Top image: Credit Michelle La Grue Photography
The Lithuanian community in Ireland is hoping for two causes for celebration on Sunday as Leixlip Zalgiris hope its fourth time lucky while Ieva Bagdanavičienė will play a big role for Killester.
A former flatmate of mine once described Lithuania as the “Uruguay of basketball” referring to how the South American nation far outperforms its size in terms of the amount of top tier football talent it produces.
Anyone with even a passing interest in the sport knows of the importance of basketball in Lithuania and, indeed, of how Lithuanians around the world have aided the sport wherever they went. Normally however it’s the men’s version of the sport when we talk about it but Ieva Bagdanavičienė, from Šiauliai, is already making an impact on the women’s game in Ireland during her first season with Killester.
Having played in her home nation, Belgium, Germany, and Romania, Bagdanavičienė originally wanted to start playing in Ireland in the summer of 2020.
“My husband was offered a job in January, before the pandemic. I was playing in Lithuania so I stayed and started looking in Ireland around June. I looked in Ireland but didn’t get any offers so I went to Germany to play,” Bagdanavičienė told BallinEurope.
“After that, we decided we wanted kids so I came to Dublin in March of 2021. I told my agent after I had my baby that I wanted to start playing again. He knew a former coach at Killester and that’s how I ended up there.”
Having known little of the club before, Bagdanavičienė is enjoying her experience with the north Dublin city side.
“I like the girls a lot. They’re so supportive. I couldn’t imagine a better place to recover after pregnancy. There’s no pressure or high expectations. It’s really nice and cosy here,” she said.
That being said, there have been some elements she’s had to get used to. Not least, just how fast we speak here.
“It was really difficult when I first got here. I was OK* with English but I couldn’t understand because people were talking so fast. I’d need them to repeat a lot or talk slower to me until I got used to it.”
*Bagdanavičienė is being modest when saying she’s only OK, her English is excellent.
As she continues to adjust to life in Ireland, she is still getting to know the local Lithuanian community, Bagdanavičienė is glad that she’s working in a job that allows her to be close to her youngster and has the time to keep playing at the top level.
“I’m really busy with the baby, work, and basketball. I’m working as a childminder, it’s handy because I can take my little one with me. It’s handy while she’s not going to school. When she starts, I’ll see what I do then.”
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While there is a women’s EuroBasket title in Lithuania’s history, the women’s side of the game remains in the shadow of the men back in Bagdanavičienė’s homeland.
“It’s 100 per cent men’s basketball, people aren’t as interested in women’s basketball. I was surprised by how much interest there was in Ireland. Men’s basketball is like a second religion in Lithuania,” she said.
“It’s always been that way but there have been a lot of changes in Lithuanian basketball recently and hopefully it will get better.”
Bagdanavičienė is playing in the women’s cup final on Sunday evening, where her Killester side takes on their rivals from across the city, Trinity Meteors.
“There’s only one hope, to win. It doesn’t matter if it’s a beautiful game or ugly game. It’s going to be tough but, in the end, it doesn’t matter so long as the score is with our side I’m happy.”
While Bagdanavičienė and Killester close Sunday in Tallaght, Eugenijus Pocius and Leixlip Zalgiris will play the opener that morning at 10am local time. The club is a focal point for Ireland’s Lithuanian community, which was measured at 36,552 people in 2016 but is certainly a few thousand higher now, and is in the Intermediate final for the fourth time.
The competition is the top level for clubs playing outside of the top tier system in Ireland (top two tiers) and Pocius is hoping that his side can finally win a trophy that has long eluded his side. With players from Kaunas, Vilnius, and Klaipeda among others.
Pocius, the club chairperson, is hopeful of a strong crowd coming out despite the early start After two years without the competition due to the pandemic, he’s eager for Leixlip Zalgiris to face UCD Marian, the same side that defeated them in their last final appearance.
“It wasn’t easy for us during the pandemic because we couldn’t play. It took time for us to get everyone back together. Last season was difficult but we still came second in the Dublin league,”
“It’s a huge game for us on Sunday. The group of guys that we have, some have been together for over 10 years and we’ve never won anything this big. It would be a huge achievement. I’ve met so many people over the past two weeks who are wishing us luck.”
The club has two sides in the Dublin league and the first team is in a good position across all competitions at present. Pocius wants his side to conquer everything at that level before considering a move up to national league level.
“We need money and sponsorship to make the step up, it’s not cheap but we have considered it. As the community grows it will help. It’s never too late to make that jump but we want to win everything in Dublin before we do it, then it would be a step forward,” he said.
Pocius only recently learned about Bagdanavičienė’s involvement with Killester but he’s seen the impact of fellow Lithuanians on Irish basketball.
“I only just found out about her playing with Killester, it was nice to hear. When we played Neptune in Cork in the semi-final, I found out they also had four or five guys on the team. It’s all over Ireland. I only realised when I checked the scoresheet.”
Leixlip Zalgiris play UCD Marian in the men’s intermediate cup final at 10.00 Irish time/12.00 Lithuanian time on Sunday, while Bagdanavičienė and Killester play Trinity Meteors at 17.30 Irish time/19.30 Lithuanian time the same day. Both games are on BasketballIreland.tv and the Killester vs Meteors game is being broadcast by TG4.