By Jon Ingram
The final of the 1995 European Championship in Athens is widely regarded as one of the most exciting final games in recent history. As a spectacle for basketball fans, it had everything from the participation of two great basketball teams (Lithuania and Yugoslavia) to an outstanding individual performance (42 points from Alexander Djordevic on 9-of-12 3-point shooting) and generally contained all the ingredients that create a classic sports event.
Yugoslavia was coming back from a ban from all international competitions, and while their players were still participating in European club competitions, nobody knew how they would really gel as a team after their enforced hiatus.
Meanwhile, Lithuania had emerged as one of the strongest of the ex-Soviet nations, having won bronze at the 1992 Olympic Games.
Both teams had a wealth of talent on display (LTU - Sarunas Marciulionis, Arvydas Sabonis, Rimas Kurtinaitis. YUG - Alexander Djordevic, Predrag Danilovic, Vlade Divac, Dejan Bodiroga) although the Yugoslavs had a deeper bench than the Lithuanians.
Despite its status as a classic, the final game was not without controversy, and many still feel that Lithuania were harshly dealt with by the referees in the 90-96 defeat.
It was close throughout but in the last minutes, Lithuania protested a number of calls that went against them. This ended in Arvydas Sabonis fouling out and a technical foul on the Lithuanians, which the Yugoslavs capitalised on to turn a 1-point deficit into a 3-point advantage.
The Lithuanians were so incensed that at one point they almost refused to re-enter the court after a timeout, and it took some coaxing from Yugoslav players Vlade Divac and Alexander Djordevic to persuade them to continue the game. However, by this stage Lithuania was mentally out of the contest and they never recovered from the four-point turnaround in Yugoslavia’s favour.
The question of whether Lithuania were unfairly dealt with or whether they overreacted to a couple of bad calls and took themselves mentally out of the game is one that could be debated forever.
Instead we sat down with one of the main protagonists in the game, Lithuanian guard Sarunas Marciulionis, to discuss his memories and recollections.
Marciulionis is rightly looked upon as a pioneer of European basketball in that he was one of the first to prove that European players could not only go to the NBA, but they could be stars. In 1995 he was at the peak of his game and earned tournament MVP honours after averaging 22.5 ppg (first overall in the competition), shooting 67.5% from the floor (3rd overall), 56.3% from the 3-point line (2nd overall) and dishing out 4.75 assists per game (3rd overall).
What are your basic memories about the game in general?
Marciulionis: I remember that aside from the game it was one of the greatest experiences in my life when 20,000 Greeks were chanting “Lietuva”. It was a great final. There was an experiment with foreign referees (i.e. American), but I don’t think that continued after that game. The game was good and we had a lot of respect for that Yugoslav team.
This was their first national team tournament after the comeback from their ban, what did you know about them?
Marciulionis: We had enough time to see them in previous games and we played individually against each other on the club level many times. So we knew their strengths and their abilities and it was no surprise that they were so strong.
Were you concerned about Djordjevic before the game?
Marciulionis: No. He was averaging about 12-14 ppg before the final. I remember he scored 20 points in the first half and going into the locker room at the break, I joked with him that he was already over his limit.
The key to the game was the fifth foul on Sabonis, which was a joke as he didn’t even have the ball. That’s a tough call to make in the last two minutes of a European Championship final. So we felt robbed and we still feel that. But the basketball was nice and 1995 was also an anniversary of 70 years of basketball.
What was your strategy going into the final, especially a team with as much talent as Yugoslavia?
Marciulionis: Well it was difficult to push our style of game, which was to play fast basketball. They (Yugoslavia) also knew how to provoke other players and initiate psychological battles. They were very good at it and we wanted to avoid getting involved individually in that kind of thing. We also wanted to try to help our guys in the middle and to run the fast break and get them tired, but we also didn’t have a long bench to be able to do that.
You were personally matched up with Bodiroga, Dannilovic and Djordevic. Who was the toughest guy for you to guard?
Marciulionis: Well zone worked mainly for us pretty well but Djordjevic killed us in the final. He surprised us and we left him room and gambled. That forced us to change a little bit and play man-to-man. Bodiroga has that penetration to the middle where he can hit that three to four metre shot. It’s a very difficult shot to hit but he has that. I think I played mainly against Dannilovic and Djordjevic and picked up Bodiroga on switches a couple of times where he could use his height advantage and play on the low block against me.
Was it a big adjustment for you to play point guard for the national team and shooting guard in the NBA?
Marciulionis: I didn’t play too much point guard in the NBA where they used me more to come off picks and shoot or drive to the basket. For Lithuania we had some older guys and a few young guys but nobody to really play the point so I took over. That was quite difficult and an adjustment for me but everybody agreed it was the best solution for our team.
You had a great tournament from a personal point of view and were voted MVP. Did that take away from losing in the final?
Marciulionis: No, it was a big disappointment but what can you do? All we could do was move on and analyse the game but for us the most frustrating thing was that we felt they didn’t win and we didn’t lose. If you judged the game by the Greek fans and what they were saying, I think the situation was unfair.
Do you think you let the calls get to you too much and it wasn’t so much the bad calls that affected you, but the way you reacted to them?
Marciulionis: Yes. The biggest turn-around in the score was after a technical foul, which really effected the game. We led by one point and suddenly we were down by three and the technical and a 3-pointer (from Yugoslavia) cost us about six points because of a bad call and because of emotions. I spoke to (current Dallas Mavericks assistant coach) Donny Nelson after the game and he said he never saw a turnaround like that have such a dramatic impact on a game.
Was that the end of an era for Lithuanian basketball in that it was the last time that many of those players would participate in a European Championship?
Marciulionis: For that team yes, But the new team in Sydney surprised everybody so that means that our bench was longer than expected.
Budgeting is something that you are involved with now in your role as Managing Director of Conference North. Did you always think you get involved in basketball administration or is it something that you fell into?
Well, in 1992 we put that Lithuanian team together that played in the Olympics. We had to find money because there was no budget available from the government. We had to organise fundraisers and I was doing that in the USA, so that was how it started. I’m not really an administrator though and I’m not involved with the federation or the national team. Sometimes you get too close to basketball and you don’t learn any more. I’m involved in basketball a little bit less as I am working on other projects, but I’m always updated, always close and able to check on what is going on.
So finally, is it better to win silver in the European Championship with Lithuania or gold with the USSR in the Olympics?
Well, both medals have got big stories behind them and it is hard to compare. The Soviet time was one era and the Lithuanian time was a bit more emotional with more feelings of patriotism. But both achievements have a high value and it is difficult to separate them.