Thursday

21st Mar 2019

Interview

'Everything is about basketball in Lithuania'

  • No politics please, it's basketball: Lithuania takes on Russia (Photo: sidthekid)

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • (Photo: Zalgiris basketball team)

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.

Lithuania: In the EU spotlight

Lithuania takes over the EU presidency on 1 July. EUobserver talks to the country's leading politicians about its austerity policy, its euro plans and relations with eastern neighbours.

Lithuania unveils EU presidency logo

With less than two months to go before taking over the rotating EU presidency on 1 July, Lithuania has unveiled the logo that will brand its EU meetings.

News in Brief

  1. EPP proposes suspension for Orban's Fidesz
  2. May asks for Brexit extension until 30 June
  3. Juncker: Brexit decision unlikely this week
  4. North Macedonia EU-membership talks set for June
  5. EU ups benefits rights for mobile workers
  6. Chinese leader visits Italy, France as Rome joins 'Silk Road'
  7. EU agrees to sanction political parties breaching data rules
  8. EPP votes Wednesday on future of Orban's party

Magazine

The changing of the guards in the EU in 2019

The four most powerful EU institutions - Commission, Parliament, Council and Central Bank will all have new leaders in the coming ten months. Here is an overview.

Magazine

All about the European Parliament elections 2019

EUobserver's new magazine is meant to help readers prepare for the European Parliament elections, no matter their level of knowledge. You can download and read the entire magazine now.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  4. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  7. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  12. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership

Latest News

  1. May tosses Brexit spanner into EU machinery
  2. Centre-right EPP faces showdown with Orban
  3. A compromise proposal for the Article 50 extension
  4. US glyphosate verdict gives ammunition to EU activists
  5. Have a good reason for Brexit extension, Barnier tells UK
  6. EU countries push for new rule of law surveillance
  7. EU rolls out €525m for military projects, but bars illegal tech
  8. May to seek Brexit extension amid UK 'constitutional crisis'

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  2. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  3. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  5. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  6. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us