For the love of Lithuanian basketball

The FIBA Basketball World Cup gets underway Saturday in Australia, and while the eyes of most of the NBA media are squarely on the United States team, there’s one American hoop junkie whose eyes are firmly cast to the east when picking a squad to root for.

It’s not that I’m against USA Basketball per se, it’s just that one country has such an inspired history both with the sport and as a country that I have to root for them out of a go-get-em-guys admiration.

I’m talking about Lithuania. “Lietuva” in the local tongue over there.

For one thing, one of my favorite current NBA players, Domantas Sabonis, is from there, and I was a big fan of his dad Arvydas Sabonis back in the day even though I am not nor have I ever been a Portland Trail Blazers fan.

But beyond that, I was in middle school when the Berlin Wall came down, and shortly thereafter, the Baltic States made their bid for independence, and Lithuania in particular was in the news for its fierce and fearless resistance to the Soviet Union.

Like any kid during the Cold War, and especially a suburban kid with parents who voted for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire. They were the real-life Batman villains of the geopolitical world.

And here were these people, kicked around up, down, and sideways by Stalin, Hitler, and a procession of Soviet premiers during and after World War II, subjugated for half a century, fighting for the restoration of their land.

And the sport they played, the sport that provided that Soviet team with so many of its best players—you’ll notice Russia isn’t nearly the basketball power it used to be, with good reason?

That’s right. Krepsinio, in Lithuanian. A sport invented nearly a century to the day prior to the Baltic struggle for independence…in the good ol’ USA.

These guys were fighting the Commies and they had a sport I played in the backyard, a sport invented about a two-hour drive from the Boston suburb where I grew up, and that was glorious symbolism.

What’s more, the financial backing to restore the national basketball federation came, crazily enough, from the Grateful Dead. Thanks to Sarunas Marciulionis being the first Soviet NBA player with the Golden State Warriors, the cause caught on in San Francisco, where members of the band caught wind of the story and decided to step in.

They also designed the team’s uniform in the national colors, which led Jerry Garcia to quip “Man, you guys just took down one of the darkest political forces in history. Here’s to freedom and celebration.”

I’ve never been to Lithuania…well, not yet. If I ever get around to taking that Hanseatic coastal ship tour and seeing the medieval architecture that wasn’t bombed to hell and back during the war or razed by the USSR to build their stack-a-prole worker housing in the conquered territories, I’ll get there then.

But much like a sports fan in a major city having a favorite small-market team, I love Lithuanian basketball, and I’ll be rooting for them to crack the medal stand the way they did, beating the “Unified Team” of their former Soviet teammates, in Barcelona way back in 1992…a story overshadowed in America by the heroics of our own “Dream Team.”

Laisve, vienybe, gerove, guys. Freedom, unity, prosperity.

(Ed. Note: I’ll be going on vacation for the next couple of weeks, returning September 10 to start this year’s round of team-by-team season previews. One per weekday leading up to the start of the season in October. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!)