Lithuania Expected To Bounce Back Into Basketball Limelight
BARCELONA, Spain - Lithuania was the best basketball team in Europe and an Olympic gold-medal contender when World War II and Soviet annexation combined to render the Baltic nation nonexistent in 194O.
But if all goes according to plan, Lithuania could pick up right where it left off in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Thanks to the lobbying efforts of Lithuanian players Sarunas Marciulionis of the Golden State Warriors and center Arvidas Sabonis of Spain's Valladolid - and a plan to seek dual citizenship for players of Lithuanian heritage such as Americans Chuck Aleksinas and Joe Arlauckas and Canada's Leo Rautins - the tiny Baltic republic could emerge as the successor to splintering European powers such as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
In fact, many believe the gold-medal game next summer will come down to a battle between Lithuania and the United States. But Sabonis, a two-time NBA draft pick who led the Soviet Union to the 1988 Olympic title, admits he's just happy to play for his real country.
"It was a dream that Lithuanians cherished for a very long time," he said. "But sincerely did we never think we would be able to participate in the Olympic Games of Barcelona. It's marvelous."
The International Olympic Committee - which Sabonis lobbied personally last year in Lausanne - welcomed Lithuania and the other Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia back into the fold at its executive board meeting in September in Berlin. But formal acceptance from FIBA, the world governing body of basketball, must wait until its central board meeting beginning Dec. 19 in Springfield, Mass.
Even then, Lithuania may not get clearance to use all the players it wants. FIBA rules strictly prohibit playing internationally for more than one country; in addition, players seeking either dual citizenship or naturalization papers must be a citizen of their new country for at least three years before they qualify.
None of the Americans ever has lived in Lithuania, and Rautins, a former first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia 76ers, has been a member of Canada's national team since 1978.
"This is a problem," said FIBA spokesman Florian Wanninger. "We have some very strict rules regarding naturalization. I mean, it is possible to make some exceptions I suppose, but it does not happen very often, let me assure you. A national team should accurately represent that nation. I don't see how some of these American or Canadian players could qualify."
Nevertheless, Aleksinas, a former University of Connecticut star, reportedly sent his citizenship papers to the Lithuanian authorities on Oct. 21, while Rautins has given a verbal commitment. Arlauckas admits he's still undecided, but has until the FIBA meetings in December to commit.
"If I didn't think we'd have a great team, I wouldn't even consider getting involved," said Arlauckas, who spent one season with the Sacramento Kings of the NBA. "But the fact that it's a pretty good team with a good shot at a medal, well, that's why I'm thinking about it."
Either way, Marciulionis, who averaged 10.9 points last year in the NBA, and Sabonis are dedicated to making sure Lithuania fields the best team possible. Together with ex-Soviet teammate Valdemaras Homicius, they scour international rosters and media guides until all hours, lobbying Lithuanian players to sign up and pressing others with Lithuanian heritage to convert.
But tracking down Lithuania's best players isn't easy. While some are playing pro ball in Italy, Germany, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, another 40 were farmed out to the Polish league. Arlauckas and Rautins play alongside Sabonis and Homicius in Spain, but forward Arturas Karnyshovas was tracked down playing for Seton Hall. Aleksinas, rumored to be in Bulgaria, turned up in Canada instead.
As a result, phone calls and faxes ricochet all over Europe and North America 24 hours a day, from Sabonis' home in Valladolid to his agent's office in Malaga to FIBA headquarters in Munich to the basketball magazine's office in Kaunas that serves as Lithuanian Olympic central, and back again.
But even if Lithuania gets only half the players it wants, Araunas Pakula, a journalist turned Olympic-team director, said the effort is worth it.
"We are not counting on the naturalized players," he said. "If we get them it will be wonderful, and we are proceeding with their cases. But it's more important that we build up a strong team based on our players abroad. That will be Lithuania's future."
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