'Everything is about basketball in Lithuania'
06.06.13 @ 08:45
Kaunas - Forget football. In Lithuania, the national sport is basketball.
The home of 10 players who made it into America's basketball league, the NBA, Lithuania is a country where kids grow up shooting for the basket rather than the goal.
There are several basketball schools in every major town and physical education in schools usually ends up in a basketball game.
One retired star, Saulius Stombergas, spoke with EUobserver in May in the sports arena in Kaunas, a town 100km west of Vilnius.
Now working as assistant coach of Lithuania's top team, Zalgiris, the 39-year old sportsman explained why his sport is so popular.
"It's a historical development for Lithuania. When my generation grew up, we were following our idols - Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis. But of course it was the Soviet Union back then. There were great games between Zalgiris and CSKA [a Moscow team] and of course all the people supported Zalgiris," he said.
Lithuanian stars also played in the Soviet Union's national team back then, "but they were like idols to us and we were striving to play at that kind of level," he recalls.
Stombergas joined Zalgiris' junior team when he was 16 and just one year later, Lithuania became independent.
"That changed everything in basketball: in the 1992 Olympic Games we had for the first time our own independent team from Lithuania. I became a member of the national team, as a young player, being close to my idols and learning from them while playing," he said.
Stombergas played for 11 years in the Lithuanian team, while also being hired by Italian, Spanish, Russian, Turkish and Chinese clubs.
He helped scoop Lithuania a gold medal at the European Championships in 2003 and a silver medal in 1995. He also helped his country to win two bronze medals at the Olympic Games in 1996 and 2000.
Having played abroad, Stombergas says Lithuania is unique in terms of public interest in the sport.
"Everybody knows the basketball team … anybody can come to you and say something you did wrong, that you should do this or that," he noted.
"In other countries you feel the sport is not so popular, there not that many fans. I was playing for Kinder Bologna in Italy, they really love this sport there. But still you could feel they know more about football than basketball, because in the papers it's all about football," he said.
Meanwhile, the 2m-tall athlete was surprised to see the level of professionalism in the Chinese game.
"I thought I would feel like Gulliver, but that was only on the streets. On the basketball field, they have very good - and tall - players," he said, referring to the eponymous giant in British writer Jonathan Swift's 18th century fable, Gulliver's Travels.
Stombergas - who played in Shanghai at the same time as Yao Ming, a Chinese player who also made the NBA league in the US - noted that autograph sessions in China took "all day"
Having played in Shanghai as one of the Chinese NBA stars - Yao Ming - was starting his career, Stombergas recalls the autograph sessions used to last "all day"because "the line of spectators was never ending."
The Lithuanian-Chinese connection also includes Jonas Kazlauskas, a Lithuanian coach who worked for the Chinese national team from 2005-2008.
Earlier this year, Kazlauskas returned to coach the Lithuanian national team.
As for Russia, despite the political sensitivities, Stombergas said he had a "very positive experience" during the four years he spent there at the Uniks Kazan basketball club.
"I joined because I knew many Russian players and coaches. If you're travelling a lot, there are no hard feelings because of the Soviet Union," he said.
"We speak the same language, because of course we had Russian in school, so for us it's easier to play in Russia than in Italy for instance, or Spain or Turkey - where there is a big cultural difference," Stombergas said.
As for the future, he noted that as long as Lithuanian teams and players bring in good results, football has no chance of becoming the number one sport in his country.