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Scott Howard-Cooper

Bill Walton, Arvydas Sabonis
Arvydas Sabonis (right) shares a laugh with Bill Walton at the Hall of Fame in August.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Geography can't measure impact of Lithuania's big summer


Posted Oct 23 2011 2:23PM

The detail that should not be forgotten is that Lithuania has an estimated 3.5 million residents and has been an independent nation since breaking from the Soviet Union in 1990. It is the 123rd-largest country by size and 131st by population -- behind Liberia and Moldova and slightly ahead of Mauritania and Mongolia -- and shares borders with four other lands and the Baltic Sea. Imposing it is not.

Since June, though, the small Eastern European nation that has long been a player on the international basketball stage and an NBA presence with popular big men has been nothing less than a crossroads of the sport. Tiny Lithuania? More like the country that casts a hoops shadow.

This has been nothing short of a historical convergence of events, all the more dramatic because it is from a place so small.

"You could say Lithuania was living in a basketball rhythm -- everything was centered around hoops the whole summer," said Simonas Baranauskas, editor of LithuaniaBasketball.com. "Every other TV commercial featured a basketball player, wherever you walked you'd see posters of Lithuanian national team players. It was a true basketball summer and it seemed as if everything else would have been forgotten. Basketball was literally in the center of the attention."

Not in the same way Lithuanians won hearts at the 1992 Olympics, of course. That was a happening. The hurried organizing and fundraising fronted by Sarunas Marciulionis, the popular fullback of an NBA shooting guard, who helped an infant nation get a team together in the wake of the split from the Soviet Union. The Grateful Dead tie-dye uniforms that became a brilliant marketing device. The bronze medal in Barcelona. It was such a thunderclap that it became the basis of Marciulionis being nominated for the Hall of Fame.

This summer has not even been like 1988, when the USSR won gold at the Seoul Games in what for many NBA fans became the first sighting of Arvydas Sabonis and Marciulionis. That was another singular moment.

This summer has been more a swirl effect. A collection of important moments, in rapid-fire succession, merging the past and present, played out from Europe to Toronto to Cleveland and Miami to Springfield, Mass., to Portland. Within about four months.

At the Draft, two Lithuanians went in the top 20.

The Hall of Fame. Sabonis' speech was brief, just a few sentences in English, but the accompanying video of highlights and testimonials rightfully noted fans in the United States never got to see the real Sabas, the one who starred in Europe like few others before injuries reduced his impact with the Trail Blazers.

Video The post-Hall of Fame party. The Blazers brought Sabonis, still a resident of Lithuania, from Springfield to Portland for a town-square celebration. It was a special moment because Sabonis had a strangely special connection to fans in his only NBA home.

He didn't try hard to be involved in the community and he was part of terribly frustrating years. But he was appreciated for constantly playing hurt when everyone would have understood if he took an injury retirement, and because he was never in trouble. He showed more dedication than most of that "Jail Blazers" roster combined.

The tournament. Lithuania hosted EuroBasket, the qualifying tournament to determine the European representatives at the London Olympics next summer. "The whole country was breathing basketball," Baranauskas said. "Even people who don't usually watch it tuned in for the Lithuanian games. Pretty much it used to be the case every summer, but even more so with the tournament held in Lithuania. It was a very significant event for Lithuania, as it was the biggest sports event the country had ever hosted."

The arrivals. NBA players searching for a lockout shelter signed with a team in Kaunas, the country's second-largest city.

The retirement. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, one of the most popular Cavaliers ever and a brief member of the Heat, reportedly retired after 13 seasons and five foot surgeries that made his career seem doomed. He became a symbol of perseverance and made two trips to The Finals and two All-Star appearances.

The health scare. Sabonis, 46, suffered a heart attack while playing in his hometown and was in intensive care. The Trail Blazers released a statement confirming the medical crisis, but said it was not believed to be life threatening.

The small Eastern European country has a 2011-12 without labor strife, but this was an offseason unlike any other. Multiple first-round picks, the Hall of Fame, hosting a major international tournament, Ilgauskas being able to go out on his own terms when that once never seemed possible. Imposing.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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