Basketball pulse strong in Lithuania

KAUNAS, Lithuania -- Valdemaras Chomicius heard the music begin and felt his lungs swell up with pride. He had stood on a court many times before, watching the flag being raised aloft, listening to the band strike up. Once, it even had sounded as he clutched the gold medal that hung around his neck, a glorious souvenir of the Olympic Games of 1988, in a moment that he had spent his whole life dreaming of.

But this meant more, much more.

"When we heard our anthem for the first time, and we were singing, it was special," he said.

A nation celebrated in 1991 as Lithuania's basketball team, Chomicius included, prepared for its first appearance -- an exhibition tournament in Italy ahead of the Olympic qualifiers -- since independence from the Soviet Union a year earlier. The 12 good men were true symbols of hope as well as the objects of patriotic fervor. Twenty summers on, the game remains a powerful and irresistible totem.

The sport of basketball has long since spread beyond American shores, now second only to soccer in its global reach. Yet in few places is its presence so all-consuming as in this country of 3.2 million souls. During the last three weeks, as EuroBasket 2011 has progressed, the talk has been of little else. Crowds have gathered in huge numbers to follow every game, and public squares have rocked to the chants of "Lietuva." Inside the arenas, joy and agony have been taken to their extremes. When the hosts bowed out in the quarterfinals, a river of tears flowed from north to south.

But why is the passion for hoops here like nowhere else? In Europe, soccer has always ruled, untouchable and supreme. Lithuania -- a small land on the edge of the Baltic Sea -- has made itself the exception, and reaped the benefits, able to stand shoulder to shoulder against the giants from elsewhere.

"It's our second religion, maybe even the first," said Robertas Petrauskas, who has been calling the EuroBasket tournament on television in Lithuania. "It's the sport that unites our passion. In every room, in every street, in every place, everyone has been following our team. We just love those moments when we can do something against the biggest countries in the world.

"On Lithuanian TV, we show almost every serious basketball competition: the NBA, the World Championships, EuroBasket. And we have huge crowds watching when Zalgiris Kaunas or Lietuvos Rytas play in the Euroleague. We won the Under 19 world championship this year and there were 12,000 people in Latvia at the final."

The future is bright. And, Petrauskas added: "It's a never-ending love story."

Even before Lithuania was consumed into the USSR again after World War II, basketball had taken hold. The country was the European champion in 1937 and 1939, and even when its leading players were subsequently competing under the Soviet flag, they still represented their own state as much as their country.

"I was born in Lithuania. I was a Lithuanian," said Chomicius, who is now a national team assistant coach. "People would say: 'You are Russian.' I would explain that it was different."

It's our second religion, maybe even the first. It's the sport that unites our passion. In every room, in every street, in every place, everyone has been following our team.

-- Broadcaster Robertas Petrauskas

Still, they relished the opportunity to join with their brothers from Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere in fighting against the forces from the West. "We wanted to win," he said. "We took the gold at the Olympics [in Seou]. We were a family. And 20 years later, we still meet up."

How ironic it was that at the first available opportunity, the mosquito would bite the elephant -- Lithuania defeating the remaining rump of the Soviet empire to win the bronze medal at the Barcelona Olympics of 1992 after declaring independence in 1990. Politics and basketball could not be separated that day. The symbolism of humbling a country that many had viewed as an occupying force for almost a half-century was barely disguised.

Sarunas Marciulionis, then playing for the Golden State Warriors, took much of the credit for that campaign -- raising funds; organizing shoes and jerseys; and bringing the roster together. He had T-shirts made up, tie-dyed in an unlikely nod to the Grateful Dead. Originally, they were to state provocatively, in English, "Better Dead Than Red."

"He was talked out of it but it was a funny thing," longtime Lithuanian basketball journalist Linas Kunigelis recounted. "And when we beat the Russians for the bronze medal, the president of Lithuania came to the locker room and sang the national anthem. It's just continued from that. We're a small nation. There aren't many things which can unite us, whether you have left-wing or right-wing politics, basketball is your thing."

In a modern complex in the suburbs of Kaunas, the city that will stage Sunday's EuroBasket final, nestles one of hubs of the production line that has fed Lithuania's addiction. Arvydas Sabonis, the country's favorite son, opened his basketball school in 1994, 12 months before he finally took his talents to Portland after establishing himself as one of Europe's greatest-ever players.

His ambitions were simple. "I do not want these kids to go through the same experiences I went through as a young player: worn-out sneakers, poor equipment, unheated arenas," he explained in an interview at the time.

His benevolence -- and that of Marciulionis, who had previously established a similar project in the capital city of Vilnius -- paid long-term dividends.

Based loosely on the Soviet schools of sport that fell quickly into disrepair after the USSR splintered, the initial two sites spawned an entire network of development centers, some funded by the state, others through private enterprise.

Now Lithuania boasts 14 championship leagues from ages 7 to 18, incorporating 10,000 teams. "So you can figure out the numbers [of players] by multiplying that by 12 or 15," said Kunigelis, who also acts as a spokesman for the Lithuanian Federation. "Even when you go to the smaller cities, you see how many kids are playing. And it's always easier to pick one talented player from 100 than if you only have 10."

Almost 80 kids arrive after school each day at the Sabonis Center, which has close ties with Zalgiris Kaunas, the reigning national club champions. Discipline is tight. Life lessons are instilled. Freelancing is discouraged. It is a world away from the sneaker-dominated American system of USA Basketball.

Lithuanian national team guard Martynas Pocius was a willing attendee from a young age but later spent four years at Duke University to broaden his game and his mind. "The main difference," he said, "is that here, they teach the basics from an early age. In the States, it's all AAU basketball. They just give you a ball and you play. Here they teach you how to dribble, how to pass, how to take the right shot. Kids may mature [in Lithuania] later on but when they do, they're more accomplished basketball players."

Outside the city hall of Vilnius, just yards from the main street, stands a metal hoop. Three kids -- all wearing green jerseys with "Lietuva" imprinted across their chests -- pass the ball around, taking turns shooting, exchanging high-fives and laughs with every make.

Go anywhere in this small, proud country, from dawn to dusk, and you will find there others doing likewise. When EuroBasket ends, the banners will come down and the circus will leave town. The pulse of basketball, which has helped forge this nation, will continue to beat strongly.

"Emotionally, this game is good for our people," Chomicius said. "Even when we were in the Soviet Union, knowing basketball, knowing who was playing, was fundamental to being Lithuanian."

It still is. Far from Springfield, Mass., the game has found its second spiritual home.

Mark Woods is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh, U.K., whose work appears regularly in British publications.