Paul Nilsen is a freelance basketball journalist writing for various web-sites and publications across Europe.
If there is one warrior in particular that Lithuania can rely on to put some real heart and soul into their pursuit of a gold medal at EuroBasket 2009 in Poland then surely it is Linas Kleiza.
The 24-year-old Denver Nuggets player definitely talks and plays a tough game and is preparing to emerge as one of the new leaders of the National Team.
An uncompromising physical player who wears his emotions on his sleeve and pushes that temperament to the limit, Kleiza is renowned for his durability and competitiveness. Add to this his ability and pride in the Lithuanian team vest and it becomes clear just why the Kaunas born forward is determined to be a big hit in Poland.
Kleiza has continued his hugely impressive form in the NBA this season, continuing where he left off in his breakthrough season last year by averaging near to 11 points and over four rebounds per game.
That kind of contribution has left the Nuggets riding high on top of the Northwest standings and while the going was good, I caught up with the multi-lingual NBA star before he headed off for an exhausting eight game road trip.
FIBA Europe: Hi Linas, you have had plenty of time now to reflect on what happened in Bejiing. How do you look back on the Olympic tournament and the display of yourself and the team?
Linas Kleiza: Looking back, it was a special event and will be one of those things that I will cherish for the rest of my life. We had a great tournament and it came down right to the end. We had some tough luck at the end and lost, but we still did very good. You know, being one of probably the smallest countries in the tournament and still playing all the way to the end with a chance to win it, that's all we would hope for. We missed a couple of our good players, but basketball-wise we did very good.FIBA Europe: There seems to be some talk of several guys from the Lithuania national team retiring or missing the tournament such as Siskauskas. How will that affect the team going forward and do you talk to any of those guys about persuading them to play?
Linas Kleiza: I think everybody is so caught up in the season right now that we're not really thinking about the national team yet. But, you know, some guys just need their rest and some guys are getting older and they just can't play anymore. It's a national team, and some of these guys need to worry about their careers as well. But we've still got a lot of good players who can step up and do the jobs if the other guys don't play.
FIBA Europe: You could be expected to be the on-court leader of the team at EuroBasket 2009 in Poland. Is that a role you would welcome?
|They had a tough time at the Olympics but Kleiza knows to never count out Andrei Kirilenko and Russia.|
Linas Kleiza: Definitely. We've got a lot of good guys on the team and I think we can be very competitive. We still don't know who's going to play and who's going to not play, but I'm definitely looking forward to being one of the leaders of this team.FIBA Europe: What do you make of the draw of Turkey, Poland and Bulgaria? We guess that you will be big favourites to win the group but those teams might be capable of an upset?
Linas Kleiza: You know Turkey is going to be good because they've always got really good players. And playing in Poland, you've got to be ready for anything from the Polish team because they could definitely be one of those upset teams in front of the home crowd. We just have to get ready to play and not overlook any of those teams. With us being one of the favourites and having that great basketball tradition, every team we play brings their best game. They all enjoy beating us, so we've just got to be very careful.FIBA Europe: Do you talk to any other guys in the NBA from other countries about the tournament and will it be the usual suspects in the likes of Spain and yourselves or can you see any national team springing a big surprise?
Linas Kleiza: You know, we talk about it a little bit. There are just so many guys that aren't sure if they're going to play yet that it's tough to get a feel for what to expect. I see a lot of other good teams besides us and Spain making some noise though. You can never write-off Greece, and Russia's going to be tough because they're the defending European champs. They had a tough run in the Olympics, but they're a really good team still. Slovenia is going to be good, I'm sure France will be a lot better this time around, and Croatia is always good. There are a lot of good teams and just a lot of really even teams, so it should be a very exciting tournament. We'll see.FIBA Europe: Lithuania is such a great basketball country with a great tradition I guess you are expected to be challenging for medals in Poland this year and in the World Championships next year. However, as a proud Lithuanian, is a little part of you fighting not to look too far towards EuroBasket 2011 in your home country? That should be pretty special?
Linas Kleiza: I don't think that's possible. I mean Poland is very close to Lithuania, so we're going to have a lot of fans. The two countries are both right there and we have a lot of travelling fans, so it should be a lot of fun. We're all very excited to be hosting the tournament in 2011, but we'll have guys who might be playing their last tournament for us in 2009, so they won't let us look past this year. It's going to be very special having the tournament in 2011. A lot of people are already looking forward to it, especially with the love that Lithuanians have for basketball. Playing back in your home country, in front of your own fans and your family, it's just one of those things you dream of while growing up.FIBA Europe: With some NBA players moving to Europe such as Childress, Delfino and Garbajosa for example, is there more of an interest in European basketball now in the USA? Do the guys talk about it more and can you see there being more interest in this EuroBasket?
Linas Kleiza: It's changed a little bit, but I don't think there's a ton of interest in European basketball. For one thing, it's very hard for people in America to follow because of the time difference and it's hardly ever on TV here, except for a couple games on NBATV every now and again. I think it's definitely made people notice European basketball a little more though. With those guys going over there and getting those big contracts, they got a lot of coverage in the media over here. So you definitely hear more guys talking about international basketball because money is a big factor. When it turns out there is a lot money flowing around overseas, there is definitely going to be some guys willing to check it out a little more than they would have in the past.FIBA Europe: Denver still looks to be a good situation for you. Tell us about playing for this team and being in the city.
Linas Kleiza: I love playing for Denver. It's definitely a great situation for me. And having a great team, a great coach and a lot of good players makes it easy. We always have fun on the court because we play that style of ball where you get a lot of freedom to just go and play. The city of Denver is great. The people are great and they've been really good to me so far. It's a very good situation.FIBA Europe: Most people view you as a pretty tough player who is fearless and can't be intimidated and someone that works hard on his game with real passion. Where does that come from? Is that generally you as an individual or do you think part of being Lithuanian and the great tradition that exists?
Linas Kleiza: It comes from just me wanting to succeed and wanting to be successful. I am very competitive, you know, I want to win and I always want to get better. In the city I grew up in, you couldn't be intimidated by anyone and you just had to be tough if you wanted to stand out. I'd say the best part about being Lithuanian with my development was that we had a lot of really good coaches when I was growing up.
FIBA Europe: Finally Linas, we understand that cyclist Lance Armstrong is somebody you admire greatly. If EuroBasket 2009 proves to be tough, we guess that you still wouldn't swap it for riding a cycle up mountains in France?
Linas Kleiza: It's not a question of ‘if' Eurobasket is going to be tough. We all know it's going to be tough. Either you win or you don't and our main goal is always to win the tournament. If riding bikes up mountains was something I was good at, I'd think about it; but that's definitely something that I don't enjoy doing!