIBA Europe to extend the number of participants of the European Basketball Championship of 2011, universally referred to as EuroBasket 2011, which will be held in Lithuania, from 16 to 24 national teams. This means that not only Lithuania, but also Latvia, will represent the Baltics in EuroBasket 2011.
The Lithuanian national team moved from Izmir, where the Lithuanian group matches were played, to Istanbul, and on Sept. 6, played a playoff game against China, which is a kind of creation by Lithuanian coach Kazlauskas, who was its coach during the Beijing Olympics. Every Chinese knows and respects this former Chinese coach from Lithuania – they call him Yoh Nah See (the first name of Kazlauskas is Jonas).
Lithuania defeated China, 78-67. Lithuania, as seems tradition, rallied from an 11-point deficit at the end of the first quarter. The game’s hero was Kleiza (30 points and nine rebounds). After the game, Lithuanian TV3 aired its basketball-themed interview with former Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, who pointed to the caption’s header of the basketball-related cover photo of The Baltic Times (issue #713) which reads “Basketball means Lithuania.” Adamkus quoted it.
On Sept. 9, Lithuania will play its quarterfinal match against the experienced Argentine team, which has eight players over 30 years old. A further possible scenario in the case of Lithuania’s victory could be as follows: the semi-final on Sept. 11 against (probably) USA and, in case of some miraculous victory by Lithuania in the semi-final, the final on Sept. 12 (who knows - maybe against Spain again). To make Lithuania’s mood even more cheerful, on Sept. 7, a header from Darvydas Sernas gave the Lithuanian national football team a 1-0 win over the powerful Czechs in Olomouc, Czech Republic, in the Euro 2012 Group I qualifier (Lithuania drew its first game with Scotland 0-0 on Sept. 3 and will go to Spain on Oct. 8 to play against Spain, recent World Cup winner in South Africa).