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VILNIUS - On the eve of Christmas, the Euroleague, where 24 of the strongest European basketball clubs play, comes to its halfway mark. Next week, eight teams will say their final good-bye to this season in the Euroleague as the Top 16 clubs will continue to fight for the champion’s title. Euroleague’s first half of the season was quite good for both clubs representing the Baltics - Kaunas Zalgiris and Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas. Kaunas Zalgiris, which this year looks much more powerful than Lietuvos Rytas, already got a place among the Top 16, while the Vilnius club has a good chance to get there as well if on Dec. 23 it will win in the Croatian capital Zagreb against local Cibona, the weak and close to financially bankrupt club, and if, on the same day, the French league champion Cholet Basket, the competitor of the Vilnius club for a place in the Top 16, will be defeated in Istanbul by the much stronger local Fenerbahce, led by Lithuanian Darjus
Lavrinovic, who plays in the center position on the Turkish club. When Fenerbahce played in Vilnius, Lavrinovic did sing the Lithuanian anthem together with the crowd in the Vilnius arena before the match against his Turkish club – there are hopes that he will please that Vilnius crowd by beating the French in Istanbul.
Already 14 clubs got their place among the Top 16 last week, before this week’s last games in four groups at the stage of 24 teams of the Euroleague. It is clear that Lithuania will be the only country of Eastern and Central Europe represented in the Top 16 stage. Polish Prokom, coached by Lithuanian Tomas Pacesas, and both Russian clubs with multimillionaire players, Moscow CSKA with its Lithuanian sniper Ramunas Siskauskas, as well as Moscow Region Khimki, did not make it to the Top 16. There is still competition in group D between Valencia Power Electronics and Milan Armani Jeans for getting into the Top 16. Having in mind that both Lithuanians on the Milan club, Jonas Maciulis and Marijonas Petravicius, have injuries while Robertas Javtokas, the Lithuanian center of the Valencia club, is in good physical condition, the Spanish club has a much better chance to get into the Top 16. The other competition for a place in the Top 16 is in group C between the current champions of Lithuania and France, Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas and Cholet Basket.
On Dec. 16, Lietuvos Rytas made a big step towards the Top 16 by winning 88-87 against the current Euroleague champion Barcelona in front of 11,000 screaming fans in Vilnius’ Siemens Arena. The Vilnius club was leading, sometimes even by double digits, for most of the match but in the end Barcelona managed to minimize that gap.
Barcelona can call itself the strongest basketball club in the world. In October, the NBA and the Euroleague champions played a match in Barcelona to find out which club is the strongest on this planet - the match took place in Barcelona where Euroleague champion Barcelona beat the NBA champion Lakers 92-88. The match was played according to NBA rules, which are a little bit different from the rules of the Euroleague and, therefore, the Lakers were given an advantage.
In October, 2008, the same match was held in the U.S. – then the Lakers won against Barcelona 108-104. The victory of Lietuvos Rytas against Barcelona was based on the enthusiasm of the Vilnius club because both clubs are incomparable in terms of finances. The Vilnius club is not even capable of traveling to Euroleague matches with charter flights as does Barcelona - Lietuvos Rytas uses regular flights and goes to its foreign matches together with ordinary traveling folks.
Although during the dramatic match against Barcelona on Dec. 16, the biggest scorers for Lietuvos Rytas were Montenegrin Milko Bjelica and Bosnian Kenan Bajramovic, the greatest hero of the Vilnius club on that day was Sarunas Jasikevicius, who is called Saras by everybody in Lithuania. Jasikevicius, who is 34 years old now, scored 11 points but the most important were his 10 assists, which were simply astonishing. It seems that this veteran has eyes in every part of his body. The match against Barcelona proved it – now it’s a medical fact.
Just a couple of months ago, point guard Jasikevicius returned to Lietuvos Rytas, the first professional club of his career where he played in 1998-1999 after finishing his studies in the U.S. He still is not in the best physical condition. It seems that Lietuvos Rytas is a chance for him to revive his glory. Jasikevicius is a Europe-wide celebrity, as he used to be in recent years. Recently, before rejoining Lietuvos Rytas, he lived a tranquil life with his Greek girlfriend and their little child in Greece. Earlier, Jasikevicius was the husband of Linor Abargil, an Israeli top model and Miss World 1998, to the great anger of some Israeli religious leaders which were urging Abargil not to marry the non-Jew Jasikevicius. Until recently, the clip advertising underwear starring the almost naked Jasikevicius and Abargil was still shown on Israeli TV. In 2007, when Jasikevicius arrived at the Athens airport after signing a two year contract worth seven million euros income (after taxes) with the Athens Panathinaikos club, the traffic around that airport came to a standstill because thousands of Greeks came to greet Jasikevicius and, therefore, he had problems leaving the airport.
Earlier, Jasikevicius played for Barcelona where he is awarded with two seats for life in the local stadium of Europe’s strongest football club, Barcelona. Jasikevicius was so in love with Barcelona that he even opened a restaurant there. He had a friendly chat with the Barcelona club players before the Lithuanian anthem. The Spanish anthem was not played due to the wishes of this Catalonian club because a big part of Catalonians do not consider Catalonia as a part of Spain. This is why the Spanish flag is also not present in arenas during the matches of Barcelona.
Jasikevicius’ friendship with Barcelona players was forgotten during the match. “The great Saras Jasikevicius revived and, although not being in the best physical condition, he led his team to victory,” wrote the Madrid sports daily As.
Jasikevicius is also the most beloved figure for journalists because of his colorful talking style. “Stepas [Steponas Babrauskas, a player on Lietuvos Rytas, who scored 10 points during the match against Barcelona] does not know how to play basketball, but he has large balls,” Jasikevicius said about his team’s colleague after the victorious match against Barcelona.