There’s nothing so bizarre – and often barely newsworthy – about the firing of a head coach, even one leading a successful team. Even one who is replacing a legend who was also fired in the same season.
But when a coach is fired in the middle of a national championship series, that’s already nearing on lunacy.
And when that coach was actually your third head coach *in the current season*, well, that there should be cause to start getting out the straitjacket.
And when that coach is fired from one of the greatest teams in the basketball-maddest country in Europe, well then you get a situation which has been described as “destroying Lithuania’s national pride.”
That’s what’s happening in Žalgiris Kaunas, literally right now, as the team’s head coach Darius Maskoliunas was fired just about five hours ago while his team is down 2-1 in a best-of-seven-game series to rival powerhouse Lietuvos Rytas.
The timeline of key events leading up to Maskoliunas’ firing goes something like this.
• May 2009. One Russian/Lithuanian businessman named Vladimir Nikolayevich Romanov takes over majority ownership of Žalgiris, which is experiencing serious financial difficulties. He is portrayed in the media as a savior of the club, an existence without which Romanov can reportedly “not imagine.” And if that name sounds familiar to soccer fans, well, there’s a reason for that. Much more on this guy soon.
• December 2009. Gintaras Krapikas is fired and/or resigns as head coach, citing the classic irreconcilable differences, and is replaced by former Team Lithuania coach Ramunas Butautas.
• February 2010. Butautas is fired as head coach, despite Žalgiris’ top spot on the Lithuanian League (LKL) table and having led his team to two key wins in Euroleague play and thus advancing the green-and-white to the Top 16. He is replaced by assistant coach Darius Maskoliunas, who was said to have been in the running for the “top” job “way back” when Krapikas was fired.
• Monday. Rumors and whispers begin leading up to game three of the LKL finals. Local media begins reporting a sudden “crisis” in Žalgiris. Some say Maskoliunas may be fired at the end of the season; some say Romanov is ready to pull the trigger once again. Former Eisbären Bremerhaven coach Sarunas Sakalauskas’ name is mentioned. Maskoliunas offers no comment.
• Monday night. Lietuvos Rytas edges Žalgiris, 83-81, after leading by 20 at halftime, to take a 2-1 lead in the series.
• In the post-game, Marcus Brown, Dainius Salenga, and Martynas Pocius refuse to speak to media members. Mantas Kalnietis offers no comment on the still vague “crisis” enveloping the team behind the scenes, but does talk about the game.
• Tuesday, approximately 4pm. Maskoliunas isn’t allowed into his own team’s evening practice. Word leaks soon thereafter that Maskoliunas has indeed been fired.
• Tuesday, app. 5pm. Confirmation: Maskoliunas is out. Incredibly, the club states that Maskoliunas has been found not to be providing his best effort to Žalgiris and thus is in breach of contract.
Former assistant coach Gvidonas Markevicius is mentioned. When asked for a comment, Salenga says, “Today I’m not commenting on anything. Do you want me to get a LTL 50,000 [€14,500/$18,700] fine?”
Lithuania-based Basket News at this time also reports that the players have considered protesting by not playing the next game, but (clearly correctly) fear they wouldn’t be paid back due wages in such a scenario.
• Tuesday, app. 5.15pm. Gvidonas Markevičius has reportedly refused to take over as head coach and, as unbelievable as it sounds, player Marcus Brown is now considered a “front”-runner for the position for the remaining title-deciding games.
• Thursday, game four tips off.
Now this hiring-firing-hiring-firing could very well be simply more wacky machinations of supermegarich dude: Romanov has had experience in sport before. As the owner of Lithuanian football club FBK Kaunas, Romanov managed to get a team that had won eight Lithuanian titles in nine years – and as recently as August 2008 had defeated Rangers in Champions League play – relegated to Lithuania’s third division for political reasons.
In Scotland, Hearts owner Romanov became infamous for firing club manager George Burley (who’d been hired at the start of the season) after getting the team off to a ridiculous 8-0-2 start in October 2005, reportedly “just hours before their Premier League match with Dunfermline Athletic.”
(Incidentally, Romanov’s seeming insanity and the Burley firing are covered peripherally in Crime: A Novel, a recent work from the amazing Irvine Welsh, the third-greatest living English-language writer behind Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon. Tangent complete.)
Some folks, however, see something nefarious in this particular firing. I mean, aside from the sheer surreality of firing *anyone* in the midst of a championship series, of course.
BallinEurope was turned on to the story (and the Twitter feeds) by a Lithuanian sportswriter whom we’ll call Y. The “Y” doesn’t stand for any particular Lithuanian name, but rather “Y” as in “Why? Why?!?!?!?!?”
Y. would go so far as to speculate that this “is the biggest proof so far that the outcome of the finals is decided. And if this can be proven, [there will be] no Euroleague for either Lithuanian team [and] years of suspensions.”
A certain suspicion has to be on the mind of every Lithuanian basketball fan (which is to say the great majority of the country), after all, and that is this. If Žalgiris loses the LKL championship, they lose the LKL championship. If Lietuvos Rytas loses the LKL championship, they lose the automatic Euroleague bid granted the Lithuanian champion – the bid Kaunas is already guaranteed.
So, when asked whether the coach of Zalgiris had made an agreement with Rytas without behind management’s back, Y. put forth a theory reckoning that owner of Romanov made some sort of deal with L. Rytas owner Gedvydas Vainauskas. Why would he do such a thing? Perhaps because Lietuvos Rytas is owned by the Lithuanian daily newspaper of the same name, essentially the largest (and thus most powerful) Lithuanian-language media outlet in the universe.
On his part, Y. admits that this all speculation and sounds pretty damn depressed. As well he should be. Such a crazed incident loaded with suspicion and certain-to-come accusations has got to be raising red flags all over certain international organizations. If the Euroleague front office whiffs any hint of impropriety going on to finagle a platinum-coated free pass into Euroleague contention out of the likes of LKL teams, one assumes the penalty/penalties will be harsh – oh yes, BiE’s talking suspensions. Imagine no Lithuanian team in Euroleague play for three years…
The reality is, however, that nobody knows what’s up with Žalgiris, and whether this frankly indescribable personnel shift belies anything more insidious remains to be seen.
There is, however, a game on Thursday.
How hard is it for one passionate Lithuanian writer/enthusiast? When BiE compared the situation to the reported worst excesses of Hungarian football in the 1970s, Y. skyped back with “I wish they brought communist times back in sports industry here
basketball-wise – there were no problems. You could be sure there were no such things, with exception of CSKA [which] would get some ref help. But it was everyone’s national pride and nobody had any money to lose, so players and coaches could resist.”
“Bring back the commies?”
Whoa, this could be bad.