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The summer that Greece became (a lot) poorer

[Edit: Šaras announcing his retirement does sound like a quite a good opportunity to share the goodness one more time. Pour yourself a glass of good wine for this one and enjoy!]

by Arkadios Chasirides / @Arkanoid13 

First of all allow me to introduce myself. I am, yet another, basketball enthusiast, not Lithuanian though but rather from the other side of Europe, Greece. You have probably heard about the rather decadent times Greece is going through. Truth is that Baltic states are not far behind Greece, economically wise.

But allow me to say that basketball-wise Greece have become much much poorer over this summer. How else can one see the loss of basketball Olympian such as Sarunas Jasikevicius?

“Meeting” Sarunas Jasikevicius was probably just a random thing for me. Being a first year student in Greece, still trying to settle and figure out some things in a foreign metropolis (Athens), in a country I moved into just days ago I was looking for things close to my heart to put my mind into. And what better than basketball?

Panathinaikos vs Maccabi Tel Aviv game is in town? With a map in my hand I set off to the “Sporting arena” (A 1500 capacity arena which Panathinaikos used for two seasons when OAKA was being renovated for 2004 Olympics). Little did I know that I would be witnessing the brilliance called Sarunas Jasikevicius or “Saras” by those who knew him better.

Truth is that I had heard about a player named Jasikevicius but never actually saw him playing (before moving to Greece I lived in a country where basketball didn’t get much attention). Anyway, Saras introduced himself to me (and the rest of fans in the packed arena) not very politely to say the least. How else can one perceive it when a stranger comes into your own “house” and literally destroys you scoring 30 points (with 7/10 for three) and handing out four assists? That night the return to home on train was a painful and nostalgic one and random thoughts like “Why Panathinaikos can’t spend the money Maccabi spends” (Panathinaikos budget during those years was rather poor by their standards) or “Why can’t Panathinaikos sign players like that Lithuanian guy, obviously referring to Jasikevicius” went through my mind.

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August 17th, 2007. The day that Jasikevicius could have been Red

Over the next two seasons many more basketball fans throughout Europe learnt about Jasikevicius. With three (in a row) Euroleague titles in his pocket Saras decided to take the next step and move to the other side of the Atlantic. Never being into NBA really I kind of lost track of him until the glorious summer of 2007.

Olympiacos’ newly arrived billionaire owners are looking in the market to bring in stars and Olympiacos-affiliated sports newspaper “Protathlitis” is almost sure that Jasikevicius has agreed terms with the Reds and will be their player claiming that the player has already signed a pre-agreement with Olympiacos and his signing will be announced even during the day.

Confident that Saras will become “Red” Olympiacos fans go as far as going to the airport to welcome Jasikevicius (who arrived to Athens with Lithuania NT to play in the annual Acropolis Cup) and put an Olympiacos scarf around his neck, which Jasikevicius was quick to throw on the floor and become an overnight sensation for Panatihnaikos fans, giving hints on what was about to happen.

Saras not too keen on Olympiacos

Saras not too keen on Olympiacos

And then the total overturn. Panathinaikos moving under strict secrecy, like a serious club does, sends its General Manager to Madrid where Jasikevicius is with Lithuania NT and in a matter of hours convinces him to sign for Panathinaikos.

[As a counterblow Olympiacos signed Milos Tedosic who was in Panathinaikos’ radar.]

Over-night Jasikevicus becomes the most high-paid professional athlete in the history of modern Greek state earning more than Dominique Wilkins, Rivaldo, Dino Radja, Dejan Bodiroga and Arvydas Macijauskas.

On September 27th, 2007 Sarunas Jasikevicius is planned to arrive in Athens. In the days prior Panathinaikos has repeated meetings with Police and counter-terrorist unit to ensure the safe and sound arrival of the Lithuanian super-star.

At the same day frenzy overpowers Greek sports forums where Green fans celebrate the arrival of Jasikevicius while some Lithuanians see this as an opportunity to make an extra buck with a Lithuanian user posting a legendray post “Hey PAO fans ! Sarunas original autograph for sale ! Offer your price *********@one.lt” with a Greek responding with: “Keep it mate. It’s priceless!”

Panathinaikos long-living president Pavlos Giannakopoulos tells the media: “Jasikevicius’ signing is on par with the signing of Dominique Wilkins (Dream Team II captain, member of NBA Hall of Fame, 1996 Final Four MVP). Jasikevicius will earn what he deserves based on his value and personality. We shall spare no expense to make Panathinaikos stronger.”

But the real action is at Athens Internaitonal Airport where 2000 ecstatic Panathinaikos fans give Jasikevicius the welcome of his life.

Midas of European basketball returns home

Midas of European basketball returns home

Next day even the football-oriented sports newspapers of Greece who rarely talk about basketball, have no option but to talk about the talk-of-nation of those days. Sarunas Jasikevicius will be playing in Greece!

That’s was it. Panathinaikos season tickets sales sky-rocket, fans in international basketball forums speak about a European dream team and some even go as far as dreaming a triple-crown without a

You better believe it...

You better believe it…

single defeat during the entire season. Of course the reality was different as Panathinaikos failed miserably in Euroleague, Jasikevicius was never a starter and his front line team mates did not comprehend his way of thinking, to say the least, as many of his passes landed on their heads.

In one such occasion I had the pleasure (?) to closely witness a furious Jasikevicius heading to sit on the bench on his own initiative and swearing, taking off his wristband, kicking chairs and bottles and more after another of his great-inspiration passes landed on the head of Andrija Zizic. Team captain and veteran Fragiskos Alvertis and coach Zeljko Obradovic both rushed to him trying to calm him down, while Zizic (unofficially) became history for Panathinaikos after that incident.

The next season was one of two best seasons for Panathinaikos, but with a much higher sense of satisfaction for both the team and the fans. The reason was simple. Although Panathinaikos has already won a triple crown just two years ago, this one was accomplished over arch rivals Olympiacos. The Greens beat the Reds in Greek A1 and Greek Cup finals and knocked them out in the Euroleague Final-Four in Berlin.

Talking about Berlin Final Four, it was probably the best trip-experience of my life and of course Jasikevicius had a lot to do with it as he was the true MVP of the tournament, never mind the narrow-mindness of Greek reporters who voted for Vasilis Spanoulis. Don’t believe me?

[Edit: The video was removed from Youtube, you’ll have to trust Arkadios on this one]

In the summer of 2009 after a lot of dangles Panathinaikos and Jasikevicius agree to continue together for another season, after Saras accepts a generous salary cut. The reason was simply. Love for Panathinaikos, Athens, the good life and of course titles. Humourously dismissing Kleiza’s hopes for titles when arriving to play for rivals Olympiacos Saras claims: “The only sport that Linas can beat me at is tennis.”

Not the best season personally for the Lithuanian mega-star but when he was needed the most, in Greek A1 finals, he stepped up and led the Greens to their 12th title in the past 13 years.

Unfortunately all good things come to an end and coach Zeljko Obradovic made up his mind: Jasikevicius is no longer needed by Panathinaikos. Just like that. Like everything revolving around professional sports and capitalism. Realism and cynicism in all their glory. No romance whatsoever, no feelings, no attachment. And most important of all, no divinely inspired passes anymore.

I will borrow some quotes from a Panathinaikos fan basketball blog in a farewell article (which has attracted 409 comments so far with the vast majority calling for Obradovic to reconsider):

“We refuse to believe it, we do not comprehend it. We adore Saras not only for his basketball skills, but for his passion, his aura, his endless bitching to the refs. Sarunas is the necessarry and the unanticipated part of the overly mechanised Panathinaikos engine.

Because we know that even if his bad days in the court he did everything from his heart and his instinct. Same instinct that turned him into what he is. But when he is on a good day, Oh boy! Even the last cell of your body learns what “good basketball” is. You do not care if your opponents scores, you just wish they do it even faster, so Saras takes the ball in his hands.

Saras is not yet another player, he is a basketball wonder. I refuse to accept the fact that I won’t be seeing Saras wearing the green uniform anymore, playing with his lucky ball on the bench during the games.”

Anyway, back to us: I firmly believe that players and personalities such as Jaskevicius form and shape basketball cultures and make teams as a whole (results, organisation, fame, fans) much better and help their fulfillment in history and destiny.

Having watched giants of basketball such as Dominique Wilkins, Dino Radja, Nikos Galis, Dejan Bodiroga, Ramunas Siskauskas, Dimitris Diamantidis and many more I can say this: Sarunas Jasikevicius: Only YOU! Sarunas Jasikevicius, thanks for everything that you have offered us. Thanks for the past three years, I can bravely claim these were the best times of Panathinaikos. You will have an eternal friend and comrade at the face of every single Panathinaikos and basketball fan.

As a closing I chose the following videos which touch me every single time I watch them. Never forgotten, always in our minds Saras! Salute!

Omar Samhan: “Keep hating”

One of the most notable players for St. Mary’s in the past couple of years, Omar Samhan, has had a rough start of his pro career with plenty of challenges throughout the big man’s first year in Lithuania, where he represented the country’s champions Zalgiris.

The bubbly personality that Samhan is didn’t seem to have taken a hit mentally despite barely getting any playing time and continuously being ridiculed by some fans. The always-upbeat player just kept on smiling and living what he called a dream.

Apparently, living a dream included crashing three cars, wearing shorts in the cold Lithuanian winter and enjoying the night life of Kaunas quite often. Well, at least the last one is understandable.

Although the good-timer was truly having a good time in Kaunas, the club officials weren’t as happy. They had agreed that the player would arrive early for the new season and start working out with the team’s youngsters.

However, the promise was forgotten and the player postponed his trip to Lithuania from the beginning of July to early August and instead of trying to bounce back from a very poor season was having fun in the other side of the pond.

The decision to go solo on his decision might end up costing Samhan a roster spot in Zalgiris for next season, as the club’s management is considering sending the 22-year-old American to KK Kaunas, basically, a farm-team for Zalgiris.

The reaction from the club’s fans has been interesting, as fans of Zalgiris let Samhan know that they aren’t too pleased with how the big man behaved.

That’s a lesson for you – don’t add people you don’t know on facebook. Anyway, I love the way Samhan reacted by using his go-to move: a huge smile and just a genuine laugh. He just doesn‘t give a damn, does he?

Experts on Jonas Valanciunas

You know what? Jonas Valanciunas is kind of amazing – 26 points and 11 rebounds in his first game representing Lithuania internationally at senior level. Below are a couple comments from some Lithuanian basketball experts.

Steponas Kairys (basketball agent): “He’s a player of a special talent, but there are some worrying things. First of all, I don’t understand why coaches that are working with him haven’t taught Jonas to use his body in the post. He does everything else very well, but just doesn’t have the know-how of using his body to fight for position in the paint – both offensively and defensively. I can’t get my head round why a player of such talent hasn’t been taught this.”

Sergejus Jovaisa (ex-player, coach): “Let’s just wish he keeps playing like this. He has played a single good game so far and not against the best opponent. That doesn’t take anything away from Valanciunas’ performance. I think Valanciunas should make the final roster [for EuroBasket]. If he wouldn’t, the whole Lithuania would rebel against [coach] Kemzura. Wherever one looks, Valanciunas looks great. He should find a spot in this team.”

Sabas for President

KAUNAS – The legendary Lithuanian center Arvydas Sabonis has decided to put his name forward as a candidate in the Lithuanian Basketball Federation (LKF) presidential elections. The best Lithuanian player of all times will be trying to help the country’s basketball from another angle.

The news didn’t come straight out of the blue, as there had been many speculations about the topic. You could start with Sabonis being the official ambassador of EuroBasket 2011 and end with Vladas Garastas, the current President of the Federation, expressing his view that Sabas would be a perfect fit.

“I’m going to offer Sabonis to replace me. I think his answer should be positive and everything will be alright,” Garastas, who is known to speak what’s on his mind, said already a couple of months ago.

It seems that Sabonis did need some convincing from his former coach, but the big man had been coming into the public eye more and more recently anyway. Quite unlike the quiet and unnoticeable Sabonis, who seemed to be rather disconnected from the country’s basketball life the past couple of years.

“It’s a pretty bold move. A decision like this was a nice surprise for our generation,” another legendary Lithuanian player Sarunas Marciulionis, said, adding that a tough road awaits Sabonis, with whom Marciulionis has achieved many victories together.

It will indeed be different for Sabonis. Although the most known man in Lithuania has already been living between Kaunas and Malaga, where his family has settled, the new post would mean more time away from his wife and kids.

Having put his name in the kettle, Sabonis explained that the most important thing for him is creating the best opportunities for developing the country’s youth.

“We need to give more attention to the coaches.  No one can work properly with the money coaches are getting now. Many of our specialists leave abroad. From my own experience I know, that soon we won’t have anyone to develop or youngsters,” said Sabonis, the only candidate, who has officially declared himself for the elections.

It might very well be that the legend will remain the only candidate in the race, but even if that wasn’t the case, the outcome is pretty clear anyway, as no one can even come close to matching the authority of Arvydas Sabonis, a man who has the greatest respect from people all over Lithuania.

Olympiacos lure Gecevicius to Greece

VILNIUS – After four seasons at Lietuvos Rytas, the 23-year-old Lithuanian guard Martynas Gecevicius will be moving to Piraeus. It was announced that Olympiacos bought out the remaining year of the sharpshooter’s deal with the club from the Lithuanian capital for €250,000, a price-tag named in the player’s contract.

Although it was always likely that Lietuvos Rytas would try to get something out of losing Gecevicius rather than just allow the contract to run out, multiple reports had suggested that Lithuanian starlet was close to extending the contract, which would have delayed the player’s departure until after the upcoming season ended.

However, the player decided not to stay in his hometown Vilnius and chose Olympiacos, a team that started a rebuilding process, but, according to Gecevicius, will be a big step forward in the player’s career.

“The budget won’t be as big as it used to be, but the club isn’t bankrupt either. They’ve got money. It’s a great team and it’s a great chance for me,” said the player, who was the key player for Lietuvos Rytas the last two seasons.

Gecevicius had the second successful season in a row and proved himself as one of the most deadly shooters in Europe. The guard averaged 12.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game in Euroleague for Lietuvos Rytas, who were a win away from reaching the playoffs.

It is still a while before the talented player will need to start worrying about his new role in Piraeus, as Gecevicius is now working out with the Lithuanian national team, which still hasn’t finished the selection process for EuroBasket 2011, which the country is hosting.

The final pre-draft breakdown: Valanciunas and Motiejunas

Although most of Lithuania will be long asleep, many of the country’s die-hard basketball fans will bear the consequences of not enough sleep on the night of the NBA Draft. It will be 02:00 in the morning in the small Baltic state when the draft tips-off and no TV station will be broadcasting the event, but it will still draw a huge following almost 7000 kilometers away from the Prudential Center in Newark, where the draft will be held.

A large number of devoted Lithuanian basketball fans will be glued to their computers following what could be the best pair of Lithuanian players – Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas – going in the same year’s draft for a long while. The fact of the matter is that the Lithuanian impact on the NBA has bubbled out during the past years with Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ best years long past, Linas Kleiza not fulfilling fan expectations in Toronto and Darius Songaila – yes, he still was in the league last season – had a smaller role for Philadelphia 76ers than the team’s janitor. The two talented youngsters have the chance to make the league important back home in Lithuania again.

What is indeed amazing is that two players from a small nation with a population of just over three million could very well be looking at having both of the players drafted in the lottery. There are no questions about Jonas Valanciunas, but Donatas Motiejunas’ stock has been on the slide, once again, when it matters the most. The crafty Lithuanian decided to pull out of the draft last year feeling that the chances of being selected higher were better this year. However, it wasn’t the case, as Motiejunas wasn’t even among the 14 players invited to the Draft Green Room and will have to watch the draft as a regular spectator in Chicago, where his agent Herb Rudoy is based.

With a successful season in Euroleague under his belt, Valanciunas took away Motiejunas’ title as Lithuania’s next-big-thing and didn’t look back. What has been a huge mistake by many people, who haven’t actually seen both players in person, is the fact that they tended to look at them as players from the same mold. The last statement couldn’t be more wrong, as you literally couldn’t find two more contrasting big men in the entire draft.

There probably isn’t a craftier big man than Motiejunas – or as Italians call him, Moti – in this draft. Watching the lanky power forward on offense is a treat – a guy that big with such good ball-handling, court-vision and passing skills is very rare. In the eyes of many Americans, Motiejunas would define a stereotypical European big man, who is soft, doesn’t like to play defense and relies on his outside game much more than actually playing in the post.

The most worrying thing for Motiejunas, was the mindset and work ethic problems, even lack of desire and passion for the game of basketball, which was pointed out by many experts both in Lithuania and Italy, where he has spent the two last years. From early age, the power forward was abundantly superior to his opposition and relied on talent opposed to hard work to achieve goals. In fact, you couldn’t blame him much, as everything indeed seemed to be going very well until, of course, he met bigger and stronger guys after the move to the Benetton Treviso in the Italian Serie A. You could put all of these Motiejunas’ flaws and transfer them letter-by-letter to the column with Valanciunas’ advantages. They are that different.

Picking up Valanciunas in the draft wouldn’t hurt any team. And not only because he’s hard-working effort guy, but also because the 19-year-old –as his game is now – doesn’t require many touches to be efficient. As bad, as his screens are now – they will definitely improve when his frame fills out – he sets them willingly and his quickness is enough to make Jonas a successful pick-n-roll player. Rebounding has always been one of the stronger parts of Valanciunas’ game and leading the Euroleague in Total Rebounding Percentage at 22.7%, which is comparable to Kevin Love’s 23.4% in the NBA, should end any doubts there. Most of Valanciunas’ points will come after second-chance opportunities or pick-n-rolls, but something he has been working with his coaches in Vilnius was his back-to-the-basket game, which still needs lots and lots of polishing.

The biggest worry for Valanciunas comes off the court and doesn’t actually depend on the player himself. It’s Valanciunas’ buyout – or lack of it ­– that has been causing headaches for NBA teams and the players’ agent, who has been trying to negotiate the terms of a buyout with his current team Lietuvos Rytas. From the looks of it, it’s not likely that the actual buyout would be less than $3,000,000 and therefore the majority of it would have to be paid by Valanciunas himself. According to the big man, it’s not something that would stop him from moving to the US already next year if the team that drafted the center would want to see him in the other side of the pond.

Valanciunas is two years younger than Motiejunas and is at the same position where Donatas was two years ago – at the age of 18, they both played in the Lithuanian league. For Motiejunas it was the first season in the country’s top flight, but the left-handed big man already led a lowly Aisciai Kaunas side with 19.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.4 assists in an average playing time of 29.7 minutes, collecting an average ranking of 22.1. At that stage, Motiejunas shot an amazing 44.4% from the three-point line and hit free-throws at a very decent 75.5% accuracy. The only visible drawback was his turnovers – 2.5 per game, which is quite understandable for an 18-year-old, who has been given a very important role in the team’s game.

At the same age, Jonas Valanciunas already made his debut in the Euroleague and it was already his second season in the Lithuanian league. The main difference when comparing to Motiejunas is the overall team strength – Motiejunas played in a team with very little talent around him, while Valanciunas represented a much stronger team, which was defending the league’s title and was also playing in the Euroleague as well. Still, on a very strong roster, Valanciunas managed to collect 11.5 points and 7.3 boards per game also adding an of 1.8 blocks in 20.6 minutes – almost ten less than Motiejunas – per game averaging a 16.6 index rating. For a big man relying solely on his inside action – 66.8% FG – to collect points a 78.1% accuracy from the stripe was astonishing. The numbers don’t tell the full story as the difference in team strength is indescribable, but, even that aside, Valanciunas’ per minute index rating (.805) was a bit higher than Motiejunas’ (.744), who was playing for a much weaker team.

Although Valanciunas does indeed look like a brighter prospect, at times, it seems that Motiejunas gets too hard of a beating, but it is what it is. Both of the players will get a chance to prove their worth in the NBA and, perhaps, bring the tradition of Lithuanian basketball in the strongest basketball league back to life and spark an interest in the hearts of many basketball-crazy fans back home in Lithuania, who had been starting to forget what NBA means to the rest of the world.

Looking back: one of the best seasons for LKL ever

Yet another year full of exciting events in Lithuanian basketball flew past faster than the midnight express. In the meantime, the Lithuanian league (LKL) celebrated one of the most successful seasons in its history, despite being surrounded by some minor controversy once again.

The color in fashion – after a two year break – was green again, as Zalgiris gave the city of Kaunas a chance to celebrate the superiority over Lietuvos Rytas, who were denied the chance to complete the club’s first ever three-peat. And although the season might seem to have been very calm comparing to the circus that last year’s finals turned out to be, that was not the case.

It seems that controversy is exactly what people have become to expect for and just tend to view it as a given when talking about Lithuanian basketball and especially Vladimir Romanov, the controversial owner of Zalgiris, who saved the club from bankruptcy two years ago, but has almost self-willingly made himself a public villain.

The man-in-command for the Greens veered away to creative writing with public letters about the ‘pervert minds in Lithuanian basketball’, ‘slave referees’ and eventually ‘defeating the devil’. As if that wasn’t enough, Romanov himself admitted he was close to throwing punches at Marcus Brown after the club’s only loss in Vilnius.

Although the big boys had their share of fighting, the rusty Lithuanian basketball system was finally given a sturdy impulse for change, as Rudupis finally managed to squeeze onto the podium, taking the bronze medals and ending Siauliai’s seven-year predominance over the other smaller teams.

What separated this edition of the LKL is that the league was finally competitive and, unlike in many previous years, there was something to fight for with Siauliai’s roster being reasonably weaker following the departures of Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Deivydas Gailius and Arvydas Siksnius.

For once, medals were up for grabs. And, perhaps feeling exactly that, many teams found some extra cash to bring home some very decent Lithuanian players from abroad – Aurimas Kieza, Rolandas Alijevas, Martynas Mazeika, Mantas Ruikis and a couple of others, a class above the usual talent in the Lithuanian league.

Attendance numbers are shocking for a reportedly basketball-mad country like Lithuania – which it’s not, but perhaps another time about that – with the average gates at only 1147 for the season. The faces at the top are familiar: Zalgiris with an average of 3656 spectators and Lietuvos Rytas, which drew 2469 fans per game. The good thing is that the league-wide numbers are on an increase and many teams have taken on-board professionalism both when it comes to building a team and working with the fans.

Teams like Juventus Utena, Neptunas Klaipeda, Rudupis Prienai and Techasas Panevezys have transformed themselves into attractive organizations, which have a nice future ahead of them. For others, it would be time to realize that we’re living in a modern day and age before the train is out of sight and start serious work instead of the day-by-day approach to things. If there’s ever going to be a time when someone is going to give Lietuvos Rytas and Zalgiris a bigger challenge, it will definitely take a much more serious approach and, at least in the nearest future, lots and lots of luck.