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Basketball is More Than a Game in Independent Lithuania

April 11, 1992

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) _ Nothing would mean more to this basketball-mad Baltic country than winning a medal at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Well, almost nothing.

Beating the former Soviets would be even sweeter.

All of Lithuania is looking ahead to June 26, the day when the two teams will collide in the European Olympic qualifying tournament in Spain.

″We have dreamed all of our lives about playing against the Soviet Union,″ said Arturas Poviliunas, president of the Lithuanian Olympic Committee. ″Although it’s not called the Soviet Union any more, this game will be very important and very symbolic. It will be as important as the Olympics themselves.″

For the three Baltic states, particularly Lithuania, basketball is more than just everyone’s favorite sport. It’s a way of life, a political statement, a form of national identity.

″Basketball is a symbol of Lithuania,″ said Poviliunas. ″All the nation lives on basketball results.″

As an independent country between the world wars, Lithuania was European basketball champion in 1938 and 1939. But Moscow annexed the Baltic states in 1940, and the sport took on a new dimension for the next 50 years.

″For a long time when we played Russian teams in club competitions, it was like a fight between David and Goliath,″ said Arunas Pakula, director of Lithuania’s basketball program. ″We felt like an occupied nation. We had no weapons to use. The only opportunity to prove ourselves against the Soviets was in basketball.″

In the Olympics and other international competition, Lithuanians competed for decades as part of the Soviet team. Four of the starters on the Soviet team which won the gold medal in 1988 in Seoul were Lithuanians - Arvidas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, Rimas Kurtinitis and Valdemaras Khomicius.

With independence restored to the Baltics last year, basketball has become the perfect vehicle for Lithuania to re-establish itself on the world stage. What better ambassadors than the four gold medal winners from 1988?

″Our players consider this as an opportunity to put Lithuania on the map again,″ Pakula said. ″They are very strongly motivated. They want to do everything possible for Lithuania.″

Scattered all over the world, Sabonis, Marciulionis and the others are assembling a Lithuanian ″dream team″ that could challenge for a medal in Barcelona.

The U.S. team, which will include NBA stars for the first time, is the overwhelming favorite for the gold. The main challenger is expected to be Croatia, the former Yugoslav republic whose lineup should include Drazen Petrovic of the New Jersey Nets and European-based stars Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja.

Pakula said he considers Lithuania, Yugoslavia and the Unified Team (former Soviets) as the other top teams. ″Lithuania should finish in the top four,″ he said.

The team’s fortunes could depend on whether it succeeds in securing dual citizenship for two players of Lithuanian heritage - Leo Rautins of Canada and Chuck Aleksinas of the United States.

Rautins, a former Syracuse University star and No. 1 draft pick of the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983, has played for Canada’s national team since 1978. Aleksinas is a former standout with the University of Connecticut.

Lithuanian authorities are still working through a bureaucratic web to arrange for the two to get Lithuanian passports, either in Vilnius or in Washington. Then Lithuania must receive clearance from FIBA, the world governing body for basketball.

FIBA’s rules on naturalization state that a player must have been a citizen for three years before he can represent his new country. But Lithuanian officials hope FIBA will bend its rules since the nation has been independent for only a few months.

Lithuania’s case received a boost this week from International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch, who toured the Baltic states and three other former Soviet republics.

″He said it was primarily an issue for the international federation to decide, but he assured us that this should not be a major problem,″ Poviliunas said.

With or without the two North Americans, Lithuania’s main concern is simply getting all of its players together in one place.

Right now, 80 percent of the team is playing outside the country. Marciulionis is playing in the NBA with the Golden State Warriors, Sabonis is in his third season in Spain, Khomicius is in Belgium and Kurtinitis in Germany. Another key player, Arturas Karnysovas, is playing for Seton Hall. Others are in Poland.

″Other countries have all their players in national leagues and they prepare together on a regular basis,″ Pakula said. ″But we’ll have only a brief time to get our team together, starting with a mini-camp at the end of May. That gives us only 2-3 weeks for preparation.

″I’m also concerned because our players are engaged in different levels of competition,″ Pakula said. ″The basketball mentality is different. Some want to play run and gun, others are used to a 45-second clock. We will need to find the right balance.″

Another key will be the play of the 7-foot-3 Sabonis, who was once considered the best big man in the world until a series of injuries - including a twice-ruptured achilles tendon - slowed him down. He has rejected several NBA offers and now plays for Forum Valladolid in Spain.

″He doesn’t jump the way he used to,″ Pakula said. ″He’s very cautious. He plays 35 minutes a game, then needs 3-4 days of rest. That will be a factor in the European qualifing tournament, where we will have to play every day for five days running.″

″Sabonis has been in good health recently, but psychologically he’s difficult,″ Pakula said. ″He’s not a fighter. He’s always been a bit lackadaisical. He’s a natural talent but he doesn’t want to work. He’s a great sleeper. He never goes to morning practice. But that’s OK as long as he’s awake and alert on the court.″

The Lithuanian coaching situation is a question mark. Raimundas Sargunas is currently the head coach, but Pakula said there have been some ″problems″ and that he might be replaced. He declined to elaborate. The assistants are Javier Imbroda, coach of the Malaga team in Spain, and Don Nelson Jr., son of the Golden State coach.

Hundreds of Lithuanians will pay $1,000 - 10 times the average monthly salary - to travel by bus to Spain for the June 22-July 5 qualifying tournament, which will determine the four European entries in the Olympics.

In the pool competition, Lithuania is scheduled to play the Netherlands, Britain, Hungary, Estonia and then - finally - the former Soviets.

There will be more than an Olympic berth at stake for Lithuania.

″For us,″ Pakula said, ″it will be the game of principles.″

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