Lithuanians have long been passionate about their basketball, but BC Ventspils has a chance next week to put Latvian basketball on the map.
The team won its third consecutive Latvian Basketball League title, after sweeping arch-rival BC Skonto in four games in the championship playoffs, and will now face Lithuania's Lietuvos Rytas in a semifinal game of the Northern European Basketball League championship.
"Lietuvos Rytas is a very good team. Lithuanian basketball is very strong, and their club has some of the country's best national team players," said Ventspils' first-year coach Karlis Muiznieks.
But Muiznieks still gives his team even odds in the game.
"We don't rely on just one or two players to score for us, so teams don't know how we are going to attack them," he said.
Muiznieks is happy with the way the team has played so far this season. Ventspils lost only once in the Latvian league this year and twice to NEBL opponents.
"We've had a very good year because we're not just a collection of individual players, we're 10 players playing as a team," said Muiznieks.
BC Ventspils' General Manager Ralfs Pleinits attributes the team's success to many things, not least of which was the coaching staff.
"We go out each summer and sign the players that we think will help us win games, but they are not a team until the coaches mold them into one," said Pleinits.
One of the players who has contributed to Ventspils' success is the American Steve Rich. In his second year with Ventspils, Rich has provided the inside presence and rebounding for the club that Pleinits was looking for when he signed the University of Miami graduate.
"Steve rebounds on both ends of the court, and he provides leadership for the team when the coach needs him to," said Pleinits.
Rich, who played power forward in college but who plays center for Ventspils, has been playing abroad since graduating from college in 1996. After stints in Argentina, France, Austria, Spain and Finland, he got his first taste of living and playing in Eastern Europe with BC Ventspils.
"I had played against them when I was playing in Finland, but I didn't really know anyone when I first got here," said Rich.
Pleinits knew that Rich's size and skills fit Ventspils well, but he also knows that living and playing in a small Latvian city can be difficult for Western players. Rich, an African American who is 2.08 meters (6 feet, 10 inches) tall and sports bleached blond hair, stands out in the coastal city of 46,000 people.
According to Pleinits, getting used to the food is one of the things that foreign players find most difficult. "It also seems easier to adjust for guys like Shiron who bring their families with them because they can turn to them for support," he said, referring to Rich's American teammate Shiron Wilkenson.
"Lastly, I would say that there are not as many things to do here socially as there are in Riga, so a guy like Steve could get bored here."
Although he admits that life in Ventspils can be a challenge sometimes, Rich said that the experience had been great in other ways.
"My time here has been different than it was with any of the other European teams that I've played on because the guys on the team all get along really well," he said.
"When I played in France, my teammates used to show up for practice and then just go their separate ways when it was over. Here, though, we eat together, we go out together, and my teammates invite me over to their houses to meet their families."
Rich missed the championship series against BC Skonto due to illness, but he expects to be back for the game against Lietuvas Rytas.
Muiznieks thinks that Ventspils' success this year will have a positive effect on Latvian basketball in general. "Making the semifinals of the NEBL has provided great experience for the players and for the team," he said. "It's good for the league, and we expect that we'll have more scouts from around Europe coming to see our games."
The semifinal game will take place in Lithuania at 8 p.m. on April 23 at Vilnius' Sports Palace. The other two teams playing in the semifinals are BC Polonia Warbud from Warsaw, Poland, and the defending NEBL champions Ural Great from Perm, Russia.