In Lithuania, basketball is king. And queen. And prime minister, president, emperor and everything else. The small Baltic country with less than three million inhabitants has in its short time as an independent state won the European Championship (Eurobasket) three times, won bronze in three Olympics, and once in the World Cup. While this is enormously impressive, it doesn’t tell the full story of Lithuanian basketball prowess. In 1940, Lithuania was occupied, first by the Soviet Union, and then by Nazi Germany, and from 1944 to 1991 the country was part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union national basketball team won the Olympics twice, the World Cup three times, and the European Championship 14 times. These teams featured players from all across the Soviet Union, but none were as instrumental to its success as the Lithuanians.
“In Lithuania, basketball is not a sport, it is a religion”, says Rokas Grinius, a former Lithuanian basketball player who was a youth international and played professionally all over Europe. Don’t believe him? In 2015, men´s national team games were the four most viewed broadcasts in Lithuania. A friendly against Australia even managed to place 18th on that list.
According to eurobasket.com´s database, there are currently 244 Lithuanians playing basketball abroad, many in Euroleague, basketball’s equivalent of football’s Champions League, and two in the NBA. One of these is Domantas Sabonis, son of legendary Arvydas Sabonis, a player considered by many to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Domantas is currently making quite a name for himself, having an excellent season for the Indiana Pacers.
“I am a little sad about basketball in Lithuania right now, because they suck”, says Tadas Kvederavicius, like Rokas, a player with plenty of experience, in his case from Lithuania and Sweden. He is not just being dramatic, the national team has disappointed in three straight international tournaments, and since the silver in the 2015 Eurobasket, has not finished better than 7th in any competition.
For a country obsessed with basketball, this struggle is not easy to cope with, and a generational transition, led by Sabonis the younger, is underway, as players like Kalnietis, Jankunas and Maciulis are nearing the end of their careers.
However, Lithuania’s most successful club team, BC Zalgiris, has been on a more positive trajectory the last few years, going from perennial bottom-dweller in the Euroleague to much improved, culminating in a 2018 third place in the Euroleague. And yes, Zalgiris also had the highest average attendance in the Euroleague the past two seasons.
Though Lithuanian basketball is going through a bit of a slump, this is still Lithuania, and like Arvydas Sabonis, the prophet of this religion, once said: “We are a small country, and basketball is the way for us to show the world that we are here.”