|Rimantas Kaukenas and Mindaugas Kuzminskas are still in the race for two titles with Zalgiris Kaunas|
By Dimitris Kontos
Zalgiris Kaunas have had to overcome a number of issues off the court this season, but the bumpy ride has not derailed the team's campaign.
The storied Lithuanian club might be out of contention in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague but they remain in the hunt for two major titles this season.
Zalgiris topped Group B of the VTB United League regular season, ahead of powerhouse CSKA Moscow, and have qualified directly to the quarter-finals, where they will face the winner of the Spartak St Petersburg vs. Nizhny Novgorod play-off series.
They are also marching unbeaten in the Lithuanian league (LKL) and look like the hot favourites to retain the domestic title.
No amount of problems could bend the spirit of the team, or make the wide and warm smile of Mindaugas Kuzminskas fade away.
The cheerful 23-year-old forward is a fan favourite at Zalgiris, despite the fact he is playing alongside many established veterans who are national icons like the Lavrinovic brothers (Darjus and Ksistof), Rimantas Kaukenas, or the now sidelined captain Paulius Jankunas.
On the court, Kuzminskas transmits to the audience his youthful enthusiasm, he offers crowd-pleasing dunks and feeds the highlight reels with spectacular plays.
Off the court though, he is as shy as a teenager on his fist day at a new school; he has won the fans over inadvertently, simply by remaining humble.
"When I was a child, my parents told me that no matter what happened or who I became in my life, I should always be a good person and stay true as a human being, all the time," he told fibaeurope.com very, very reluctantly.
"I just try to respect the fans because they support our team in tough times, they come to the games and pay their money, whether it's a good or bad situation.
"So you need to show your best in every game, you cannot disappoint these people.
"That, to me, is being friendly with the fans, it doesn't mean for example to have a half-an-hour chat with all of them after the game."
DREAMING OF LITHUNIA
However embarrassed he feels when talking about himself, Kuzminskas, like every top athlete, has aspirations that keep him going.
It's been four long years since he last pulled on a Lithuania vest, at the U20 European Championship Men in 2009.
Not without some effort, he confesses that he is looking forward to EuroBasket 2013 and the end of this long wait - and he knows that the big stage will look nothing like the last time he suited up in yellow, green and red.
"When you play for the youth national team, it means that you are one of the 12 best players at your age or younger," he said.
"When you play for the senior national team, that means you are one of the 12 best in Lithuania.
"To experience that, is my dream.
"I love my country and I wish to play there and I hope that one day my dream will come true."
In line with his character, Kuzminskas does not consider as a given that Lithuania head coach Jonas Kazlauskas will include him in the preliminary squad, let alone on the 12-men team that will travel to Slovenia for the big event.
"First of all, we don't even know who the candidates will be," he says with caution.
"Once I am at the training camp, if I am chosen to be there, then I will do my best.
"No one can be sure for his place in the national team, we have a lot of good players, especially at my position
"So it will be tough but I will do whatever I can do to be there because, as I said, [playing for] the national team is my dream."
|Kuzminskas: "I love my country and I wish to play there and I hope that one day my dream will come true"|
THE RISKS OF YOUTH
Whether or not Kuzminskas fulfils his dream this summer, one can be sure he will not miss a second from Lithuania's campaign at the EuroBasket.
"I think that right now there are no weak opponents in European basketball because nowadays everyone knows how to play [good basketball]," is the forward's asssesment.
"The [First Round] group is only the start, the most important thing is the Second Round and the quarter-finals and, if we reach there, the semi-finals.
"We just need to do our best in the beginning and then it's also a bit of a lottery who you are going to play against in the quarter-finals and how you will be prepared for that team.
"Because for example players might fall injured in the first games and so on."
One would suggest that, with several of their senior players now well into their thirties, Lithuania should perhaps reconsider their goal at this EuroBasket and use it as an opportunity to introduce young blood to the national team.
Kuzminskas would be among the first beneficiaries of such a policy, but he'll have none of this.
"Our country loves basketball and all we want is to win games," he explains.
"Nobody will understand if we go there with an extremely young team and we lose everything.
"That's too risky.
"Coach Kazlauskas said that he will not renew the team on purpose, he will see first who is in better shape at that moment.
"If a veteran player is in better condition than a younger guy at that moment he needs to play
"I agree with that completely, that's the smart thing to do."