By Paul Nilsen
While it may only seem like a distant spec on the horizon, in just over 18 months time Lithuania will be putting the finishing touches to their final preparations as proud hosts of EuroBasket 2011.
Even though we still have two summers to enjoy before the action starts, it is hard not to already feel flitting pangs of excitement at the prospect of heading to the only country in the world where relationships, celebrity gossip, money, politics and religion are all generally dislodged by basketball as the first topic of everyday conversation.
Having been previously described as a national obsession and even a religion itself, it is a place where basketball fanatics from countries where the sport is still developing can only dream of living. After all, who wouldn't want to talk with a stranger at a bus-stop about Macijauskas rather than Madonna?
|EuroBasket 2009 was a bitter pill for the Lavrinovic brothers and Lithuania.|
This potentially luscious cocktail of a major basketball tournament complimented by a host population with an insatiable appetite for the game means I do worry that due to my own passion for the sport, I might not make it back home.
In fact I already feel myself being somewhat seduced by the prospect of what lies ahead. I am picturing a mystical basketball force with a gravitational pull which could make putting my suitcase on the carousel of the departure lounge in Vilnius very difficult indeed.
You see, even just being around Lithuanians when there is basketball being played becomes rather infectious and anyone inside the Spodek Arena last September would probably testify to being quite humbled and astonished by their level of commitment.
Their beloved team was not even in Katowice for the climax of Eurobasket 2009 but the hoards of Lithuania fans in the Arena didn't leave the party early. Instead, they chose to celebrate, add to the atmosphere and in the process, confirm their deservedly lofty status in the supporter stakes.
Having painted the backdrop to what promises to be a super tournament both on and off the court, its now time to delve a little deeper into some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
I guess it is probably fair to say that when the Lithuanian Federation decided to make their bid to be hosts in 2011 they anticipated a lot of hard work lying in wait. However I suspect they didn't anticipate that this workload would be added to in quite the way it has during the last six months.
A bitterly disappointing EuroBasket 2009 campaign and the necessary post-mortem meant that the Federation were side tracked by having to both find a new coaching team and prepare their case for one of the wild card spots at the FIBA World Championships later this year.
Perhaps not surprisingly, their investment in the sport, superb historical tradition and unrivaled support made their wild card case an irresistible one and to their relief, they were handed a ticket to Turkey.
Having also appointed Kestutis Kemzura, the World Championships will now give Lithuania and their new play-caller a chance to start over and bury their EuroBasket blues of last year before they welcome their European neighbours next year.
Even the distraction of a high profile on-court failure and a wild card beauty contest wasn't going to sidetrack Federation President Vladas Garastas or his colleagues from their main goal. For this is not just about hosting the tournament - EuroBasket 2011 is about making up for an opportunity that was lost seventy years ago.
"EuroBasket 2011 is something Lithuania is waiting for a very long time." explained Garastas.
"After we won gold in 1939 at home, we had to organise the next championships. That was confirmed officially and then the Second World War broke out but now EuroBasket will finally come to Lithuania again."
"The biggest challenge of our Federation is to get ready for the tournament, to prepare everything on time and to make the event of the highest quality. We want to make EuroBasket 2011 the best in the history of this tournament."
"Lithuania has already invested 200 million Euros into the basketball infrastructure preparing for EuroBasket 2011." added Garastas.
"Some new arenas are already used and attract big crowds of basketball fans. Several others are still under construction."
When the doors of those Arenas are finally flung open at EuroBasket, you had better move quickly because there could be unprecedented demand for tickets. Lithuania has an almost unquenchable thirst for basketball at all levels and that means if you are thinking of being there, you could be
holding the hottest tickets in town.
|Kestutis Kemzura is now in charge of the Lithuanian national team.|
Whether it be youth or senior level, the Federation and the fans are confident they can deliver and who would argue? With one successful tournament already under their belts in 2009 and another lying in wait for later this year, everyone will be more than prepared for when the big one arrives in 2011 according to Garastas.
"Last year we organised European U16 Championships for Men in basketball mecca of Lithuania - Kaunas. It was a huge success: all the tickets for the final game in legendary Kaunas Sports Hall were sold in a few hours. We received much positive feedback."
"The next step of preparation for Eurobasket 2011 will be the European U18 Championships for Men in Vilnius this year. All the final games will be played in Siemens Arena with its capacity of 11 000 which will be used during Eurobasket 2011."
"We still have very much work to do, but I'm sure basketball fans from all over Europe will enjoy a real basketball festival in 2011."
Enhancing their already glowing basketball reputation might be one of the primary aims of the Federation but it also takes hard work. The story of Lithuanian basketball success to date has not been down to chance. It is one of an intricate web of factors that all feed into the collective craving to have a winning National team that the country can be proud of.
The general popularity of the sport is of course a major factor and one that is often recognised first and foremost by those who look on with understandable envy. Basketball remains the kingpin thanks in part to those historical victories that form part of basketball folklore in Lithuania as well as some fantastic in-depth coverage in just about every part of the media.
Dalius Matvejevas who handles Media and Public Relations made it clear that the Federation is keen not to lose any momentum but to continue building on its existing strengths - of which there are plenty.
"There are so many different reasons for our successes."
"As well as the popularity and the support of the fans, we also get some exceptional attention from the government which is important."
"Equally we feel that we have a productive general management system since while we are a small country, we still have a development system of autonomous associations."
"This makes for building a quality infrastructure. We have spent a lot of resources investing in making sure that we have well organised training processes, well educated coaches and good local competition systems."
"With so many talented kids engaging in programmes and with local clubs we can make sure that we have a good selection system that takes advantage of this vast net of schools and clubs."
It is hard to argue with Matvejevas on any point and I know that if I do decide to put down roots in Lithuania I might just try my equivalent of the ‘City Of Love'. Forget Paris or Venice - my true love means heading for Kaunas. A place where I will never be short of a team to be involved with since this incredible basketball city has more than 250 teams - and that's just the men.
With clear development pathways, the domestic leagues at a higher national level in Lithuania are full of young and hungry players. Those players are now no longer blinkered into moving to a College in the States but are now ready to utilise the resources being handed to them on home soil. In the last three years alone, the rate of young talents departing across the Atlantic has fallen by a staggering seventy percent.
There are a number of dedicated basketball schools and academies across the country and where they are not funded by Government, the Federation steps in. Much of the work is underpinned by a detailed basketball curriculum.
Along with a vast array of other initiatives, it is evident that hosting EuroBasket 2011 is indeed a major coup for Lithuania but also the mere centrepiece gem of an already jewel-encrusted basketball crown.
What strikes me most about the Lithuanian Federation is that resting on their laurels simply isn't an option. Not just because of their own desire to continually improve and evolve as a Federation but because they almost quite literally have an entire nation intently watching their every move.
Make no mistake - being a custodian of basketball in Lithuania is more than just a job.
In Part Two we get the views from the media, the fans and from some of those charged with achieving EuroBasket success on the court for Lithuania.