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Luke Winn
August 15, 2011
The ice age could be coming to the NBA, but in a Baltic nation of only three million people—where past stars are grooming a golden generation—hoops couldn't be hotter
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August 15, 2011

Lithuania Calling

The ice age could be coming to the NBA, but in a Baltic nation of only three million people—where past stars are grooming a golden generation—hoops couldn't be hotter

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With the biggest sporting event in the nation's history looming, Balciunas is noticeably nervous. The nation is "expecting that we win," Balciunas says, "and this will be very tough." He keeps mentioning that two potential starters, Kleiza and Jonas Maciulis, have been lost to knee injuries and that Lithuania is in a difficult group with Spain and Turkey. Federation elections are coming up in October; Garastas's term is up, and Sabonis is in line to be the next president. Failure to medal in EuroBasket will be viewed as catastrophic and could lead to further carping from critics in Vilnius—among them Marciulionis, who is commissioner of the Lithuanian Basketball League and has a frosty relationship with the Garastas regime. Balciunas knows that Sabonis has aims to be more than an ambassador. "It can get boring in retirement, even if you have money," Balciunas says. "What [Sabonis] needs is a new challenge."

We are a small country," Sabonis says, when asked why basketball is of such outsized importance in Lithuania, as opposed to the rest of Europe, "and basketball is the way for us to show the world that we are here."

The Western world only glimpsed Sabonis during his prime, before he suffered an Achilles tendon injury in 1986, at 22, from what he suspects was overuse by Soviet national-program coaches. When the U.S.S.R. had seen fit to unleash its mulleted, mustachioed wonder on international competition, his size and skill set were unmatched. Sabonis was fierce and unstoppable around the basket, but he could run and pass (frequently without looking) like a point guard. In a 1982 exhibition tour against American colleges, a 17-year-old Sabonis outplayed Ralph Sampson of Virginia, and after a win over Indiana, Bob Knight remarked that Sabonis "may be the best non-American player I've ever seen." Scouts salivated over him, Dale Brown tried to recruit him to LSU. But, Sabonis says now, "I never thought much about those things then, because they were impossible."

Not only did the U.S.S.R. refuse to release Sabonis to the NBA, it forced him into action at the '88 Olympics, even though he hadn't recovered from a second ruptured Achilles. Sabonis had just wanted to "go as a tourist," but he and Marciulionis helped lead the Soviets to gold over the U.S. in Seoul, at considerable cost to Sabonis's future health. He finally joined the Blazers in 1995 as a lead-footed, 30-year-old rookie, and he played capably for seven seasons, even averaging a double double in '97--98, but it was difficult to separate that image of him from the original. Tautvydas refrains from playing videos from his father's pre-injury days around him. "He's such a competitor," Tautvydas says, "that I think it hurts him to see [that footage] more than it hurts anyone else."

Lithuanians, however, are less likely to lament what could have been than they are to revere Sabonis as a symbol of national strength. The Russian championships he won with Zalgiris in the mid-1980s were an important show of power for a country that was gearing up for a fight for independence, and the Olympic bronzes he won in 1992 and '96 were immense sources of pride. Fans have been waiting for the next great Lithuanian big man to emerge ever since. They have hopes for the youngest Sabonis, Domantas, a 6'3" lefthanded forward who may be the country's best 15-year-old, but are more enthralled by Valanciunas, the MVP of the U-19s, where he averaged 23.0 points and 13.9 rebounds. "[Domantas] is the future of my family," Sabonis says, "but Valanciunas is the future of our country. We don't have another big man like him."

In Vilnius, at the Presidential Palace, as president Dalia Grybauskaite is pinning a medal on Valanciunas, it occurs to me that he is the first Lithuanian draft pick to have grown up in the time of independence. Lubin was imported and Sabonis reclaimed, but Valanciunas, born in 1992 in Utena, has always belonged to Lithuanians, and they cannot help but overcelebrate the golds he's won in the Euro U-16s, Euro U-18s and World U-19s. At this reception Garastas asks me, "Would Obama have honored the U.S. team like this if they won in Riga?"

Only the NCAA champs, I say; the American U-19 team would have returned without fanfare even if it hadn't finished a disappointing fifth. The U.S. has a basketball president, but so does Lithuania (Grybauskaite played in her school days), and it is a country in which basketball tends to eclipse politics. She takes time after the ceremony to ask Valanciunas's mother, Danute, how she raised such a strong boy. "Lots of love," she replies, "and lots of feeding. Lots of feeding."

On my way out of Lithuania, I drive to Utena (pop. 32,000), which Valanciunas calls a "small city, growing bigger, getting better." There are pockets along the route that remind me of Indiana: hoops on garages next to farmhouses, backboard poles set in dirt yards, a boy walking along the side of a highway in an Allen Iverson jersey. European big men have a reputation for being soft, but Valanciunas is a gritty country boy who just happens to be from another country. His mother is a nurse; his father (they never married) is a farmer, raising cows, pigs and chickens. He was a rower for the U.S.S.R. national team, who once told his son, "Throw that ball away; you have the long legs of a rower." But the boy was only interested in fishing and basketball. He loves Sabonis, but it is telling that a favorite Sabas YouTube clip is of the flashy passer punching an opponent in the face in 1986. "He was a real fighter, a famous fighter," Valanciunas says.

Due to his contract with Lietuvos Rytas, a Vilnius club team, Valanciunas must remain in the capital for one more season. He has lived there on his own since he was 14, when his mother and youth coach gave their blessing to an agent who spotted Valanciunas at the Utena Sports Center and asked to bring him to the big city. Valanciunas was soon placed under the umbrella of the national program, and he's expected to be a part of the senior team for the first time during EuroBasket. He hopes to live out Sabonis's prophesy, whispered in his ear after winning gold at the Euro U-18s, that Valanciunas would make many trips back to that podium. If he can keep growing bigger and getting better, Valanciunas has plans. "One day in Utena, when I finish my career," he says, "I would like to make a basketball school."

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