30 years ago approximately 2 million people joined their hands to form a human chain spanning 600 kilometres across the three Baltic States – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. It was a remarkable act of unity and freedom to draw global attention by showing strong desire for independence of each of the countries.
The Kuzminskas family was also part of that miracle. After the event the family drove home slowly due to the heavy traffic caused by peaceful demonstrators. It happened two months before Mindaugas Kuzminskas, a future New York Knicks player, was born. The future Lithuanian basketball star was still in his mom’s belly when suddenly the Kuzminskas family car stopped due to engine overheating. People who were near noticed the problem and approached them to help. Thanks to such people the family was able to reach their home safely.
Two months later Mindaugas Kuzminskas saw the light of day and was destined to fall in love with the game uniting young nation of 3 million people. It was a game of basketball, now very well known as the second ‘religion’ of Lithuania.
Mindaugas was too young to witness it, but it was Arvydas Sabonis, Šarūnas Marčiulionis, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Artūras Karnišovas, and other members of the unique Lithuanian ‘Dream Team’, who shook the world.
For the first time in Lithuania’s history, these young men climbed up on the Olympic podium in 1992 wearing the tie-dye Grateful Dead T-shirts and saying ‘Hello world, here we are!’. The players found sponsors on their own who helped to build the team and to represent the country in the Olympics. Only two years before this tournament, on 11 March 1990, Lithuania had restored its independence.
‘People called us Russians, but we always told them we were not Russians, we were Lithuanians. So when we wore our Lithuanian jerseys for the first time, we played twice as hard as we ever did before. We were eager to show everybody, who Lithuanians were and how we could play,’ remembers Arvydas Sabonis.
Basketball was always more than a game in this country. During the years of Soviet occupation the local basketball team Žalgiris Kaunas was the pride of the country. Streets were empty every time the team played. In late 80s, Žalgiris became a champion team of the USSR league three years in a row by defeating the Soviet Union powerhouse CSKA Moscow. It was not just a championship. It was victory against the regime.
‘We were young and were fighting just to win a game on a basketball court. Then we realised it was more than just a basketball game,’ Sabonis recalls.
Thus on 8 August 1992 the meeting of Lithuanians with the Unified Team consisting of the best players from Soviet republics was much more than a bronze medal game.
‘Nobody is sleeping at home, everyone in Lithuania is watching you now!’ coach Vladas Garastas was shouting before the crucial fight. 18 months before the game, the USSR tanks and soldiers took the lives of 14 innocent Lithuanian people who gathered in a peaceful demonstration to protect their independence. Lithuanians couldn’t lose this game no matter what.
Valdemaras Chomičius, a hardworking point guard for Lithuania, was fully covered in blood when the opponent struck him in the eye with his elbow. The first Head of the State of Lithuania, Vytautas Landsbergis came to the locker room. ‘Does it hurt?’, he asked Chomičius. ‘Yes, it does, Mr. President,’ the player answered. ‘I can’t see anything through the blood,’ Chomičius added. ‘Don’t worry,’ Landsbergis replied and continued. ‘You bleed for your country.’
Marčiulionis shined with 29 points, Sabonis dominated with 27 points and 16 boards, and Lithuanians finally won that tough battle 82:78. It was one of the proudest moments in Lithuanian sports.
‘They were Lithuanian Giants, who made our country famous on the basketball court and led us to a winning path. I consider them being a backbone of our basketball,’ said Memphis Grizzlies star Jonas Valančiūnas.
Valančiūnas, born in 1992, was a kid of independent Lithuania. He took the torch from the Lithuanian basketball Titans and continued to spread the spirit of patriotism of Lithuanian basketball. Valančiūnas played in the National Team every summer since he was 15. Big man never refused to wear green and white.
He was not the only one Lithuanian patriot who got this basketball virus. Lithuania established itself as a basketball country. We were small, but we were making statements by winning bronze in the Olympics of 1996 and 2000, gold in the European Championship of 2003, three silver medals in the European Championships of 1995, 2013 and 2015, bronze in the European Championship of 2007 and the World Cup of 2010. With only over 3 million people Lithuania continues to develop basketball talents.
‘Where are you from? Oh, Lithuania? Sabonis!’, every third Greek taxi driver, every fourth Spanish waiter and every fifth American recalls when hearing the name of Lithuania.
Basketball became a visiting card of Lithuania. This game involves all the main features that great nations share: big heart, brotherhood, ambitiousness, and commitment. It unites this country in a way that both a little child and a granny can share the same feelings when cheering for the greatness of their men. In the basketball world of Lithuanians a team is equivalent to a family.
‘If our president takes basketball jersey as a gift to the meetings with other world leaders, it tells a lot about its importance,’ says Arvydas Sabonis.
Lithuania National Team is getting ready for the FIBA World Championship challenge. The whole nation will hold its breath with faces painted in tricolour. Once again, Jonas Valančiūnas, Domantas Sabonis and their teammates will try to surpass everybody’s expectations and surprise the world.
‘We have great examples and we follow in their footsteps,’ says Indiana Pacers big man Domantas Sabonis, son of Arvydas Sabonis. ‘We want to maintain traditions and pass them on to our future generations. We always were a team. That’s why Lithuania was always successful in basketball.’
Just like a team, together we are strong.
By Donatas Urbonas
Photo by Alfredas Pliadis