Here's Why Lithuanians Love Basketball So Much - And Why I'm a New Fan!
When I say I'm not a sports fan, what I mean is that I usually can't be bothered to watch a game. The Superbowl? Sure, give me Lady Gaga at the Halftime Show, but do we really have to pretend I'm invested in anything at a Superbowl Party other than chips and queso?
But let me tell you: I was biting my nails and shouting at the screen along with the rest of my sportsball friends on Saturday night when Lithuania was playing against Spain at the EuroBasket, and I may have even yelled out a few expletives. That game was intense! As a spoiler, this superstar team was edging out Spain for the entire game until the very end, when Spain took over with a vengeance - and won. I've never been so invested in a game in my life, and I'd also never heard of the EuroBasket two weeks ago, so, times change quickly around here. I've gathered that it's Europe's version of March Madness, which - no surprise - I've also never cared about all my years on this Earth.
But being in Lithuania has given me a whole new respect for this game, just by virtue of what it symbolizes for the country.
I alluded to this fervor in my second (ever!) blog post, as well as my Autumn Equinox post - but I experienced it viscerally this weekend. About a year ago, The Scientist and I cozied up on the couch and watched a movie I highly recommend to all of you, The Other Dream Team. It follows the story of the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic basketball team, which was left with very little after the fall of the Soviet Union. What this newly independent team lacked in money for uniforms, they made up for in resilience, humor, and skill, and after a Barcelona article was written about their plight, the Grateful Dead - yes, THE Grateful Dead! - offered to not only fund their trip to the Olympics but design their jerseys. (I want one of these shirts so badly - tie-dye, a slam-dunking skeleton, a huge cultural moment. Sign me up.) Via Grateful Dead drummer, Mickey Hart:
"Here’s something that can do a lotta good for a lotta people. That whole country of Lithuania can have a spirit of national identity, and these people can go to the Olympics.”
“I was also proud to see the underdog come up there as a David and Goliath fight,” Hart added. “Basketball really represents an important part of the human spirit. When people can get together and play together and do all these — it’s a good model. It’s not unlike a band, you know? There is the group mind at work.”
When they won the bronze that year, they accepted the award wearing these jerseys - and it was epic. But this movie also beautifully ties the team to cultural events - Lithuania's independence as it relates to basketball - with the story of an up-and-coming Lithuanian basketball player named Jonas Valančiūnas and his journey towards the NBA. I was really touched by his story, especially realizing that his parents' generation fought - literally - so that he could participate in something like this. It really wasn't that far off. And now, basketball is a huge source of pride for this country, innately tied to their independence and resilience.
Watch this movie.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, I started to notice a guy who looked like a Viking being advertised on billboards around Vilnius with other basketball players. I couldn't help but think he looked like Jonas Valančiūnas, but he had a long Viking beard, so I was left with a solid maybe. Lithuania has been participating in this March Madness-style showdown for the last week or so, and while I caught a bit of a game last weekend in Anykščiai - and would have watched for longer - I didn't get to noticing these players. I only noticed that everyone at the restaurant was glued to the screen - that even as other sports become popular in this country, basketball really seems to run through peoples' veins.
But I decided to watch the game the other night with friends, realizing I wanted to support the country through a whole game. (I'd watched the movie, I'd loved it, and now was my time to put it into action, right?)
Right before I got to my friends' house, I realized that the Viking man on these billboards was none other than Jonas Valančiūnas, and also that another member of the basketball team was the son of one of the basketball heroes from the 1992 Olympics team - Arvydas Sabonis. (Domantas is on the left of this photo, and Jonas is front and center.)
Surprising myself again, I was starstruck. I've never been starstruck by a sports star before, but this was a big moment for me as an American in Lithuania.
And it turns out I paid attention to the whole game - the whole game. I was fully invested. Was it because I knew the legacy of two of its players? Was it because I'd watched the movie and deeply want a tie-dye basketball shirt? Was Lithuania's fervor for basketball finally catching up with me?
Whatever the case, I was immersed, to the point that I'm glad they lost this game. I'm not sure I want to sit through more of that cortisol for another three years, thanks. But I get it now - I was proud to live in this resilient country after watching that movie, and now, I'm officially proud to understand their love for basketball. Y'all got me. I don't know how you did it, but you got me.
A tie-dye rainbow skeleton certainly doesn't hurt, either.
Have you ever been hit over the head with enthusiasm for something completely out of character for you? Let me know, because I'm really amused by how I really showed up for that game. Feel free to subscribe at the bottom of this page to receive a bi-weekly email from me on,... Well, I never really know what I'm going to write about, and that's what makes them so fun. So I'll see you there! And as always, I'll see you next time here at Into the Forests I Go - viso gero!