[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.
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.
[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.
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
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!