Dreamed of Zalgiris, not the Soviet team.
Sarunas Jasikevicius is one of the main stars of European basketball. He was considered a phenomenon even when he was a player, when he lifted four trophies of the winner of the Euroleague over his head, and has not changed his usual thirst for victory now – already as a young and talented coach of Barcelona.
Šaras has become a real treasure of Lithuanian basketball. However, the basketball player, born in 1976, picked up the ball for the first time in a completely different country – the Soviet Union, with which he has a very difficult relationship.
Mothers offered to have an abortion for the sake of the Olympics: after the refusal, the doors to the national team were closed to her
The conflict between Sarunas and Soviet ideology began even before the birth of the athlete, when his mother Rita, who played for the USSR national handball team, refused to participate in the 1976 Olympics.
“She was considered one of the stars of the national team and had to go to the Olympics. There was only one problem: if you play for the national team, and this national team represents the Soviet Union, your skills no longer belong to you, ”Jasikevičius wrote in his autobiography Laimėti neužtenka.
The turning point in the woman’s life was an urgent trip to Moscow in 1975, where doctors had to determine the cause of her abdominal pain. Initially, the diagnosis suggested that the girl had appendicitis, but the case took a much more unexpected turn: the handball player turned out to be pregnant, she was persuaded to have an abortion for the sake of the team.
“It was a problem. Not only because she and her father preferred to wait a little longer before starting a family, but mainly because of the upcoming Olympics.
Mom had a choice: to agree with those who put pressure on her and insisted on terminating the pregnancy, because the team needed her, or surrender to obscurity. That is, to choose me, to choose what no one expected, and to jeopardize the sports career for which she worked and endured any suffering, and to refuse the scenario proposed by other people.
She made her choice. “My son will give me back the Olympics,” she said. These were the words and dreams of my mother, who forever for the sake of me said goodbye to the hope of getting to the Olympics.
But for many years I didn’t know anything about it,” Jasikevicius recalled.
The decision hit Rita’s professional prospects hard. The head coach of the USSR national team Igor Turchin no longer wanted to see her in the squad. According to the handball player, the practice of abortion was widely used in the teams of the Union, and Turchin did not forgive her refusal. By the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which took place four years later, the athlete gained the best shape in her career, but she never received an invitation to the national team.
Sarunas’ childhood passed in Kaunas, it was not much different from the life of other children: the boy went to school, played basketball, ate his mother’s dumplings and tried to stay away from dubious companies. “I grew up in a middle class family. In the days of communism, we were all considered the middle class, ”wrote the basketball player.
Sharas loved Lithuania, but he could not even imagine that these lands would someday regain their independence. At a more mature age, he attributed this uncertainty to the influence of Soviet propaganda.
“My hometown was Kaunas and my home country was Lithuania. But this did not matter much: Moscow was still considered the capital of our state – the Soviet Union. It was beyond doubt, I had no idea how much things could change.
To be honest, when I was a child, I never thought that something like this would happen, that Lithuania would become a sovereign state. The communist propaganda machine successfully filtered the information.
I have vague memories of my father mentioning the independence of Lithuania. But he spoke in vague terms, as if something was holding him back. Once he told me that not so long ago Lithuania was an independent country, and this shocked me. We were not allowed to study such things, let alone discuss them. People were afraid to speak, almost all were members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. If you did not join it, you would have problems finding a job, you could easily be thrown out of society.
What could we even know about what is happening in the world? Nothing but that Americans are bad. We didn’t have the opportunity to watch movies from the US, except in secret, thanks to the advent of cassettes. My first encounter with American cinema was extremely unusual: we watched Rocky IV at a friend’s birthday party. Yes, the one where the main villain was made a Russian guy with a strange voice, capable of killing with one blow, but in the end losing to an American – a good guy with a big heart. On the way home, I thought and wondered, “Do they really see us like this?” But we managed to learn very little. We hardly watched anything from Spain, Italy or any other countries.
Moscow was the capital of our Mother Russia, and, like all obedient children, we trembled in fear of her,” said the Barcelona coach
But Sarunas was not going to join the army.
When on March 11, 1990, the Supreme Council announced the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, the boy had just turned 14 years old. The new reality shocked him:
“I didn’t understand anything. I remember the first news release after the announcement. At some point, the reporter said: “And now to the events abroad – in Moscow …”. In Moscow? Abroad? What a news…
You see, we loved Lithuania, but we were always part of something very big, which went back to Moscow. What happened looked unreal, I did not have the strength to realize it, because I remained a simple-minded boy who never worried about politics or any social changes, with the exception of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even if I tried to find information on my own, propaganda would still slip me only its unreliable part.
I love history, but not the one that was taught in school, because in the Soviet Union there was only one version of world events – the one that corresponded to propaganda. Later, I had the opportunity to get acquainted with a different view of history – a version of the Western world. I felt like I had a revelation.
During the “perestroika”, people had more opportunities for foreign trips. My father took me to Berlin, we went to museums and places that I read about in books. What struck me the most was the stories of the Berlin Wall Museum about people who tried to escape from East Germany. I got great satisfaction from visiting places where history was made. Real history.
My father started earning money in Germany, where he went three or four times a year. He even managed to save up for a foreign car. Finally, it was possible to transfer from the Lada and other Soviet cars. Nissan Sunny quickly gained popularity in Kaunas, so we bought it too.
Change was happening everywhere. I still remember the broadcast on TV when the parliament voted for independence. It took months, even years, for us to be recognized by other countries. Iceland was the first, but in 1991 we were still officially called part of the Soviet Union. Then the Russians broke off all trade ties with us: the store shelves were empty. Families received food stamps, but it was difficult – harder than just starting from scratch.
I did everything to get into the first McDonald’s in Moscow, and then went to an American school
Surprisingly, Sharunas’ favorite childhood memory is still associated with the capital of Russia and only partially with basketball.
“At the end of January 1990, the first McDonald’s opened in Russia. As I remember now, we went to Moscow for a tournament, and I could not miss the chance to visit it. I didn’t care that I would have to wait in line and stand in the cold for a long time, I prepared for this all my childhood when I went to school in the mornings in sub-zero temperatures. Nothing in the world could stop me from trying a hamburger. It remained to be hoped that the money that my father gave me with him would be enough for the purchase.
The emblem of the restaurant shone so brightly, and I tried to overcome the fear of approaching the cash register, I was afraid that such a whim would cost me too much. Just imagine: for a boy from Kaunas, eating at McDonald’s meant becoming a celebrity in the city. You could stand surrounded by classmates, and they all listened with open mouths to your ranting about french fries and beef patty buns. And about sweet soda – about real sweet soda!
At the checkout, they asked me if I wanted Coca-Cola or Sprite. What else “Sprite”? Of course, Cola! Incredibly, the guy just pressed the button and it poured into the glass. It was beyond human comprehension!” Jasikevicius laughed.
The young basketball player began to play for the youth team of the newly independent country. The first major tournament with his participation was the U16 European Championship, held in 1993 in Turkey. For the entire tournament, the Lithuanians suffered only one defeat – in the quarterfinals from the future winners from Greece. The whole world learned about the young and daring Balts, many players from that team were invited to screenings and commercial competitions. Like Sharasa: the 193-centimeter defender visited not only European countries, but even went to Australia. As a result, he was invited to play for the American school in Pennsylvania, from where he moved to the team of the University of Maryland in the NCAA in 1994, where he spent the next four years.
The basketball player could not get into the NBA after completing his student career, but returned overseas already in 2005: the seasons at Rytas, Olympia, Barcelona and Maccabi were left behind, and two years ahead at Indiana loomed . However, in January 2007, Jasikevicius became one of the heroes of the Pacers-Warriors trade involving eight players, including Al Harrington, Stephen Jackson and Mike Dunleavy, and spent the rest of the season with Golden State. In 26 games for the new team, the Lithuanian spent only 12 minutes on the floor on average and decided to return to Europe in the summer – he ended his history in the NBA, as he himself said.
Was close to joining CSKA in 2007 after returning from the NBA
At the same time, in the off-season of 2007, Sarunas for the first time found himself in a situation where he could seriously get into the Russian club: CSKA showed serious interest in the player, which needed to be strengthened after a heavy defeat in the Euroleague final from Panathinaikos Zeljko Obradovic. This time was also difficult for Jasikyavichyus: he was tormented by injuries to his right knee, groin and calf muscle, besides, in the EuroBasket 2007 semi-finals, the Lithuanians lost to the Russian team. Jasik blamed the organizers for the loss:
“We went undefeated, but before the match with Russia we got only 24 hours of rest, while the Russians got 48. I think this is unfair. They were fresher, pressed us instantly and took the lead after a 18:3 rush. There was nothing we could do…
I was angry at FIBA and wished with all my heart that Spain would win the final. But I had to watch JR Holden hit an absolutely crazy shot and bring Gasol and all of Spain to their knees. I was at the sideline with friends waiting for the awards ceremony and was silent. It was not Russia that upset me, I was disappointed by the compilers of the calendar.”
Contract negotiations with the new club continued even during the European Championship. The biggest offers were provided by CSKA and Olympiacos, but the defender, who refused to speak Russian, preferred a different option.
“I was not enthusiastic about the idea of moving to Moscow. I was much more interested in Panathinaikos. Zeljko Obradovic visited our game with France. Then he wrote me several messages and called. The conversation was easy and pleasant, like with Larry Bird in Tel Aviv. Obradovic kept calm: he wanted to convince me, but did not press when making a decision.
And he was fun to be with. Not only did he explain his game plan to me with a lot of pick-and-rolls that suited me well, but he also spoke wryly about the work ahead: “With so many shooting guards, this is going to be quite a spectacle. Especially on defense, but we’ll figure something out.” Of course he was joking. After all, if there is anything really serious in Obradovic’s basketball, it’s defense.
The Obradovic factor turned out to be very important, I would even say decisive for my choice. I wanted to play under a meticulous, strict and professional coach, and he was perfect for this role. I will never forget Pat Riley’s quote: “Hard work and dedication don’t guarantee you anything, but without hard work and dedication you don’t stand a chance.” I signed a two-year agreement with Panathinaikos for 6.5 million euros. Olympiacos offered 1 million more,” admitted the four-time Euroleague champion.
The next time they left Russia for Jasikevicius was already in 2010. Kazan UNICS liked the 34-year-old defender, who was without a club, even his pregnant wife Anna Duka agreed to give birth in Tatarstan. However, Rytas soon contacted the basketball player, and Sarunas went to play in Lithuania.
After completing his playing career in 2014, the Lithuanian retrained as a coach. First he became an assistant, and then he completely headed his native Zalgiris, with whom he enchantingly beat the Moscow Army Men in the match for third place in the Euroleague in 2018.
The success of the young specialist was noticed all over the world, and now he leads one of the strongest clubs in Europe – the Spanish “Barcelona”. Sarunas, who turns 46 in March, is predicted to have a bright future, and especially brave basketball fans are waiting for him as head coach in the NBA. But for some reason, there is confidence that even if the option with the United States remains just a fantasy, we still won’t see Jasikevicius in CSKA or another club from Russia.