It’s old news now, but Lithuania conquered the Caribbean and took home the treasure of an Olympic berth for London 2012.
In a pressure-packed atmosphere, Lithuania had to overcome three local teams to earn their place, and maintain their exemplary attendance record at the Olympics, having earned a spot every year since Lithuanian independence in 1990.
To get to their sixth straight encounter with the five coloured rings Lithuania first had to overcome Venezuela – and not just the team.
In what were quite sub-standard conditions the team had to overcome climate and time differences as well as an antagonistic crowd and a dilapidated infrastructure before finally greeting success.
The decision to play in Venezuela was an odd one from the start. To be fair we couldn’t complain about having to play in the tropics on the other side of the world so close to Olympic competition because the home teams could just as easily complain if they had to make their way to Europe.
What was of concern was the choice of a country that has little basketball pedigree, and no public affection. In Venezuela basketball comes a distant third behind football and baseball.
FIBA made the argument that basketball had to be shared and nurtured in all corners of the globe, but told their own staff that they could only leave the stadium or their hotel in a taxi as it was not safe to walk the streets.
I suspect there was a dispute between FIBA Europe and FIBA International, and with the last two options being Venezuela or Vilnius, the South American dictatorship won by default.
Still, we travel to see how other people live, and on this occasion we got to see how we ourselves used to live as well. Venezuela in many respects reminded me of what Lithuania used to be like during the Soviet years.
People have jobs, but are paid a pittance. They have no pride in their work and going to any store would most often require an extended wait as staff got around to serving you.
The infrastructure is dilapidated. The roads are crowded and most buildings in shabby condition. With petrol at 30 cents per litre we might be envious, but this means the roads are jam packed with ancient gas-guzzling machines that would befit any 70s American film.
The older cars also break down more often, leading to traffic chaos and road congestion beyond our wildest nightmares in Lithuania.
Still, the food was good, with meat aplenty, and the Venezuelans serve very big sized portions. The weather was warm, and even though we were there in the wet season, the rain was never too much of a bother. More of a nuisance was the constant whirring of air conditioners and every day we had to ask the bus driver to turn it down.
But back to the basketball.
We were lucky in Venezuela with the draw. If all went to plan and we finished top of our group we would avoid meeting Russia or Greece in the deciding games. We just had to beat Venezuela and Nigeria.
We played the home team on day two, after they had defeated Nigeria in a close game the day before. The home crowd was naturally with their own charges and the locals were vocal in expressing discontent.
The game itself was close enough for the first three quarters with the home crowd pushing their team on in spurts that would get the margin uncomfortably close from a Lithuanian perspective.
There was a bit of ill-temper as the game got tight and with an 18 point margin Lithuania called a time-out with four seconds left to play which got the hosts and home crowd most upset.
Next day we played Nigeria. By then it had become custom to support the underdogs and so Nigeria had the crowd support which really wasn’t to their advantage.
With Nigeria taking the surprise win, and in winning by less than the 18 point margin that we defeated Venezuela by, it meant Venezuela fell out of the tournament and Lithuania and Nigeria progressed to the next round.
This led to conjecture of conspiracy theories and collusion between Lithuania and Nigeria, but really it was the result of a basketball public that were more intent on booing Lithuania than doing what was best for their own team.
The loss aside, it was not a great problem for Lithuania as they still finished top of the group and we were expecting the satisfaction of revenging our loss against Macedonia to claim an Olympic berth.
Next was a danger game against Puerto Rico, a team with considerable NBA experience and again the home crowd behind them. Most disconcerting at this game was that local fans began booing the Lithuanian national anthem. Friendly rivalry and gamesmanship is fine, but fans and players were all upset about this gross lack of respect.
I don’t know what it was like for the players, but the game cost a lot of nerves for the fans, and they worked harder than ever and along with Sarunas Jasikevicius, got us home with a 76 – 72 win that went down to the wire.
Again there was plenty of booing after the game and in the stadium, but outside of the arena the Venezuelan people were good natured and accommodating and as we ventured around the town away from basketball we were usually greeted with smiles and offered friendly help when needing directions.
Our last hurdle was to defeat the Dominican Republic, who had surprisingly upset Macedonia. Knowing that even with a loss in this game we would have another chance to qualify, the team appeared to relax and finally show off their true talent.
The players themselves said that they were not certain of the win until five minutes to go, but we were celebrating well before the end of the third quarter, as shots were dropping, balls were bouncing our way, and generally the team just clicked.
We conquered three South American teams and took their pirate treasure back with us to Europe and on to the quest of finding the holy grail in London.
The good news after the tournament was that Jasaitis was back in the team along with Seibutis, but sadly Javtokas was ruled out because of injury.
This is a big loss for the team as the captain who is always first to put up his hand for national duty has always given his all for the cause. We wish Robertas a speedy recovery and hope to see him playing in the national colours again soon.
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