Basketball Love Conquers All: Lithuania Part II

18.01.2010

By Paul Nilsen

If winning accolades off the court is a no-brainer due to the passion of the fans, it's a very different picture on the court for Lithuania as they finish picking through the wreckage of their EuroBasket 2009 performance and start to focus on the road ahead.

Shorn of many stellar names, most supporters headed to Poland expecting it would be more difficult than normal to challenge for medals. Few however anticipated just how badly the usually slick and entertaining Lithuanian express would be unceremoniously derailed.

Having since secured a wild card spot for the FIBA World Championships later this year and with 18 months to re-shape a team to be proud of when the rest of Europe descends on Lithuania for EuroBasket 2011, the hopes of the nation now rest firmly on the shoulders of Kestutis Kemzura.

Donatas Motiejunas (Lithuania)
Donatas Motiejunas looks to be a rising star for Lithuania.
Having assembled his coaching staff, the recently appointed play-caller didn't waste any time in tackling the thorny question of whether now is the time for a revolution. A weight of opinion in the country that has demanded the blooding of young players but Kemzura isn't willing to jump in with both feet. Acutely aware of the expectation and responsibility he has, he is wisely taking his time before outlining his blueprint for the future.

"There is much talk about bringing more youth into the team." explained Kemzura.

"I've always said that age can't be the main criteria when choosing a team. You can't just bring in a player only because he is young."

"The average age of the Lithuanian National Team was quite young already last year. Off-course we will watch young players and some of them might receive invitations to the training camp of the National Team."

He added "I want the best and most motivated players on my team. All our players can play well in 2011 but still lots can happen in terms of form or injury."

"Expectations are always very high in Lithuania and the whole country is waiting for this tournament. Lithuania, as always, will aim very high. We will need to qualify to the Olympics and aim higher."

The approach that Kemzura appears to be taking early in his tenure is one of caution and building a rapport with all of his potential players - whether they end up being handed a vest or not.

He has already travelled around Europe to talk to the big name players such as Jasikevicius and Kaukenas. While seemingly steering clear of ultimatums, he apparently preferred to talk broadly with the players about how they were feeling and what they thought about general issues such as the Wild Card situation. Nevertheless, getting the pair back on board seems to be a realistic possibility and one that will excite most fans.

Debate continues to rage in Lithuania as to how the team should be moulded for the next two tournaments and it will certainly be fascinating to see how the team that lines up in Turkey this September for the World Championships compares to the one that walks out 12 months later on home soil.

In an ideal world, Lithuania would of course have an effective and attractive balance of established stars and exciting young players. Unfortunately nothing is certain in basketball and that means a difficult job ahead for Kemzura and the coaching team.

So what exactly do people in Lithuania think of his appointment? Lithuanian Vilius Leškys is the man behind web-site talkbasket.net and he believes the general populous are backing Kemzura to get the job done - even if he wasn't necessarily everybody's first choice.

He said, "There are different opinions about the coach. I think it can be said that majority of the fans think Kemzūra was the right choice since Jonas Kazlauskas was not available."

"Kemzūra is liked because of his professionalism and devotion to basketball while others strongly believe that Kurtinaitis would have been a better choice. This is based on his results with Rytas last season as well as what he managed to get out of the team this year despite having very low budget."

"On the other hand, Kurtinaitis was a part of coaching staff which led Lithuania to the failure in Eurobasket 2009 but then again, Kemzūra's recent results with the club and national team are not exactly inspiring either. So even though part of the fans are complaining a little about the appointment of Kemzūra, he has the support of themajority - including me."

Some of those people who remain sceptical in respect of Kemzura do appear to have been pacified a little since he named his three assistant coaches earlier this month. Valdemaras Chomicius, Robertas Kuncaitis and Donaldas Kairys all seem to have been given the thumbs up.

When it comes to the big conversation of which players should be included in the squads between now and EuroBasket 2011, Leskys feels that there is much still to be decided and that the argument over youth and experience is one that still needs to be tackled.

"There seems to be a strong opinion that the likes of Mindaugas Lukauskis for example should not be called up to the National Team any more because of their age and limited skills and that would open the door for the young players."

"I think the ones that are considered by the fans as potential additions to the national team are Gecevičius who is having a breakthrough season, Motiejūnas and Seibutis. Some also want to see Janavičius in case Jasikevičius doesn't play."

"Then again, some fans also want to see Macijauskas returning even if he's not in top form. Macas himself is not so optimistic and claimed the National Team doesn't need players in poor shape."

Rather than focusing too closely on the potential protagonists themselves, perhaps deep down its positive outcomes that fans of Lithuania are now interested in. Most people won't mind being proven wrong in the verbal battles over who should play if the war is won on the court and Lithuania get back to winning ways.

When questioned as to what the supporters crave the most after the reality check of what happened in Poland last year, Leskys response was simplicity personified.

He claimed "I believe fans just want to see the good old Lithuania again with attractive offensive basketball."

It is sentiment echoed by Tomas Breiva, a fan of Lietuvos Rytas living in Vilnius whose desire to look forward with both relish and optimism seems typical of the current mood amongst supporters I spoke to.

"I think we are just eager to show the last EuroBasket tournament was a misunderstanding."

"I am sure our team still has all the talent needed to win and achieve the highest places. You can simply look at the impressive performance of Lithuanian players in Euroleague."

"So, with perhaps more concentration on the desired goals, more optimism and with more energy, we are already halfway there."

"I highly support Coach Kemzura and our players and have no doubts that next time our team will shine."

One player who would love to be tasked with trying to grant the wishes of the Lithuanian public and bring back the good time again is Jonas Maciulis, a rising star who is determined to stake his claim for a place having been part of the team that misfired so badly last September.

Perhaps summing up the mood of an entire nation, the excitement of the Kaunas native was palpable when he underlined just what EuroBasket 2011 means to him and his fellow countrymen.

"It will be a great chance for Lithuania to show how we can organise big basketball events."

"Fans will be able to enjoy basketball of the highest quality and Lithuanian fans will have an advantage because they will not need to travel anywhere to support our National Team."

"This will be the first European basketball championship in Lithuania since 1939, so it will be a big challenge for us."

"It will definitely be a big honour for me if I get a chance to play on that team and to try to win a title in front of our own fans!"


With so much attention being placed on Eurobasket 2011 it would be easy for the Women to be overshadowed and that is one thing that the Federation are determined to avoid.

It is a message that Media and Public Relations Manager Dalius Matvejevas is keen to push and he

Aurime Rinkeviciute (Lithuania)
Aurime Rinkeviciute is just one of many shining lights for Lithuanian women's basketball.
was quick to stress that from grass roots to National Team level, the Federation is making strides.

Lithuania have some challenges that they are addressing with exciting plans in place for the next few years to raise the profile of the Womens game.

"It is true that girls do not tend to play basketball as much as boys in Lithuania." explained Matvejevas.

"For example out of 7,000 players of school age, there are 402 teams but only 83 are girls."

"This situation is now being addressed and we have an exciting programme of Womens basketball promotion we are ready to roll out soon."

"Our biggest hope is for the Womens basketball centres we have and will continue to set up right across the country."

"We have been running a centre in Marijampole for two years already and earlier this season we were thrilled to open another in Kaunas."

He added, "We won't stop there because there is also another almost ready in Siauliai and there are plans for centres to open in Vilnius, Panevezys and Klaipeda too! This is a very important partnership for us with the Lithuanian Sports Academy."

Far from having to wait to see the fruits of their labour, the Federation is hoping their young players can emerge as early as this year.

"Girls from the centers will be a base of our this years U16 National Team for the summer. We have had success in the past as we were crowned U18 European champions in 2008."

"We just need more girls to follow in the footsteps of other great young players like Petronyte and Rinkeviciute."

"Of course at National Team level we have to appoint a new coach and make sure we qualify for Eurobasket Women 2011 in Poland!"

Without doubt there are still so many questions to be answered and not least on the playing side of things. Nevertheless, it would appear the Federation, the Government, the players, the coaching team and indeed the entire population of this basketball heartland are now all gearing themselves up for what lies ahead.

Yes, there are some basketball obstacles to be overcome but they do say that love conquers all - and if there is one place in the world where basketball and love go together, it's definitely in Lithuania.


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