The Eural Trans Gas European Championship for U20 Men is a breeding ground for the top players in the continent. Among the 12 teams and 144 players participating, most will go on to represent their senior national teams, while several will go on to the highest echelons of the game.
It takes experience, dedication and the right direction to get to that level. The better the teaching, the better the chance of making it to the top. In Rimas Kurtinaitis, the Lithuanian U20 men’s team are taking advantage of one of the best, and most experienced players in their country’s history.
The former Olympic gold medallist is on the Lithuanian team bench, serving as an assistant coach. His career after basketball has led him into politics, he held the position of Lithuanian Minister for Sport for 4 years, and now back onto the court.
For the past two years Kurtinaitis has been head coach of the Senior National Team of Azerbaijan and of club side Gala, the domestic league champions. He’s getting full support from the government in attempt to re-establish the basketball scene in a country that used to have teams in the first league of the Soviet Union, but in the last 10 years has disappeared from the map of European Basketball.
What can you tell us about your role in Azerbaijan?
"I signed for a 3-year contract, and this will be my third year there. I also coach Gala, which is the champion of the local league. We played this year in the FIBA Europe Cup and came one win short of the Final Four.
I have 6 local players, 2 Lithuanians and 2 Americans. Two years ago when teams from Azerbaijan played in European cups they lost to teams from Ukraine by 50 and 70 points.
Now there’s been big progress, but when I arrived we started from zero. There were no schools for basketball, and they still don’t know how to work. The teams practice 3-4 times a week, while my team practices 3 times a day.
Now I have built a basketball school and we got 36 kids from 10 years old."
How about the Lithuanian team? You look pretty good so far
"We have really big potential. We are 2nd best team in defense, but we are first in rebounds. We still have some problems on offense, but we are playing better every day.
Today was the first game when the coaches were really happy, because we played good basketball for 40 minutes."
Lithuania won the silver medal in the Junior World championship last year, does it put more pressure on you to win a medal here?
"We certainly came to win one of the medals here. We always play hard. Sometimes we play badly, but it’s not possible to say we aren’t focused, because we always play 100%."
Who do you consider as the top contenders here?
"Serbia & Montenegro are one because they play very smart. Israel are also a possibility because they play smart and the coach is doing a very good job. We played 2 practice games against Israel before the championship. We won one and lost the other, but when they were ahead of us we couldn’t change the tempo of the game and make a comeback.
Russia play run-and-gun. In a good day they will win, but if you put them in a difficult p
|Lithuania's Paulinas Jankunas is leading the tournament in rebounding (12 rpg)|
Slovenia isn’t a bad team as well despite their big loss today (to Serbia & Montenegro). It’s very possible that we’ll have 4 teams from Group B in the Semi-finals, but the game between Serbia & Montenegro and Israel will be a very interesting one."
Do you see any difference from the times you played in Junior championships and how things work nowadays?
"When I was in the U20 national team it was still for the Soviet Union, but of course there’s a big difference. At that time nobody looked at us, because there were no European in the NBA and now there are so many scouts following them.
It was impossible for the players from Soviet Union, Poland and sometimes Yugoslavia to move to another country. Back then we needed to fight to get a spot in Real Madrid for example against two Americans, and now there are so many spots in addition to the two foreigners.
So for the players it’s a big stage to show their abilities to other teams, something that wasn’t so important in my time."
What do you think about the chances of the Lithuanian team in the Olympics?
"I believe it’s easier to take the title that it is to defend it. In Sweden Lithuania just came there with nobody expecting them to make anything big, and now everybody know about them, so it will be really difficult, but anyway, we always look for the highest spots. We always come for medals."