In the small republic by the Baltic Sea-population 3.4 million-many youngsters grow up dreaming the same kinds of hoop dreams young Hoosiers do.
“Basketball in Lithuania is even crazier,” Jasikevicius, a 6-foot-4-inch guard, said recently at Conseco Fieldhouse, moments after finishing his first official practice as a Pacer. “We always call it our second religion.”
During the 50 years Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union, players from the republic were the nucleus of the USSR national teams. It was a bittersweet experience to represent the hated Soviets, whose occupation was marked by oppression and crimes against the Lithuanian people.
The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 allowed Lithuania not only to regain its independence, but also to restore its proud basketball heritage. I was privileged to witness its coming-back-out party.
The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona always will be remembered for the U.S. “Dream Team” that captured the gold medal in men’s basketball. It was the first time U.S. pros participated in Olympic basketball and signaled a new “internationalization” of the game that now is widely reflected in college and NBA rosters.
In truth, however, the real “dream team” in 1992 was the one from Lithuania. With the country freed from Soviet rule and able to compete under its own flag, its basketball team-featuring NBA stars Sarunas Marciulionis (Golden State University) and Arvydas Sabonis (Portland Trailblazers)-arrived in Barcelona with the hopes of 3 million countrymen riding on every bounce.
As fate would have it, the Lithuanians were in the same round-robin “pool” as the Unified Team-athletes representing the former Soviet Union. The Unified Team defeated Lithuania the first time they met, and there were reports of anguish that included some suicides in Lithuania.
Imagine, then, the pressure on the Lithuanian players when they met the Unified Team again, this time for the bronze medal. I covered that game, and it was as intensely competitive as any NCAA championship or NBA Finals seventh game I’ve witnessed.
But this time, the Lithuanians won, and their unbridled joy was unmatched except for the reaction back home, where the triumph also was seen as victory over the brutal former occupiers. Jasikevicius was 16 at the time, and remembers well.
“When you [are occupied] for so many years, it has to become a political thing, so no question for us it was important,” he said. “That’s why that bronze medal was so important. It was [the] first major competition for us as an independent country and, you know, sort of [a] gateway to what was happening after that.”
What happened after that were a 2003 European championship (Jasikevicius was MVP of that tournament) and two more Olympic bronze medals, featuring a nearcataclysmic upset of the United States in Australia in 2000 (Jasikevicius missed a three-pointer at the buzzer) and a victory over the United States in Athens in 2004 in which Jasikevicius went for 28 points and four assists.
He is his country’s biggest star in its most fanatically followed sport, Damon-Baileylike, circa 1988. Be assured that as Jasikevicius begins his NBA career as a 29-year-old rookie, the Pacers will pick up an additional million or so fans in Lithuania.
I recalled to Jasikevicius that, following the bronze medal game in Barcelona, the president of Lithuania was invited into the locker room, where he donned one of the popular tie-dyed T-shirts that were the result of a sponsorship Marciulionis had arranged with the Grateful Dead and its lead singer, Jerry Garcia.
I was among the reporters in the locker room when the joyous tumult suddenly ceased. The team gathered around their country’s leader, and they sang the Lithuanian anthem. When the singing concluded, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, including those of American reporters.
That began a tradition, Jasikevicius said.
“After every championship we win or medal, we sing our national anthem,” Jasikevicius said. “It is [a] special country.”
When it comes to basketball, so is Indiana. Time will tell if he’s the right player, but he’s certainly come to the right place.
Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to email@example.com.