Followers of this site are well aware that, after the American Del Harris left the helm of the Chinese Men’s National Team, Jonas Kazlauskas took over. Kazlauskas is a legend in the tiny Baltic nation of Lithuania, that tiny former ward of the Soviet Union that is geo-politically insignificant but fascinating in one respect. Though a struggling nation of fewer than three million, sending migrant labourers all over Europe, Lithuania is a hoops hotbed. (Some credit Arvydas Sabonis. Do you remember him?) It has one resource that a world powerhouse like China can envy from afar: Lithuania exports astounding levels and amounts of basketball talent.
Perhaps you remember the Lithuania national side playing in the 1992 Olympics. Four of their stars, including the magnificent Arvydas Sabonis, had played for the Soviet Union when they won gold in ’88 in Seoul, the last time the Americans were content to send a college all-star team. The U.S.A. “Dream Team” of NBA pros dominated in ’92 in Barcelona, winning their preliminary games by an average of over 40 points. The Dreamers were a huge story (and marketing campaign), but even occasional basketball fans fell in love with Lithuania that summer. The team had talent, but no money from home. Their warmups were outrageous tie-dyed duds designed by an American artist; legendary stoner band the Grateful Dead were said to have donated, too. They looked like charity cases or hipsters lost in time, but “the other Dream Team” played with flair and real joy. The Yanks drilled them by 51 in the semifinal, but their real Olympic moment followed: in the bronze medal game, Lithuania defeated the “Unified Team”, the leftovers of their former Soviet masters, and all was right in Lietuva for a golden time.
Now, you may know about Kazlauskas, Sabonis, the Houston Rockets Donatas Motiejunas, or any number of other Lithuanian ballers past or present. Ignas Vycas isn’t somebody you should know, particularly. He’s not a pro-level talent, but he is young and Lithuanian and left-handed, living in Dalian, and a major upgrade in my middle-aged hoops adventures. He’s too young for the job, but he’s my new best basketball friend.
When I met Ignas and found where he was from, I wasn’t surprised that he knew his way around a basketball court. He’s no Jonas Valanciunas, but he’s a fan of his 21-year-old countryman, the future hope of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors. (Ignas says he’s gonna be a star, and he was dominant at times in the European championships, where their silver medal was a stark contrast to China’s dispiriting fifth-place showing in the Asian tournament.) We met two sunny Sundays ago at my favourite outdoor basketball courts, about a 15-minute jog from our apartments at the Beimen of the neighbouring university. I’d have noticed a 6’1” white guy with his shirt off – few Chinese players go “skins”, even on blazing days – even if he didn’t have casual ballhandling ease, game-hard abdominals and a funky-but-effective jumpshot. He stood out. We met. We talked. He was friendly and encouraging with my 13-year-old Son the Fourth, so he got bonus points right away. His English was great, and we talked hoops for half an hour, which is an oasis of pleasure for this old coach and his chronic thirst for sporting conversations, especially of the face-to-face, ball-in-hand sort.
So here’s this 22-year-old kid, not making millions in downtown Toronto but rather fresh off graduation from an English university, working in a Chinese financial management company and struggling to learn Mandarin. Brave man!
Although there was a pretty young friend who dragged him away from last weekend’s “Beimen Olympics” to go sing Karaoke — when in China! — he doesn’t have many friends here and his basketball has been, as mine have so often been for me, a fine companion in his solitude, a soothing and rejuvenating filler of long ex-pat hours.
Because that particular post-noon was a hot one, he had a basket to himself, which I suspect is what he prefers. That’s a rare phenomenon on a Chinese outdoor court. I’ve mainly given up on the idea of going out to get some jumpshots off, or to try to rediscover my handles. (My love handles are much easier to find.) Usually there are too many guys, and a ball at a basket is community property.
This past weekend, though, Fourth and I showed up a little later. Ignas was in the mix in the ‘A’ games at Beimen, but he was playing with three guys who didn’t belong on that court. Though he knows how to play, and laments the lack of passing in typical Chinese half-court 4 on 4, winners stay, he was willingly but hopelessly going 1-on-everybody, and losing, and waiting for ‘next’. I’d played a bit the day before, too, so I wasn’t planning on exerting myself much. After I sauntered through one game with Son 4 at the ‘C’ (or maybe ‘D’ level) court – we lost, but it was fun to see him fire all four of our hoops – Ignas yelled at me.
His mates had left the ‘A’ court, finally. Somehow the guys on the pre-stacked teams were persuaded to draft some new sides, and Ignas grabbed me and two Masters students from Urumqi, ethnic Kazhaks with some game. Thus ensued a too-long afternoon for me and my blisters and my aching thighs, but it was competitive and engaging and helped Ignas to know some of the guys a bit better. I did a little of my usual carping about the touch fouls that Chinese guys call when they miss a shot – I speak an occasionally comprehensible mix of histrionic gestures and fairly hilarious Hanyu – but avoided anger and brought some lightness and laughs to a damned competitive series of matches, surrounded on three sides by 50 or 60 watchers. We eventually found a team-defence harmony that could at least slow down the best guy who plays at Beimen, a strong 6’3” shooter with a surprisingly sophisticated game, inside and out. (I’d like to know how he learned the game, and whether he’s the unusual guy who has actually played on a team before.) He even passed pretty effectively when he found his 1-on-1 moves turning into 1-on-3.
I’m glad to know Ignas. The evening after was a vaguely euphoric one. I had a rare and sweet old taste of the athletic afterglow: a body well used, and a competitive spirit beneficently stoked. I was happy, and basketball had taken me there. The next day, though, I had no brain, and my lower body was in full-on apolitical protest. Curse you, Iggy. Nope. That’s not right. I couldn’t do that if I wanted to, but it might be helpful, when frisky young men lure me into their games, to remember how to get out. But when some jumpers are falling, and clever passes are finding the right hands, and defending feels like fun? (I even blocked a shot.) It’s pretty hard to find an exit ramp on that asphalt freeway. This week, I catch myself day-dreaming forward to next Sunday at Beimen. I speculate about whether my abs and my cross-over could be rediscovered at this late date. Uh-oh.
It was a proud, post-basketball glow for Ignas, too. Live-streaming the games from Europe had proved to be too frustrating, and he does have a job. But when the Green (and gold) Giants powered and shot their way to a chance to win their fourth European championship, he was grateful, though far from dead. I didn’t try to watch either, despite the Canadian connections; their tournament all-star Linas Kleiza used to be a Raptor, too. I did get up at the crack of nine to find out what happened.
The opponent was France, and you might have heard that Tony Parker happened. He only scored 12 in the final, but was the MVP of the competition as France won its first-ever European championship with an 80-66 win over the Little Country That Could. (And apparently still Can.) Kleiza makes his hooping money these days in Istanbul rather than the NBA, but he, rather than the Toronto Raptors’ Next Big Thing, Jonas Valanciunas, was the main man for Lithuania. With the Panagiotis Giannakis Era of Chinese basketball off to such a humiliating start – my goodness, Chinese basketball types are nearly as bad as Canadian hockey fanatics, except that Canuck Puckheads at least have a history of excellence! – I can’t help but wonder whether he’s on the hotseat already. And who coached the Lithuanians in Europe. Ah, Jonas Kazlauskas. Maybe the Lithuanians are coming…
One veteran member of the Letuvia squad was moving in his invocation of “this generation”, their pride in being worthy heirs to their country’s great basketball tradition. Lithuania last won in 2003, but flamed out badly on home soil in 2011, and no doubt took some heavy criticism from fans expecting the next Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis to lead the green and gold. Though I love Tony Parker and other choses francaises, I couldn’t help pulling for my friend Ignas’s home squad. Fun Fact: Lithuania’s first two European championships were in 1937 and 1939, which answered my question to Ignas about whether all this excellence came from the the Sabonis era, though no doubt his greatness raised the game there to new heights (pun intended). Not-So-Fun Fact: Lithuania’s championship drought from ’39 to ’03, of course, is mainly explained by its having been absorbed by the Soviet Union in the wake of the Second World War, and its greatest sportsmen competing in red rather than green. Once they could again compete for Lithuania, Sabonis was an injury-wracked shadow of himself, though Marciulionis was the 1995 EuroBasket MVP in Lithuania’s silver medal run.
Gotta love the little guy! Maybe that underdog mentality comes from being Canadian, and loving hockey in part because it’s the one area where we regularly thump the Americans. Or maybe it comes from being a stocky, short-armed 5’10” in a game for beanpoles. I also know that for China to lose to Chinese Taipei must have been painful (though thrilling for the little brother!), and to have mouses like Jordan and the Philippines (to say nothing of three-time champion Iran) roar more loudly than the Big Tiger has to hurt. Still, I love the Lithuanian example and, as a long-time coach in tiny Canadian towns, I would like to understand it better, and now I have young Mr. Vycas as a resource. Maybe Chinese basketball authorities will want to learn from Letuvia, too, or from the Middle Kingdom’s tiny neighbouring rivals, but I doubt it.
James Howden is a Canadian educator, writer and worn-out hoops warrior who lives in Dalian, Liaoning province. He writes about hoops alongside other essays on life in China, good books, and other things that come to his mind at www.JamesHowden.com.