Decade later, Lithuania eyes repeat

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia -- Jonas Valanciunas watched the game unfold in his mother's living room, the 11-year-old's heart beating ever faster, his imagination running wild. Lithuania held a 14-point lead over Spain at the end of the third quarter in Stockholm in the EuroBasket final of 2003. It seemed so easy, so predictable.

Then Pau Gasol stepped up, on his way to scoring 36 points. Tensions rose.

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Will Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas help bring home a EuroBasket title for Lithuania?

"I remember how they came back," recounts Valanciunas, now a center for the Toronto Raptors.

In the end, however, Arvydas Macijauskas led a resistance movement and Gasol was left in tears after his singular mission was thwarted. An impressionable young kid danced in celebration.

"We won the championship," Valanciunas said, smiling. "It was amazing."

On Sunday, Lithuanians will gather around their televisions and a nation will hold its collective breath. This time, it will be Valanciunas who will be one of the 12 men shouldering a small nation's hopes, knowing that their names will never be forgotten if they secure victory over France in the 2013 EuroBasket final (ESPNews, WatchESPN, 2:50 p.m. ET) in Ljubljana.

There is a strong sense, speaking to the current team, that they are the guardians of a tradition, profiting from the rich inheritance bequeathed by past legends like Aryvdas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis and Sarunas Jasikevicius, who were totems for their people both when they were a part of the Soviet Union and then, later, as an independent country.

It is a legacy that goes back to before World War II, to successive European crowns in 1937 and 1939 before the Baltic states were annexed by their giant neighbor to the east. It was then revived and enhanced by the squads that claimed three consecutive Olympic bronze medals from 1992-2000, and the fabled group of a decade ago.

And now this one.

"I don't think we as a team, especially the young guys who are here for the first time, realize yet that we're making history," said guard Martynas Pocius, who played collegiately at Duke. "We're still in the tournament. We're still in that game mode. It's just another game for us. We will all digest it over time, in a week or so when we look back and see we accomplished something. It's great where we are. But I don't think it's sunk in yet."

Only Ksystof Lavrinovic does not need to imagine what it might feel like to stand atop the podium inside the Stozice Arena. The last survivor of the Class of 2003, the 33-year-old forward recalls the sensation of a gold medal being hung around his neck in Stockholm, arms around the shoulders of his brothers as their anthem was sung by 5,000 of their compatriots, some who had boarded ferries, others who had driven the long route round via northern Sweden, just to witness this moment with their own eyes. At the time, it seemed like just one more day at the office. 

"Now, 10 years later, I understand how important it is for players and for the people," Lavrinovic said. "For our country, basketball's like a second religion. We gave our best. But we had great guys. We were a great team. We played like demons."

The affection for their efforts, and the spoils, continue even today. "People sometimes try to kiss my hands," he laughs. That is what awaits, he says, if the current crop can make one final leap.

On home soil, two years ago, many felt the European title should be theirs by right. Instead, Lithuania slid out in the quarterfinals, dropping the ball on an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "It was too hard to watch how we lost the chance to compete for the medals," center Jonas Maciulis said. "But you cannot sit down and cry all the time, you have to go out and prove that you can do it."

That has been the mission since they opened training camp in August, ever since head coach Jonas Kazlauskas was persuaded to create a mixture of old and new on his roster and look for immediate returns, rather than rip up the page and focus entirely on the future.

Two losses in the first round, to Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, raised doubts. "We were really searching for our games, winning in the last quarter or last minute," Houston Rockets forward Donatas Motiejunas ,said. But they have been unbeaten since, surviving a high-stakes gambit in their quarterfinal with Italy before crushing Croatia 77-62 in Friday's semifinal.

Their depth has been an asset. The frontcourt, led by Maciulas and Valanciunas, has been dominating. Valanciunas, who has added 15 pounds this offseason, has received personal instruction from Sabonis. The Lithuanian hero has served as an unofficial assistant coach, rebounding balls, offering quiet observations, lending an assured presence. The pair have talked, often daily, the wisdom of the elder passed down.

The Lithuaninans' confidence has grown too. When they faced France in the second round, it was a no-contest. Lithuania accomplished what few others have managed here and threw a blanket over Tony Parker, holding the Spurs star to just 11 points in a 76-62 rout.

It will be an entirely different game in the rematch, Kazlauskas said. To quiet Parker once was a triumph. To do it twice would be a rarity. Everyone will need to contribute, one through 12, he added. Yet several buses and a caravan of cars did not begin a 24-hour journey south on Saturday morning with their passengers expecting silver. "We have every chance to win gold," Valanciunas said. "Everything is in our hands."

They can expect civil honors, statues perhaps, if they deliver, if this group can ascend alongside the hoop greats of Lithuania. Three million left behind will gather around their screens, from Vilnius to Kaunas and into the countryside beyond, and try to will them on to a championship.

Motiejunas said the team knows what this final signifies. "At this moment, all those hearts are bouncing like one ball. That's something amazing," he said. "Now we have a chance to do something that happened 10 years ago and overwrite the history of our country's basketball."

They went into the locker room on Friday, one game left to go. Kazlauskas addressed the room, asking, "Is it enough?"

"We all said no," Motiejunas adds. "We're clear, we're stepping on the court looking for a championship. There is no option for us."

In the mind of an 11-year-old boy, somewhere in Lithuania, it would be a memory that might last a lifetime and beyond.

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