Legendary basketball team says, "Where's the dough?"

  • 2001-11-22
  • Tassos Coulaloglou
VILNIUS - Government officials and representatives from Zalgiris basketball club met last week to try to resolve the issue of whether money promised to the team would finally be delivered. Tax issues that may encourage sponsorship and overall investment into the financially-ailing basketball club also came up, as did the much-delayed issue of the team's own arena. Recent financial difficulties have all Lithuanians worried about one of their national treasures.

The city of Kaunas is considered among Lithuanians as a basketball mecca. It is where their legendary superhero Arvydas Sabonis started out his basketball career before finishing it in the NBA - though Sabonis himself says he might still play for Zalgiris next year if his health allows it. It was the site of the team's great triumphs in the 1980s, when Sabonis led it to victory against its Soviet rivals.

"This team is everybody's business, including Lithuania's," says Sabonis.

And, telling every basketball fan what they wanted to hear, Mindaugas Plukas, the head of the board of directors for Zalgiris, reassured everyone that, "Zalgiris has existed for 47 years, and it'll continue to exist for another 147."

After winning the Euroleague in 1999, Zalgiris was promised over 5 million litas ($1.25 million) as a reward for its overwhelming success by the Conservative government of Gediminas Vagnorius. This was later approved by the Parliament. But the money still hasn't been received.

This has added to the financial woes of the club. Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas refuses to sponsor a private club with state budget money.

According to Plukas, the reason for the financial troubles is because the club incorporated the promised funds into its budget. "The financial crisis happened because the government promised the money and didn't deliver. We counted the money into our budget and there is a financial hole."

The prospects for the team ever seeing the funds do not look promising. A chronic shortage of state money as well as opposition from cash-starved ministries has seen Zalgiris turned away each time it visits the revolving door of Lithuanian governments.

Responding to why this has not been widely reported on in the press, Sabonis, who is now part owner of the team and on the board of directors, jokingly replied, "We go every year, it's just that you journalists aren't there."

Even if Zalgiris does not get the 5.32 million litas it was promised, there are other steps the Lithuanian government could take in order to help the basketball team.

Zalgiris does not have its own basketball arena. It owns no land and must rent its space. According to Plukas, there have been plans in the works for over three years now to build a sports arena for Zalgiris, but nothing has come of it, and everything has remained in the initial planning stages.

"Now there are promises to solve the problem by building a three-court arena for the kids to train and for competition. Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas says that the arena will be built using government loans," says Plukas. This would give the 850 kids as well as the second division Zalgiris team a place to train and compete without paying the exorbitant costs for rent.

This has led to speculation as to why Zalgiris plays some of its home games in other cities. While some would like to believe it is to showcase the game to other smaller towns and to give Lithuanians a chance to see their legends, it is believed it is to lower rent costs.

There were even rumors of the team playing its international games in Vilnius, in some regard giving an ultimatum to the arena's owners in Kaunas that if the cost for rent is not lowered, the team would have to leave. But the problems for Zalgiris don't end there.

There is a proposal within the government, called the Charity and Support Law, to lower the tax exemption rate of sponsorship from an already insubstantial 24 percent to 15 percent. In most EU countries the number is much higher. To move even lower would be a step in the wrong direction. It already dropped from 28 percent to 24 percent in 2000.

In response to what these changes would mean to sports and culture in Lithuania, Arvydas Juozaitis, adviser on culture to Brazauskas and Olympic bronze medal winner for swimming in the Montreal games said, "If this happens, no company will ever sponsor sports or culture again."

Plukas says that he will meet to discuss necessary amendments to the law with members of various sports and cultural departments within and outside the government.

Sabonis, meanwhile, sees the law as a major obstacle to the success of Zalgiris basketball team. "The biggest help would be to change the (Charity and Support Law) and not only for us but for all culture and sports. That would solve many problems."

After losing every international match of this year's Euroleague, with the release of numerous players who did not play up to expectations, a coach who constantly berates his already downtrodden troops, and a humiliating thrashing at the hands of its biggest rival, Lietuvos Rytas basketball club from Vilnius, things do not look like they can get any worse for Zalgiris right now. It appears as if its fate off the court rests in the hands of the Lithuanian government, which, everyone hopes, doesn't shoot an air ball.