Lithuanian basketball: past, present and future
In 1891 American teacher James Naismith invented basketball. Year after
year it became more and more popular, people played basketball in more and
more countries. In 1922 Steponas Darius brought it to Lithuania. It became
popular so fast, as TV after World War II.
Level of Lithuanian basketball was so high, that in 1935 Lithuanian team
played in the European championship. In 1935 championship took place in
Riga (Latvia). Lithuanians were debutantes, and nobody could hope, that
debutantes could be among leaders, but Lithuanians were! Lithuanians
In 1939 the occurred in Kaunas. A new Sport Hall was built for this
occasion, and sportsmen still play basketball in it now. Lithuanian team
became the winner of this competition again.
Women have never remained in the background of men. All time they tried to
be in the same level like men and they always do it. European championship
in 1938 was very successful and Lithuanian sportswomen won silver medals.
World War II didn`t stop development of Lithuanian basketball. In the time
of the war, legendary players, champions off Europe, ran to the West, but
Lithuanian basketball wasn’t dead. A few students team won the first Soviet
Union championship in 1947. It was the start of the history of the biggest,
grandest, and greatest Lithuanian Basketball club “Zalgiris” (Green Wood).
The name of th
beated the crusaders. This battle is named Grunwald in German or Zalgiris
All the time, when Lithuania endured yoke of Soviet Union, Lithuanian
basketball was predominated in all Union. All the time Lithuanian players
played in combined teams.
In 1978-1981 one of the greatest Lithuanian players’ generations started
forming. In 1982 Arvydas Sabonis came to “Zalgiris”. He started playing in
professional team, when he was only seventeen and he is still playing now.
In 1983 the biggest fights between “Zalgiris” and CSKA from Moscow started.
It was not Moscow team; it was a team of all Soviet Union. The most players
were subjugated by the way of deception. Soviet bureaucrats wanted
Lithuanian players to play in Moscow team too, but Lithuanians looked
smarterd, and they diidn’t let them go.
For Example, Soviets wanted Sabonis to play in CSKA. At the same day, when
Sabonis finished secondary school, soviets came to school and tried to take
Sabonis to the army. But Lithuanians were faster. Sabonis was already
studying at Kaunas high school!
All time Lithuanians hadn’t ways to the Europe. Till 1984, “Žalgiris” has
never played with the teams from the West. Only “thaw” in Soviet Union and
reorganization of Mikhail Gorbachiov gave a chance for “Žalgiris”. These
chances were unbelievable. In 1985 “Zalgiris” lost only in
EuroCup and in 1986 “Zalgiris” lost to Cibona Zagreb in the final of
European Cup of Champions. Competitions of Soviet Union were lucky too.
Three years (1985-19870 “Zalgiris” became the champion of the Union.
In 1986 “Zalgiris” got a chance to play in Jones Cup Competition. At this
time it was World Club Championship. “Zalgiris” became the winner! 200 000
people waited for “Zalgiris” in Kaunas Karmelava Airport!
In 1989, Sarunas Marciulionis became the first player from East Europe, who
played in National Basketball Association (NBA). USSR didn’t let to play in
this professional American league, but in 1989, the Soviet Union wasn’t so
strong like in 1970 or 1980, and Marciulionis broke the ice.
In 1992 Lithuania has already the freedom. Lithuania played in Barcelona
Olympic Games. Nobody could understand, how a country, which is free only 2
years, and which has only 3 000 000 population, can have such a good
basketball team. Lithuanian national team won the bronze medals! Only then
everybody understood, that in all national USSR teams played many
Lithuanians, when USSR won the greatest victories. For example, in the USSR
team, which won Gold in Seoul Olympic Games, four players in start
composition were Lithuanians. Sabonis, Marciulionis, Kurtinaitis, Chomicius
and others the first big victory to free Lithuania.
After “Barcelona`92” crisis took all basketball in Lithuania. The best
players went to the West, th
country. Only national team showed good results, when all players from the
West played. In 1996 Lithuanian team won the third place in Atlanta Olympic
Games again. Stars played in the West, but they didn’t let basketball die
and helped them. Sabonis and Marciulionis built few basketball schools for
Trainers in Lithuania work heavily and patiently and they did their work
very good. They raised a new generation of players, which wasn`t worse than
the last one.
In 1994 Jonas Kazlauskas came to “Zalgiris”. He was a young trainer,
without big experience, but with the best wishes and great ambitions. He
was democratic, new style trainer. He took young players and started to
make stars. He showed that basketball is a team sport and one or two
players can’t win match. Kazlauskas learned together with players. Results
didn’t come at the same time. In 1996 “Zalgiris” lost in semifinal of Cup
Winners Cup, in 1997 “Zalgiris” lost in 1/8 final. In 1998 “Zalgiris”
surprised all the Europe. “Zalgiris” won Euro Cup! It was the first J.
Kazlauskas and all “Zalgiris” triumph. In the last (1998-1999) season,
“Zalgiris” started playing in EuroLeague. Nobody looked to debutante, like
to the potential competitioner. But military leader J. Kazlauskas and
“Zalgiris” didn’t want to stop. There’re no stars, no big mo
nice, commnadly play was the guaranty of luck. “Zalgiris” won the Cup of
EuroLeague! “Zalgiris” (see picture in file zalgiris98-99) showed that
money cannot win, only the team can win.
Women didn’t fall. In 1997 national Lithuanian team became the European
champions. Men in 1995 were “only” second.
If you want to get big victories, you need some intelligence and some
organization. Lithuanians don’t complain that they feel shortage of it. At
once after getting freedom, Lithuanians started to build national
basketball system. Sarunas Marciulionis was the fundamental organizer and
sponsor. In 1994 Lithuanian Basketball League (LKL) was founded. It was
very important. Marciulionis played in NBA for a long time, so he knew, how
to make the same in Lithuania. LKL matches are very interesting and
Sarunas Marciulionis didn`t stop, when he founded LKL. Northern European
Basketball League (NEBL) was founded in 1998. NEBL is made by NBA model. In
1999 took place the first Promotion Cup. In 2000 the first official
inaugural NEBL season will start. The Northern European Basketball League
was founded with the cooperation of five Northern European nations:
Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden. The goals of NEBL are:
To be the top Northern European professional basketball league;
To keep basketball as the leading sport in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania;
To make basketball the leading sport in Sweden and Finland;
To support all the league’s clubs and players;
To create a united market & sponsorship programs for Northern European
To attain creative support from the NBA.
The NEBL will tip off its first season in 2000 with plans to expand the
league to include the top teams from Denmark, Norway and Ukraine. Russia
and Belarus have both shown interest in joining the league as it continues
to grow and could be added in later seasons.
Basketball in Lithuania is very popular. The most popular TV programs are
basketball matches. Everybody in Lithuania knows what the basketball is.
Young and old play basketball. Thousands celebrate victories. Lithuania
isn’t only amber country; it’s basketball country too. Basketball is the
second Lithuanian religion.