Last Tuesday in the 2010 FIBA World Championship, Team Lithuania completed a huge comeback to defeat the heavily-favored Spain 76-73 – just another win on the way to the tournament round, albeit an exceedingly exciting one, right? Wrong.
BallinEurope’s man in Lithuania, known in this space since last year’s LKL championship series insanity as Y., states that the Spain game meant a heck of a lot more for his country, the basketball-maddest in Europe if not the world. For Y. and his countrymen going into an elimination game with Argentina tonight, this edition of Team Lithuania is already heroic.
“Basketball is just a game, after all” – I remember reading this in Lithuanian media once. And I’m always thinking about it, about how that phrase really fits in our country.
In places other than Kaunas games are played in half-empty arenas, LKL mid-level games get astonishing lows in TV ratings, and our top players such as Šarūnas Jasikevičius more often opted out to rest in the summer rather than play for our National Team while, in comparison, other top teams like Spain always enjoy most of their roster intact.
“True,” I thought once, “we are not as mad about basketball as we would like to be.”
Our teams also often fail to qualify as having a “winning mentality,” only having won five top national team or club competitions since independence in 1990, despite doing consistently well in the game, which usually makes our expectations higher than they should be. Hence, our victories often feel less joyful than they should and our losses, such as in Eurobasket 2009, feel much worse.
But sometimes, now and then, there is a game which just makes me and everyone else realise how much we *really* love this game.
One of these games was – you guessed right – Lithuania’s Group D matchup against defending champion Spain last week. As an underdog, to be blown out by zillion points in most games even with our stars, everyone’s most optimistic expectation here was nothing more than a slim loss, despite having that dream of victory deep in our hearts. It might seem a late thing to write about once again, but I just have a feeling its importance is so huge that I could not miss the opportunity to say what I want.
And there we were, with Lithuania down 18, it felt just as always: “Same thing once again.” But our national team had other ideas in mind.
It took much more than just good basketball, it needed these few rare plays that stay in memories for decades – Jonas Mačiulis blowing past Rudy Fernandez twice in a row, Mantas Kalnietis hitting a game-tying three with 80 seconds to go, and in the last minute Linas Kleiza taking Lithuania for the first lead of the game since the first quarter.
For Spain, it was just a loss in group play. It was much more for Lithuania: People were exultant in the streets, waving dozens of national flags, girls were crying like it was 2003 once again.
Emotionally, the win against Spain was one of the biggest Lithuanian victories ever. And I felt afterwards that if a sport can touch hearts of so many (not just many, but most of the country!) people at once, it is more than just a game. For us, at least.
Now we head to quarterfinals against Argentina. And I know already that, whatever the outcome, everyone will love this national team for the emotions it has already brought and for the way it has played.
Even if Lithuania doesn’t win this World Championship, they will be champions in our hearts, at least.
Thank You, Lithuania.