Many Lithuanians claim basketball is like a second religion or way of life. How did this sport come to wield so much meaning to this nation?
Lithuania, which came under the control of the Soviet Union in 1940, saw basketball as more than just a game. This sport was seen as a victory or loss against the occupant. For the Russians, it was a way to reinforce their superiority over the countries that made up the Soviet Union. The Soviet basketball team always won, recruiting the best players from Russia and the independent republics it took over. This trend, however, was challenged with the creation of a Lithuanian basketball club, BC Zalgiris in 1944.
1981 marked a new era in Lithuanian basketball history when Zalgiris welcomed 17-year-old Arvydas Sabonis, 7’3”. Lithuania played against the top European teams and thanks to help of gifted players - like Sabonis, Kurtinaitis, Chomicius and Jovaisa - Zalgiris won three Soviet Union League National championships starting in 1985. The rivalry between the Soviet team, CSKA Moscow (the Russian basketball team), and Zalgiris fueled Lithuania’s sensation of nationalism during its struggle to regain independence from the Soviet Union.
Lithuania gained independence in 1991 once the USSR broke apart, but Lithuania’s basketball story doesn’t stop here. In the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Lithuania lost against the USA’s Dream Team and came face to face with its former occupant - Russia - for bronze. Imagine the pressure that Lithuania’s team felt. Lithuania recently declared its independence, and the whole nation was counting on those five players on the court to withhold Lithuania’s dignity. Swish and score! Lithuania was victorious.
As you can now see, basketball games between the Lithuanian and Soviet teams were more than just a game, but must be understood within a historical context to appreciate the impact and sentiments associated with this sport.
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Giedrius Bielskus, Augustas Bielskus, and Aurimas Radzevicius
Giedrius Bielskus (Director of the Kaunas Sports Hall) is joined by his son, Augustas, and Aurimas Radzevicius (Head of General Affairs of Kaunas Sports Hall). The interview takes place in the Sports Hall, as Mr. Bielskus and Mr. Radzevicius remember the key basketball games that made history on these very courts.