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The Second Religion’ of Lithuania: How Basketball Helped Build Nation and Put Country on Map

Lithuania has a rich history, passionate fan base, and a deep-rooted love for basketball culture. On May 19, it welcomed four of the best teams on the continent by hosting the prestigious EuroLeague Final Four event — a momentous occasion for this hoop-obsessed country.

May XX, 2023. Foreigners may be confused when they hear that Lithuania has a second religion, as it may not be what they expected. Anybody who has watched the Lithuanian national basketball team could tell that basketball is a cultural force to be reckoned with, uniting fans across the country and carrying with it an inspiring legacy. Throughout the years, the basketball court has become an arena for national dissent and has even produced several NBA players.

The recent Euroleague Final Four event took place on May 19 in Kaunas — Lithuania’s second-largest city — meaning the eyes of Basketball enthusiasts around the world were on the small Baltic country again. The atmosphere of this competition electrified Žalgiris Arena with thunderous applause and proved why Lithuania is the true capital of European basketball. 

Sports phenomenon sweeps the country

The simplest way to comprehend the significance of basketball in Lithuania is to attend a live game of Žalgiris — the country’s most-decorated and oldest basketball team — in Žalgiris Arena, the largest sports venue found in the Baltic states. The emotional surge and shiver of delight brought on by 15,000 supporters chanting the Lithuanian national anthem, or leaping out of their seats for a three-pointer makes for an unforgettable experience. Combined with the cheerleaders' incredible performances and the professionalism of the athletes, visitors may find their palms are sore from clapping after the game ends.

Lithuanian national team matches in the Championships are the most followed. There is a championship every year: biennial European Championships (Eurobasket), and once every four years the World championship and the Olympic Games basketball tournament. With a few exceptions, Lithuania managed to qualify to all of them in the past 20 years so the nation is rarely left without these events that unify it every summer or early September.

The difficult surnames of Lithuanian basketball players are a challenge for European basketball clubs and their supporters, as well as for coaches and players in the NBA, the premier basketball league in the world. Currently, two athletes play among the ranks of the NBA: Jonas Valančiūnas, who plays center for the Toronto Raptors, and Domantas Sabonis, power forward for Orlando Magic. he path to this league was trodden as early as before the restoration of our independence by basketball players Šarūnas Marčiulionis and Arvydas Sabonis. Today, they are viewed as legends of the sport.

The Basketball Museum in Joniškis symbolizes all Lithuanians’ love for this sport; it displays a number of medals, awards, photographs, drawings, all telling the history of Lithuanian basketball. Visitors of the museum can see the T-shirts and trainers with autographs of basketball legends; school pupils can attend educational lessons during which they are acquainted with the deep-rooted history of Lithuanian basketball.

Rebuilding a nation around basketball

Lithuanians continued to play basketball during the period between 1939 and 1991, despite the absence of a national squad. Regrettably, they had to compete while flying the Soviet Union's banner and winning medals for its citizens. Of course, it wasn't ideal, but the finest Lithuanian players had no choice but to demonstrate their superiority. The group was a strong force in basketball in Europe, winning 13 gold medals at EuroBasket, three FIBA World Cups, and two Olympics. Lithuanian athletes were consistently in the Soviet Union team's top positions.

The Lithuanian national basketball team competed in every Olympic event after regaining independence on March 11, 1990. Only three other countries, including the United States, can boast of the same outcome. Furthermore, Lithuania not only participated in the Olympics but also took home three bronze medals, including the 1992 bronze medal, which came after the Lithuanians defeated the Russians with Sabonis and Marčiulionis leading the way. The victory in that game was widely welcomed in Lithuania as though the country had reclaimed its freedom once more.

Today, the feeling of national pride when it comes to basketball in Lithuania can be felt everywhere: in the streets, outside summerhouses, and at schools, lakesides and music festivals. The game and the emotions it creates are so deeply rooted in Lithuanian genes that most children have no second thoughts about which sport to go for. For visitors, the upcoming championship season provides no better opportunity to experience this phenomenon.