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There is a saying that basketball is the second religion in Lithuania. With less than 3 million people, Lithuania is always among the strongest and most passionate teams in the world. Many generations and traditions have changed in Lithuania throughout the years, but love for the game of basketball has stayed the same. Here are the most important moments of Lithuanian basketball history.
Lithuania was one of the first nations to start playing basketball in Europe after it was brought to the country by Lithuanian American coaches and players. After Latvia won the first ever EuroBasket in 1935, Lithuania managed to win the second and the third one in 1937 and 1939. Only 8 teams have played in those European Championships and it was definitely not a mainstream sport as it is today, but those gold medals were still a huge achievement for such a small country. Lithuanians instantly fell in love with the game and after 80 years, this love is as strong as ever.
Pranas Lubinas was the man who popularized basketball in Lithuania in the 1930s and today he is known as the grandfather of Lithuanian basketball. Lubinas even became the MVP in 1939 EuroBasket but he couldn’t get the award because he was too tall according to the official regulations.
The 1992 Summer Olympics was extremely important to Lithuania as it was the first Olympic games for Lithuania after it regained independence from the Soviet Union. World class basketball players like Arvydas Sabonis and Šarūnas Marčiulionis could finally play under their own flag instead of representing the Soviet Union. That is why anyone who saw Lithuanian basketball team on the court could tell that it was more than just a sports game to that team – it was a way to show that Lithuania is a great and independent country after all those years of the Soviet occupation. Everyone knows that team USA was a dream team in 1992, but team Lithuania will be always remembered as the other dream team.
The climax of 1992 Olympic basketball tournament couldn’t get any better for Lithuania – it won the bronze medal after defeating its former occupants 82:78. After 50 years of occupation, it was an important payback victory which every Lithuanian is proud of even after 25 years.
Kaunas “Žalgiris” is without a doubt the most famous and successful Lithuanian basketball club ever and its clashes with Moscow Cska in the 90s attracted many people not only because of amazing quality basketball, but also because of the political flavor. Throughout the years, “Žalgiris” proved to be a top team in Europe, but no one could ever expect them to win EuroLeague, the most prestigious European club basketball tournament in the 1998-1999 season. That year Kaunas “Žagiris” showed the world that big hearts and love for the game can beat any amount of money and won the final against rich Bologna Kinder club against all odds.
In 2000, a new generation of Lithuanian basketball players, including Šarūnas Jasikevičius and Ramūnas Šiškauskas, came to the Olympics with high ambitions but no one could ever have expected this team to win against the USA with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Vince Carter and other NBA superstars. And yet, Lithuania threw one hell of a fight in the semifinals and had all the chances to upset the dream team up but came up short and lost 85-83. All Lithuanian basketball fans remember how Ramūnas Šiškauskas missed two clutch free-throws, which could have sealed the deal. Even though this was the most bitter game in Lithuanian basketball history, it is also one of the most important ones, which gave Lithuania even more strength and desire to win.
People in Lithuania had waited for this moment for 64 years and it finally happened on September 14th, 2003, when Lithuania beat Spain in the EuroBasket final and became the strongest team in Europe again. Lithuania won every single game that year and players like Šarūnas Jasikevičius, Arvydas Macijauskas, Ramūnas Šiškauskas and Saulius Štombergas became the heroes of this little nation. Everyone from the smallest kid to the old men celebrated the victory all night long and for months to come. It is hard to argue that the 2003 Lithuanian basketball team wasn’t one of the greatest basketball teams ever assembled.
Lithuanians waited for a victory against the USA for 12 years and it finally happened in the 2004 Olympics, when the Lithuania basketball team beat the USA 94-90 and showed the world that anyone can be beaten. Every fan of Lithuanian basketball watched that game at least a couple of times and would always say that Šarūnas Jasikevičius’ iconic three pointers late in the fourth quarter was the greatest thing that has ever happened to Lithuanian basketball. Sadly, Lithuania finished fourth that year after it lost the semifinal against Italy and failed to beat the USA for the second time in the same tournament in the bronze match.
Even though Lithuania has won many medals in EuroBasket and the Olympics, it somehow always failed to finish on top in the World Championships up until 2010. That year Lithuania assembled a team of young players, including Linas Kleiza and Mantas Kalnietis, and won every single game but the semifinal against the USA. No one in Lithuania expected to see a new generation of Lithuanian basketball players perform so great at such young age, so it was one of the most surprising medal wins by the Lithuanian basketball team, which reminded the world what this country was capable of on the basketball court.