While the NBA is in lockout limbo, the heart of hoops beats strongly in the Baltics, in this, the Year of Lithuanian Giants. The trail to meet the most gargantuan Lietuvo of all, Arvydas Sabonis, has taken me to a dusty, two-lane road in the country's second largest city, to the youth basketball school bearing his name. Basketball is the only sport the 3.2 million Lithuanians truly care about—it's their second religion, after Catholicism—and their success is proportionately stunning. The national team is No. 5 in the world rankings, behind countries of 313 million (the U.S.), 47 million (Spain), 40 million (Argentina) and 11 million (Greece), and just ahead of countries of 79 million (Turkey) and 61 million (Italy). The under-19 team won the FIBA world championship in Riga, Latvia, in July. This year for the first time Lithuania had two first-round NBA draft picks: big men Jonas Valanciunas, who went fifth to the Raptors, and Donatas Motiejunas, who was chosen 20th by the Timberwolves and traded to the Rockets. And on Friday, their 7'3" forebear, Sabonis, will be the first Lithuanian inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame.
Sabonis resides in Spain but has returned to his homeland to serve as an ambassador for EuroBasket, the biennial continental championship, which Lithuania is hosting for the first time in 72 years. (It is staging the event, which begins on Aug. 31, with Olympic-level enthusiasm: Six new arenas have been built, and nearly all of the 110,000 tickets snapped up.) Now 46, Sabas was drafted by the Hawks in 1985 and the Trail Blazers in '86, but didn't arrive in Portland until '95, so Americans are accustomed to waiting for him, and this is what I'm doing in the upstairs lounge of his school. He appeared briefly, first eclipsing the light in the doorway, then towering over me, wearing a man-purse (they are, regrettably, en vogue in the Baltics), low-top black Chuck Taylors, shorts and a John Varvatos peace-sign-and-American-flag tee. In a deep voice he said, "Hello. You will wait here a minute," before stepping out to take a meeting.
It's near compulsory for Lithuanian legends to own basketball schools; Sarunas Marciulionis, the first Lithuanian to reach the NBA, in 1989 with the Warriors, has one in Vilnius. The rival Sabonio Krepsinio Mokykla, set in Sabonis's birthplace of Kaunas (pop. 350,000), in a neighborhood of drab, Soviet-era apartment towers, has a loud presence. Its bright-orange exterior is dominated by a billboard for Orange Virus, a homegrown street-hoops brand that seems to have been named after an imaginary chemical weapon. Orange Virus made the jerseys for the title-winning U-19 team, whose roster featured the relentless Valanciunas as its low-post star; Sabonis's middle son, Tautvydas, coming off the bench; and four former Sabonis-school pupils playing key roles.
In this lounge there are nearly 100 trophies won by Sabonio teams in a glass case; below them, 32 signed basketballs. On the shelf under the flat-screen TV, there is just one book: Lietuvos Krepsinio Legenda, 1920--1960—essentially, a pre-Sabonian basketball almanac. In Legenda is the story of the original Lithuanian giant, Pranas Lubinas. He was actually an American studio grip named Frank Lubin who was sometimes called Frankenstein Lubin by fans of his Hollywood-league AAU team at Universal Pictures, which promoted its films with barnstorming basketball tours. Lubin's coach, Jack Pierce, was a makeup man on Bride of Frankenstein, and Lubin was made up like the movie monster—complete with faux bolts on his neck—and sent into the crowd before games. But he was more than a sideshow; he was the team's star, a former UCLA starter who won gold for the U.S. in basketball's debut at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
Lubin's parents were born in Lithuania, and he accepted an offer, extended by a Lithuanian official during the Olympics, to visit. In what was not yet a basketball country—though Lithuanians were introduced to the sport in the 1920s by a former U.S. military pilot, they didn't even participate in the inaugural EuroBasket, in 1935—Lubin stayed for six months and became a basketball ambassador, serving as its first knowledgeable coach. "I made them toe the line with my style," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, nine years before his death. "I didn't teach them to be a one-man team, I taught them to pass it to the man who had the best open shot."
After Lithuania won EuroBasket 1937 with a handful of Chicago-born Lithuanians, earning the right to host in '39, the government built the first basketball-only venue in Europe, the Kaunas Sports Hall, and requested that Lubin return to coach the national team. Using a Lithuanian passport, he also played for the team, leading it to a second straight title and earning the country the right to host EuroBasket again in 1941.
World War II then changed the course of the nation: Lithuania, which had declared independence in 1918, was reoccupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, by Nazi Germany in 1941 and by the Soviets again after the war. Lubinas and his family fled in 1939 on a ship out of Estonia to the U.S., where he reverted to being Frank Lubin. Lithuania lost the man it would later call the godfather of its beloved sport, it lost EuroBasket '41, and for 50 years it lost its independence. What it never let go of was basketball.
My first sighting of Sabonis on this trip was in Arena Riga, where he lurked in the shadows of a luxury box, looking down at his son's U-19 team. In the stands was the Lithuanian fan-mob, which had staged a de facto occupation of the Latvian capital, tailgating, chanting, banging drums and buying about 10,000 of the 11,000 available tickets for the final against Serbia. Among the men in green LIETUVA shirts was their basketball federation's chief sponsor, an online sports-betting entrepreneur and mouthy professional poker player named Antanas Guoga, who goes by Tony G. (When the senior team failed to qualify for last summer's world championships in Turkey and needed 500,000 Euros to purchase a wild-card entry, Guoga anted up a sizable share. "Anyone in Lithuania would do this if they had enough money," he told me. With the TONYBET logo on the front of their jerseys, the Lithuanians took bronze.)
A poker-star sponsor is not the only curious aspect of the federation. While its president is an old school coaching legend—Vladas Garastas, 79, under whom Sabonis won three Russian league titles at BC Zalgiris from 1985 to '87, and bronze medals at the 1992 and '96 Olympics—its secretary general, 34-year-old Mindaugas Balciunas, is on a mission to change how the game is taught. Working with England's University of Worcester and his alma mater, the Lithuanian Academy of Physical Education, Balciunas helped create a master's degree program in European basketball coaching science at the academy in 2010—and has since persuaded four current members of the national team, including Raptors forward Linas Kleiza, to enroll and study a largely distance-learning curriculum that fits around their schedule. (Try to picture half of the Dream Team pursuing advanced degrees in the summer.)
"The reason Lithuania is so strong," Balciunas says, "is our system of coach preparation." His hope is that the country's greatest players will enter the field, but the entire state-school system—the backbone of youth development—is already populated by coaches with bachelor's degrees, which must be renewed every two years. The Lithuanians borrow from the States; in Balciunas's office in Kaunas, I saw an article on North Carolina's secondary break being translated, and he gave me a deeply detailed English-to-Lietuvos basketball dictionary. (The Sabonis special, an around-the-back pass, is perdavimas uz nugaros viena ranka.) But he would prefer that prospects develop at home. Balciunas has worked to cut the number of Lithuanians studying in the U.S. from roughly 90 to 30, because, he says, "When they go there, their abilities get worse."