Lithuania: Basketball, a question of independence

Panevezys, september 2011. Lithuania's supporters celebrate their team's victory during the EuroBasket.
Panevezys, september 2011. Lithuania's supporters celebrate their team's victory during the EuroBasket.
7 September 2011 – Libération (Paris)

The particular fervour gripping Lithuania, which is currently hosting EuroBasket 2011, is part of a long tradition in a Baltic country that has expressed its identity on the basketball court since Soviet times.

Lithuania is absolutely basketball mad. Make no mistake about it: in this country, the sport is more than a game where you simply have to put the big orange ball into a basket. From Kaunas to Klaipeda, from Alytus to Marijampole, from Panevezys to the Nemen delta, Lithuanians will tell you that for many years, the aspiration for independence in the country was sustained by its pride in the sport

So it is not surprising to see Lithuanian cars decorated with the country’s yellow, green, and red tricolour. Nor is there anything incongruous about the basketball shaped pizzas served in Lithuanian restaurants, or the hoops dominating playgrounds in the country’s smallest villages. Basketball is an essential component of Lithuanian identity, forged by bold acts of resistance that defied the Soviet ogre.

The Lithuanian love affair with the sport began in 1937, when the country, which often felt overshadowed by neighbouring Estonia and Latvia, won its first European Championship in Riga (Latvia). People here will tell you that the players spent dozens of hours returning home in a train which stopped in every small village so they could mingle with the crowds.

Soviet giant killers

But the popular jubilation was to be short-lived. In 1940, the invasion of Lithuania by Stalin’s troops paved the way for 50 years of inhuman occupation, marked by the deportation of political dissidents to Siberia and the tyranny of the KGB. Everything had to contribute to the greater glory of the USSR. Lithuanian players, who excelled on the basketball court but harboured nationalist sympathies, were blacklisted. So it was that magicians like Algirdas Linkevicius were never allowed to play wearing the CCCP strip.

As a result, Lithuania’s clubs took on the role of Soviet giant killers. Chief among them the legendary Zalgiris Kaunas and Statyba Vilnius, whose battles with CSKA Moscow, the Red Army club, were the object of unbridled passion. In the late 1980s, according to one spicy anecdote, 5,000 Lithuanian fans without tickets traveled to Moscow to watch the final of the Soviet championship between Zalgiris and CSKA. Warned of the arrival of this horde of troublemakers, Colonel Gomelsky, CSKA’s coach, made sure that all of the seats were distributed to Russian soldiers. Unfortunately for him, the Zalgiris supporters went on an afternoon tour of the city’s barracks, where they traded litres of vodka for the precious tickets. When the time came, the Moscow indoor arena was completely won over to the Kaunas cause. On another occasion, CSKA captain Sergei Tarakanov even received a photograph smeared with excrement!

Painful but passionate history

The golden age of Zalgiris and Lithuanian basketball coincided with the advent of the man who Lithuanians consider to be the greatest player of all time: Arvydas Sabonis (2.20 metres tall). With the giant in their ranks, Zalgiris won the Soviet championship in 1985, 1986 and 1987. During Perestroika, Sabonis left to exercise his talents for the NBA.

Now retired, he is the only Lithuanian who is even more popular than the nation’s president — with the possible exception of Rimas Kurtinaitis, the renowned BC Lietuvos Rytas shooting guard who became the country’s minister for sports when he was only 39 years old. These are just some of the details of the painful but passionate history that is the wellspring of Lithuania’s immeasurable devotion to basketball.

There is no denying that the match between Lithuania and France, which is to be held on 9 September in the superb arena in Vilnius, will be a magical moment. Although many of the stars in the Baltic country’s squad will not be playing, the team is nonetheless aiming to turn in a gutsy performance that is a fitting homage to their wonderful fans and their ambition to win the championship. As one Lithuanian encountered at one of the capital’s bus stops explained yesterday, “the emotion will be as powerful as it was on the occasion of our first national holiday.”

Translated from the French by Mark McGovern

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