| ||Jeff Taylor has been covering European basketball since 1997, when he first worked on the television program SLAM. He has been a basketball writer and broadcaster since that time, traveling the continent and covering the game in depth for FIBA Europe since its launch in 2003. |
No one doubted the EuroBasket in Lithuania would be a monumental success.
When a country lives and breathes basketball the way the people in Panevezys, Siauliai, Alytus, Klaipeda, Vilnius and Kaunas do, and when a nation has a rich history in the sport, a magnificent tournament was a foregone conclusion.
The event had everything.
|Dirk Nowitzki and several other big names in the game made sure that EuroBasket 2011 will leave a mark in history|
There were close games, Davids and Goliaths and plenty of star power, from NBA Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki of Germany to Spanish scoring machine Juan Carlos Navarro.
There were teams deemed to have overachieved like FYR of Macedonia and Finland, and sides that came up far short of expectations like Turkey, Slovenia and Serbia.
There was a coach who liked to wave his arms to singing fans as if he were a music conductor of a choir, FYR of Macedonia boss Marin Dokuzovski.
The Siauliai Arena saw a young squad, Latvia, that failed to win a game but showed so much heart and promise under coach Ainars Bagatskis that fans have every reason to believe good times are in the very near future.
There were revelations, including France's Charles Kahudi, a 25-year-old small forward.
Kahudi laid down his marker in Group B with jaw-dropping dunks, blocked shots and jumpers.
There were surprise packages.
Georgia made it into the Second Round but didn't have injured star Zaza Pachulia for any of those three games.
They nevertheless battled and filled their fans with pride.
The Finns made it all the way through Additional Qualifying Round and then did even better by progressing from Group C behind FYR of Macedonia and the Greeks.
They mounted a furious comeback on the last day of Second Round action against Slovenia and closed to within four points with 32 seconds to play but ended up falling short.
If the Finns weren't Cinderella, a side in the middle of a fairytale run, then FYR of Macedonia were.
In a restaurant on the Freedom Way in Kaunas, where fans and players gathered nightly, a Lithuanian journalist looked ahead to a potential Semi-Final match-up for his side with Spain, but a man sitting at a table just a few feet away with several other fans from Skopje turned and said, "Wait a minute. You have to beat Macedonia, first."
| Predrag Samardziski and F.Y.R. of Macedonia sent Jonas Valanciunas and Lithuania to tears with their quarter-final upset to write the greatest cinderella story of EuroBasket 2011|
How prophetic those words turned out to be because the next night, the Macedonians prevailed in one of the most dramatic games the EuroBasket has ever known.
In a chaotic last minute, FYR of Macedonia's superman, Bo McCalebb, passed out of a trap in the right corner to a wide-open Vlado Ilievski and the veteran guard drilled a three-pointer to give his team the lead for good with 11 seconds remaining.
They held on for the upset, much to the horror of the partisan crowd in the Kauno Arena.
Yet credit goes to Lithuania's fans because their passion for the game, and the EuroBasket, never wavered.
They returned to the arena in the days to follow to watch games and make sure the atmosphere in Kaunas remained, while not euphoric, certainly exciting.
Spain proved a hurdle to tall to clear in the Semi-Finals for captain Pero Antic and his teammates.
Juan Carlos Navarro erupted for 17 of his game-high 35 points in the third quarter to lead the defending champions to a 92-80 victory.
There was no bitterness for the travelling fans from the Balkans, though.
The next day, a couple of men wearing FYR of Macedonia shirts stopped Navarro on the street, put their arms around him and posed for photographs with one of the greatest players ever to compete at a EuroBasket.
It was impossible not to applaud Greece, who travelled to Lithuania without Dimitris Diamantidis, Vassilis Spanoulis and Sofoklis Schortsanitis and yet still accomplished their aim of at least a top-six finish to earn a trip to the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
In their Semi-Final, France, who had edged Greece in the last eight, at long last won the game that would put them back in the Olympics for the first time since 2000.
Russia and Andrei Kirilenko showed plenty of discipline, and heart, under coach David Blatt throughout the tournament, but they fell to the French in the last four, 79-71.
It was their only defeat at the EuroBasket.
|Tony Parker had to wait 10 years but finally achieved his goal to qualify for the Olympics|
At the end of the game, France point guard Tony Parker dropped to his knees and breathed a sigh of relief.
He would play at the London Games in 2012.
On the last day of the EuroBasket, Russia, who had beaten FYR of Macedonia with a Sergey Monya three-pointer at the death in their Second Round encounter, had to overcome them again to capture the bronze medal.
They did, but only just.
After another terrific game by Kirilenko, who like McCalebb, Parker and Spanish duo Pau Gasol and Navarro would be named to the all-tournament team, the ball ended up in the hands of Damjan Stojanovski as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
He had a wide-open lay-up to send the game to overtime but the ball flew out of his hands and the final buzzer sounded to ensure the Russians would step onto the podium.
"This is the end of the fairytale," a pensive FYR of Macedonia center Predrag Samardziski said.
The loquacious Blatt said: "I was planning on winning this game, not because I disrespected F.Y.R of Macedonia, which I respect greatly, not because I was over-confident.
"But because I knew in my heart that the path that we followed in this tournament was so correct, so true, that only a good result could end this story."
The last day of the tournament belonged to Spain.
France were potent, but not nearly enough.
There was the poise of point guard Jose Calderon, the defensive energy of Rudy Fernandez, the dominance of Pau and Marc Gasol and the shot-blocking of Serge Ibaka.
All of that, added to the excellence of Navarro, was just too much to overcome for a talented France side that included Parker, center Joakim Noah and explosive forward Nicolas Batum.
Spain became the first team since the former Yugoslavia in 1995 and '97 to win back-to-back gold medals at the EuroBasket.
All Navarro and Co have done is whet the appetite for more basketball.
Before they go after a third straight gold medal at the EuroBasket in Slovenia in two years, Spain will play at the London Games where a certain team that wears red, white and blue will be waiting for them.
"Spain is the best team in the world," said the Lithuania Basketball Federation president Mindaugas Balciunas, "better than the U.S., who will have many problems to beat Spain in the London Olympics."