Over the last three seasons the Raptors have had a lot of ups and downs during their brief forays into the playoffs but the one thing they always seem to be able to count on is young center Jonas Valanciunas. Currently averaging a monstrous 17.5 points and 17 rebounds in only 26 minutes per game, he was also one of the only Raptors to bother to show up against the Washington Wizards last year and came oh-so-close to averaging a double-double to go along with 63% shooting against the Brooklyn Nets the year before. On a team that experiences so many ups and downs and with so many teammates who seem to be shook come playoff time what makes Valanciunas so different? Why does he step up when so many seem to step down?
A large part of it has to be where he comes from. Lithuania is a consistent international power, since the turn of the century they have won an Olympic bronze medal as well as four Eurobasket medals(1 gold, 2 silver, 1 bronze) and another bronze in the FIBA World Cup. They’ve now sent 10 players to the NBA since earning their independence in 1991, with others who were arguably NBA caliber but opted to stay closer to home and have long, successful careers in the various European leagues and they’re currently ranked 4th in the FIBA world rankings. That may not seem like an inordinate amount of success for a nation, until you realize that the entire population of Lithuania is roughly that of the city of Toronto and there are over 100 cities with significantly larger populations than their entire country.
Basketball is the primary culture in Lithuania, like hockey was in Canada before we discovered other sports on a large scale. Here in North America we like to talk about sports being “more than a game” with some kind of greater meaning ascribed to the things we do for fun but in Lithuania that’s not the cliché it is for us. The current generation of Lithuanian basketball players are carrying on a proud tradition established during their post-WWII occupation by the USSR, when Lithuanians viewed the Russians as an unwelcome occupier but clearly did not have the resources to do anything about it. The one thing that they did have was Kaunus Zalgiris, a local basketball club that competed in the Russian league which included perennial powerhouse CSKA, then the “Red Army” team with a roster full of Soviet soldiers. When Zalgiris would play host to the occupying army team the streets would be deserted, with most of the the tiny republic tuning in on their television sets or radio to cheer on their heroes. As Arunas Pakula, a former director of Lithuania Basketball once said: ”We felt like an occupied nation. We had no weapons to use. The only opportunity to prove ourselves against the Soviets was in basketball.” Basketball wasn’t just a hobby, it was a form of resistance and felt like life or death for reasons that none of us will ever be able to understand.
This is the climate that produced the talent making up the core of the powerful USSR basketball program in the 1980’s, eventually culminating in a 1988 Olympic gold medal victory over a powerful American squad featuring names like David Robinson, Danny Manning and Mitch Richmond. This club featured 4 Lithuanian starters, competing under the USSR banner even as their countrymen were fighting for the right to fly their traditional flag (granted shortly before the 1988 Olympics) and eventually declaring their independence from the Soviet empire in 1990.
After declaring their independence from the empire Lithuania went from being an occupied republic in a large empire to a fledgling nation struggling for international recognition. Soviet military units occupied government buildings and educational institutions while their government used economic blockades to increase inflation and cause shortages in both energy and essential goods, prompting widespread demonstrations from the Lithuanian people and ever-increasing tensions between the Soviets and Lithuanians. In the “January Events” of 1991 these tensions finally boiled over, resulting in the deaths of 13 Lithuanians and injuries to over 700 others as the occupying Soviet forces attempted to secure Lithuanian TV facilities and were greeted by Lithuanian independents. The images of these events can be disturbing, with tanks plowing through crowds of people and Soviet soldiers firing live ammunition into buildings and in the direction of the growing crowds of Lithuanian independents, whose ranks included several Lithuanian basketball players. Eventually a combination of international pressure and overwhelming numbers de-escalated the situation – a treaty was signed by the end of January and a referendum a month later granted Lithuania the independence they’d been chasing for decades.
A year later Lithuania was officially independent and unoccupied and the tiny nation was eager to assert themselves on the basketball court, with the 1992 Olympics and preceding qualifying tournaments giving them the chance to take the court and do what they couldn’t hope to on the battlefield. Having dissolved by the end of 1991 there was no longer any official USSR for them to take on but there was the Unified Team, representing Russia and a commonwealth of former Soviet republics. In the preliminary tournaments preceding the Olympics and the tournament itself Lithuania would go 2-1 against the Unified team, quite literally shedding blood, sweat and tears on their way to a bronze medal victory over their former occupiers. Lithuanians have described that as the proudest athletic moment in the nations history and participants will still tear up when they recall that game.
On May 6, 1992 – a few months before that historic bronze medal game – our own Jonas Valanciunas was born. That is the basketball climate that he was born into, one where the sport has served as a form of resistance against an occupying force and a weapon to strike back at a foe too powerful to engage on a battlefield. One where basketball is the official national sport and is so important that Valanciunas was awarded a medal, pinned on him by the president himself, after leading the nation to gold in the FIBA U19 tournament that is of almost no interest to even our most diehard hoops fans. Coming up in this environment, where basketball straddles the line between sport and religion, the pressure of winning a professional competition for his adopted home in Toronto must be minute in comparison.