In 1891 American teacher invented basketball. Year after year it became more and more popular, people played basketball in more and more countries. In 1922 Steponas Darius brought it to Lithuania. It became popular so fast, as TV after World War II.
Level of Lithuanian basketball was so high, that in 1935 Lithuanian team played in the European championship. In 1935 championship took place in Riga (Latvia). Lithuanians were debutantes, and nobody could hope, that debutantes could be among leaders, but Lithuanians were! Lithuanians weren`t champions!
In 1939 the occurred in Kaunas. A new Sport Hall was built for this occasion, and sportsmen still play basketball in it now. Lithuanian team became the winner of this competition again.
Women have never remained in the background of men. All time they tried to be in the same level like men and they always do it. European championship in 1938 was very successful and Lithuanian sportswomen won silver medals.
World War II didn`t stop development of Lithuanian basketball. In the time of the war, legendary players, champions of Europe, ran to the West, but Lithuanian basketball wasn’t dead. A few students team won the first Soviet Union championship in 1947. It was the start of the history of the biggest, grandest, and greatest Lithuanian Basketball club “Zalgiris” (Green Wood). The name of this club comes from the battle in 1410, when Lithuanians beated the crusaders. This battle is named Grunwald in German or Zalgiris in Lithuanian.
All the time, when Lithuania endured yoke of Soviet Union, Lithuanian basketball was predominated in all Union. All the time Lithuanian players played in combined teams.
In 1978-1981 one of the greatest Lithuanian players’ generations started forming. In 1982 Arvydas Sabonis came to “Zalgiris”. He started playing in professional team, when he was only seventeen and he is still playing now. In 1983 the biggest fights between “Zalgiris” and CSKA from Moscow started. It was not Moscow team; it was a team of all Soviet Union. The most players were subjugated by the way of deception. Soviet bureaucrats wanted Lithuanian players to play in Moscow team too, but Lithuanians looked smarterd, and they didn’t let them go.
For Example, Soviets wanted Sabonis to play in CSKA. At the same day, when Sabonis finished secondary school, soviets came to school and tried to take Sabonis to the army. But Lithuanians were faster. Sabonis was already studying at Kaunas high school!
All time Lithuanians hadn’t ways to the Europe. Till 1984, “Žalgiris” has never played with the teams from the West. Only “thaw” in Soviet Union and reorganization of Mikhail Gorbachiov gave a chance for “Žalgiris”. These chances were unbelievable. In 1985 “Zalgiris” lost only in the final of EuroCup and in 1986 “Zalgiris” lost to Cibona Zagreb in the final of European Cup of Champions. Competitions of Soviet Union were lucky too. Three years (1985-19870 “Zalgiris” became the champion of the Union.
In 1986 “Zalgiris” got a chance to play in Jones Cup Competition. At this time it was World Club Championship. “Zalgiris” became the winner! 200 000 people waited for “Zalgiris” in Kaunas Karmelava Airport!
In 1989, Sarunas Marciulionis became the first player from East Europe, who played in National Basketball Association (NBA). USSR didn’t let to play in this professional American league, but in 1989, the Soviet Union wasn’t so strong like in 1970 or 1980, and Marciulionis broke the ice.
In 1992 Lithuania has already the freedom. Lithuania played in Barcelona Olympic Games. Nobody could understand, how a country, which is free only 2 years, and which has only 3 000 000 population, can have such a good basketball team. Lithuanian national team won the bronze medals! Only then everybody understood, that in all national USSR teams played many Lithuanians, when USSR won the greatest victories. For example, in the USSR team, which won Gold in Seoul Olympic Games, four players in start composition were Lithuanians. Sabonis, Marciulionis, Kurtinaitis, Chomicius and others the first big victory to free Lithuania.
After “Barcelona`92” crisis took all basketball in Lithuania. The best players went to the West, there were no money for sport in young and poor country. Only national team showed good results, when all players from the West played. In 1996 Lithuanian team won the third place in Atlanta Olympic Games again. Stars played in the West, but they didn’t let basketball die and helped them. Sabonis and Marciulionis built few basketball schools for children.
Trainers in Lithuania work heavily and patiently and they did their work very good. They raised a new generation of players, which wasn`t worse than the last one.
In 1994 Jonas Kazlauskas came to “Zalgiris”. He was a young trainer, without big experience, but with the best wishes and great ambitions. He was democratic, new style trainer. He took young players and started to make stars. He showed that basketball is a team sport and one or two players can’t win match. Kazlauskas learned together with players. Results didn’t come at the same time. In 1996 “Zalgiris” lost in semifinal of Cup Winners Cup, in 1997 “Zalgiris” lost in 1/8 final. In 1998 “Zalgiris” surprised all the Europe. “Zalgiris” won Euro Cup! It was the first J. Kazlauskas and all “Zalgiris” triumph. In the last (1998-1999) season, “Zalgiris” started playing in EuroLeague. Nobody looked to debutante, like to the potential competitioner. But military leader J. Kazlauskas and “Zalgiris” didn’t want to stop. There’re no stars, no big money, but fast, nice, commnadly play was the guaranty of luck. “Zalgiris” won the Cup of EuroLeague! “Zalgiris” (see picture in file zalgiris98-99) showed that money cannot win, only the team can win.
Women didn’t fall. In 1997 national Lithuanian team became the European champions. Men in 1995 were “only” second.
If you want to get big victories, you need some intelligence and some organization. Lithuanians don’t complain that they feel shortage of it. At once after getting freedom, Lithuanians started to build national basketball system. Sarunas Marciulionis was the fundamental organizer and sponsor. In 1994 Lithuanian Basketball League (LKL) was founded. It was very important. Marciulionis played in NBA for a long time, so he knew, how to make the same in Lithuania. LKL matches are very interesting and persistent.
Sarunas Marciulionis didn`t stop, when he founded LKL. Northern European Basketball League (NEBL) was founded in 1998. NEBL is made by NBA model. In 1999 took place the first Promotion Cup. In 2000 the first official inaugural NEBL season will start. The Northern European Basketball League was founded with the cooperation of five Northern European nations: Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden. The goals of NEBL are:
To be the top Northern European professional basketball league;
To keep basketball as the leading sport in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania;
To make basketball the leading sport in Sweden and Finland;
To support all the league’s clubs and players;
To create a united market & sponsorship programs for Northern European countries;
To attain creative support from the NBA.
The NEBL will tip off its first season in 2000 with plans to expand the league to include the top teams from Denmark, Norway and Ukraine. Russia and Belarus have both shown interest in joining the league as it continues to grow and could be added in later seasons.
Basketball in Lithuania is very popular. The most popular TV programs are basketball matches. Everybody in Lithuania knows what the basketball is. Young and old play basketball. Thousands celebrate victories. Lithuania isn’t only amber country; it’s basketball country too. Basketball is the second Lithuanian religion.