Among those nations flying their own flag and wearing their own colours for the first time in over half a century was Lithuania, and their basketball team would return to the Baltics with a bronze medal and to a nation enraptured. Two years ago, the story of how they did it — and secured the friendship and funds of a motley crew of supporters that included the rock band the Grateful Dead — was made into a documentary entitled ‘The Other Dream Team’.
As with all great sports stories, it swept far beyond the confines of a mere court or pitch. This was about history, about a nation’s emergence from oppression and how one team told their story to the world simply by shooting hoops. “Basketball allowed the nation to forget atrocities that happened to their families,” the film’s director Marius Markevicius, US-born but of Lithuanian descent, told The Huffington Post two years ago.
“In 1988, I realised the myth of propaganda as far as the athletes and Soviet Union. The athletes wanted no part of it. They wanted to play for their own country but at the time, could not do so.”
Aurimas Statkus was only 11 years old when the world descended on Barcelona in ’92, and among his most cherished memories are those nights when Lithuania’s games would afford a few extra hours grace from bedtime.
Born in Siauliai, Lithuania’s fourth biggest city, Statkus was typical of Lithuanian kids then and now in that he was already playing basketball for five years by then in a country falling madly in love with the sport.
That love affair was welded into a marriage in 1992.
“In the 1980s, football and basketball were the same in Lithuania,” said Statkus. “Somehow basketball became bigger. There are only 3.5 million people in Lithuania but there were times when we had four or five players on the Russian (USSR) teams. Arvydas Sabonis was the big player. He was the hero.
“He was about to go to the NBA but the Russians wouldn’t let him. The standard was very high. The Lithuanian teams used to play in the Russian league and we got to see teams from Lithuania playing and fighting against the Russians. It was all about history. It’d be the same if Ireland was to beat England in football.”
Sabonis did eventually move, to Forum Valladolid and Real Madrid in Spain, before finally making it to the NBA for two stints with the Portland Trailblazers which were separated by spells at home with Zalgiris Kaunas.
Many others have trod similar paths. Like Irish soccer players, the cream of Lithuanian basketball have long embraced the inevitability of life on foreign shores with Europe, North America and even China all listed among the ports of call.
Of the 12-man squad that represented the country in Eurobasket 2013, two plied their trade in the NBA and another half dozen reported for duty from locations in Spain, Greece, Turkey, Ukraine and Latvia.
Their highs and lows when they play abroad are followed assiduously by the media back home and among the usual updates two weeks ago was one about a team loaded with expats that had guided Dublin Inter to the final of Ireland’s National Cup.
An offspring of a multicultural club founded in Carlow 13 years ago, Dublin Inter has spread its wings to compete in the Men’s Premier League this last two years with a roster now containing two Irishmen, a Pole, an American and a glut of Lithuanians.
Tomorrow they face C&S UCC Demons in the decider. Statkus is a 6’7” forward who played with BC Siauliai, which is both his hometown club and one of Lithuania’s top teams, before moving to Ireland, and will be key to their fortunes.
In all, the 32-year old played for four top-tier clubs in his 20s and turned down offers to play tier two and three for clubs in France and Spain before a long-standing knee problem resulted in retirement and, afterwards, relocation to Ireland.
“I didn’t play for two years when I came to Ireland but the coaches would ring and ring and ask me to play,” he said. “I can play once a week now and maybe practise twice but that is it. I play because I enjoy it.”
He plays because it is in his blood.