Lat Pack Want Their Name In Lights

Destination Lithuania

Mark Woods

Every week, collaborator Mark Woods talks to players with a single travel destination in mind this summer, Lithuania.

Next in the series is Rihards Kuksiks, the 23-year-old Latvia small forward.

Mark Woods writes on basketball for a number of British newspapers as well as broadcasting for the BBC and Sky Sports. He is also assistant editor of and can be found on Twitter @markbritball.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right? But we can reveal the shocking truth about Rihards Kuksiks' summer stay in the Nevada desert.

"I go to my house and to the gym," he confirms.

"Maybe I'll occasionally sit by the pool." Not even a show and dinner at The Bellagio? "No, that's about it. I've been staying off The Strip."

The Latvia swingman has plenty of good reasons for resisting the many temptations of America's casino capital.

Rihards Kuksiks - Latvia
Casinos, dancing and huge partys the Rat Pack way? Not for Rihards Kuksiks who follows the same routine even in a city full of temptations like Las Vegas

With EuroBasket fast approaching, as well as his rookie professional season, it must be all work and no play to make the 22-year-old a far from dull option for his country in Lithuania.

Injuries hampered Kuksiks' senior year at Arizona State University from where he recently graduated with a degree in sociology.

Wearing the traditional robe, picking up his scroll, his time in college came to its end. So too his five years across the Atlantic.

He will soon return to Riga to consider his options but it will be with some sadness that he leaves his home from home.

"I wanted an education and a different kind of experience," he explains.

"The basketball's a really different style than in Europe. I just felt I could go off to any place I wanted to when I was 16 but I wanted to finish up school. I started playing really well on my high school team. Many colleges recruited me so I decided to head to the USA."

Arriving initially at high school in Florida, there was some cultural adjustment. The basketball was the easy part, he says. His accent caused a few problems though.

Explaining where he had come from caused widespread confusion. "Not a lot of people know where Latvia is," he laughs. "They still think it's some part of Russia."

Unlike their illustrious neighbours, the Latvians have yet to earn a reputation of their own on the court.

Although they were European champions in 1935, their best placing since they returned, following independence, was eighth place in 2001.

In fact for three consecutive EuroBaskets, they have ended up 13th. Unlucky for them - it is a streak they would dearly love to break.

"That's why I've been working out in Vegas every day, taking steps forward before I go to national team training camp," Kuksiks says. "We know our group is probably the strongest one."

He might be right. Star-laden France awaits in their opening game. Serbia and Germany lie beyond. Israel will be no pushovers, nor will Italy.

"It's definitely going to be hard but we played Italy (last summer) and we beat them at home, even though everybody was doubting us," he declares.

"They had all their NBA guys, players who are in the Euroleague, and we beat them. We can beat anybody. We just have to play tough. We can't let teams do what they want to do."

Latvia's lone NBA player Andris Biedrins is expected to anchor the resistance movement.

Despite his disappointing season with Golden State, he remains his country's most visible force.

"I only saw him one time when Golden State came to play Phoenix," Kuksiks recalls.

"We were always on the road. But he spoke to me then and he gave me some good advice. And I'll speak to him again this summer."

EuroBasket will give the young prospect another chance to test himself in elite company. In last summer qualifiers, he emerged as Latvia's most consistent performer in Biedrins' absence, averaging 13.3 points per game in his debut senior international campaign.

"It was definitely special," he admits.

"That first time was brilliant, to step up and represent your own country. I know I'm a young guy but I think I did pretty well, going up against guys like Marco Belinelli, high-class players. I felt I fitted in even though I can still do better."

The Latvians will hope so. Having seen their women reach the quarter-finals of their EuroBasket, the men now have a target to match.

Barely 40 kilometres separates Siauliai - the host of Group B - from the neighbour's border. They will not have to challenge alone.

"Hopefully. I think we'll have a lot of fans come down to watch us play," Kuksiks states.

"Plus the Lithuanians are kind of our brothers so they'll probably support us too. I'm sure we'll have plenty of backing."

As they say in Vegas, time to put on a show.


30.06.2011 - Destination Lithuania

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