Tip Off: How Basketball Became Lithuania’s Lifeline During Their Soviet Occupation

by Niklas Walker

Lithuania, a country known for little more than being occupied by Russia until the early 90s, is one of the biggest basketball nations in the world. The small country of 2.7 million (the same size as Chicago) has been a powerhouse on the court since they reclaimed their independence from the USSR in 1994, winning multiple Olympic bronze medals, EuroBasket tournaments, and dominating the EuroLeague. Not only would they maintain dominance in the European scene, but the rural towns of Lithuania would birth players like Domantas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas, star players in today’s NBA. 

However, before taking their European basketball throne as Lithuania, local players were forced to play for the USSR on the national scale. In the local basketball scenes of the 1980s, the Lithuanian basketball club Žalgiris created a heavy, politically tense rivalry with Russia’s own club, CSKA Moscow. When Lithuanian’s faced a geopolitical conflict they had no military strength to face, they looked as basketball as a way to make their mark on their oppressors.

Before the fame, however, Lithuania’s love for the sport affected the country socially too and gave young men – who were considerably more susceptible to being emotionally closed off because of the previous generations’ experiences in the Soviet Union – a way to bond.

“Basketball would be a way for Lithuanian men to learn to be together,” said Karolis Vyšniauskas, a Lithuanian reporter and editor for NARA, a non-profit journalism organization. “I wasn’t a particularly good basketball player, but I would actually make friends. We would have so much in common when we were playing, than compared to when we’d meet in school or the street, where we didn’t have that much in common. We needed a special setting to be friendly with each other. It’s way more than a sport, it’s like a way of communicating.” 

Basketball in Lithuania started with somewhat humble beginnings. The first Lithuanian basketball players were women in 1919 who were introduced to the sport indirectly through the popularity of netball, an offshoot of a very early form of basketball. Interestingly enough, basketball’s popularity in Lithuania was delayed because of its reputation as a “woman’s sport”. The first official game of basketball in Lithuania was played by men, and it wasn’t until 1937, during that years EuroBasket, that Lithuania officially adopted basketball as their sport of choice. It was that same EuroBasket where Lithuania became the champions of Europe as well, leading to a half decade of dominance with back-to-back EuroBasket titles. EuroBasket celebrations would be short lived, as the Lithuanian national team was dissolved due to their occupation, and instead all Lithuanian players were forced to play for the Soviet Union’s national team. 

“The most important fact to understand about the whole situation was that technically, officially, Lithuania was a part of the Soviet Union,” explained Vyšniauskas. “Lithuania felt like they were occupied. it’s not what we have now with the EU, where we joined voluntarily.

Tension between Lithuania and the Soviet Union were especially high, and while they could not bring down the Republic’s iron fist with violence or weaponry, they could use basketball. 

“We can’t defeat [the Soviet Union] in real life, in politics,” mentioned Vyšniauskas. “We’re still under your control, but we can win against you on the basketball court. It was a way to regain independence and power. In the late 80s and early 90s, Lithuania got their political independence, but when those games were happening no one knew what was going to happen.”

“We had no weapons to use,” said Lithuanian basketball director Arunas Pakula in an AP interview. “The only opportunity to prove ourselves against the Soviets was in basketball”. 

Established in 1944 as Lithuania’s own basketball club, Žalgiris Kaunas held an intense rivalry with Russian military basketball club CSKA Moscow. Both teams were part of the USSR Premier League, with Žalgiris representing Lithuania and CSKA representing Russia in the same way the Lakers and Knicks would represent Los Angeles and New York. A key difference, however, was the fact that much of the team’s roster would be filled with players from that location. Unlike the Lakers, featuring players from all around the United States, Žalgiris’ team was almost exclusively Lithuanian, and CSKA’s Russian. Personal feuds were likely between Lithuanian and Russian players. 

“Lithuanians were mean [to CSKA Moscow],” said Lina Petruškevičiutė, who grew up in Lithuania in the 80s. “When I was about eight years old, we used to watch the games. It was religion in Lithuania. You came back from working outside and you’d watch the game. Everything would stand still.” 

Games were intensely physical, and the crowds at the Žalgiris/CKSA games were rowdy. At this point, Lithuanians and most of the world were aware that the Russian occupation was no longer beneficial to the Baltic states, Lithuania included. 

Žalgiris became just as good of a team as CSKA. Basketball was no longer just a sport. It was a silent protest. 

“Moscow was the center of the whole Soviet Union,” said Vyšniauskas. “Lithuania was a relatively tiny country in the western part of the Soviet Union. Imagine that small country and their team, Žalgiris, going to play Moscow’s team, who represented the whole Soviet Union. It felt like David and Goliath.”

The club would help other occupied Baltic clubs in the sport as well, in an act of solidarity. In 1973, Žalgiris Kaunas intentionally lost to Estonian club Tallinn Kalev in a USSR basketball league competition. 

“That game meant nothing for us,” said small forward Modestas Paulauskas on the loss years later, “while for Estonians it was crucial in order to avoid the fight for the survival in the highest league”.

The rivalry between the two clubs came to a head in the 1980s, when both Žalgiris and CSKA Moscow met in the USSR championship finals six times. Three of those times – in 1985, 1986, and 1987 – the Lithuanian club would beat CSKA and raise the championship trophy against those who had represented the Iron Curtain. 

40 years later, CSKA Moscow player Sergey Tarakanov would go on to claim that the losses CSKA Moscow had gone through were a “tragedy”. 

“[Relationships with Lithuanian players off court] were pretty tense in my case, as I didn’t acknowledge their superiority even after our defeats,” recalled Tarakanov in a Baltic Times interview. “I never liked to lose during the game or practice. It was natural for me to compete with Lithuanian players all the time even when we all played for the Soviet national team. Especially for Zalgiris players, as a captain of the CSKA team, I was a guy who personified their most fierce rival.”

Because the independent state of Lithuania did not exist in the 1980s, playing basketball on the national scale for Lithuanians was only feasible through the Soviet Union national team. Ten years after Lithuania’s strong entrance at EuroBasket, the Soviet Union national team would suit up, with Lithuanian players making up nearly a third of their fourteen-man roster. Suddenly, Lithuania’s autonomy was gone. Lithuanian players who wanted to play on the national level were forced to represent – and bring massive glory – to their oppressors, all while their actual home country fell under forcible rule, and their people mistreated. 

Because of this, Lithuanians who had fallen in love with the sport in their childhood faced a dreaded monkey’s paw of playing the game they loved professionally but representing some of their worst political enemies in the process. For Lithuanian hoopers, many of which were hardworking people with an urge to bring glory to their family and hometown, they were willing to pay the price.

“The wish to play was bigger than the fear of being associated with the Soviet world,” said Vyšniauskas. “They wouldn’t identify as Soviet citizens, but they would still play for the Soviet team because that was the only way to play at all.”

The Soviet national team went on a terror for 43 years, earning two gold Olympic medals, three FIBA World Cup championships, and 14 EuroBasket titles. The multi-cultural team would dominate national competitions and would even win the gold medal for basketball at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.  It would be their second – as well as their last – victory, spearheaded by Lithuanian legends Šarūnas Marčiulionis and Arvydas Sabonis. 

Once Lithuania declared their own independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, the Soviet basketball team fell apart. They failed to even qualify for EuroBasket 1991, giving strong credence to the idea that the Soviet Union team was only as powerful as they were due to help from the countries they had occupied, including Lithuania. 

“It was proof that, yes, it many ways [the Soviet team] was more like the Lithuanian team, they just couldn’t wear the jersey,” said Vyšniauskas.

Lithuania’s basketball prowess would finally be used to represent their own homeland, a point of pride. After nearly 40 years of losing their identity within the sport, Lithuania came out swinging, rejoining FIBA and sending their best players to the Olympics to prove that Lithuania would not be counted out.

The ultimate victory for the reborn Lithuanian national team would come during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. For the first time since the late 1930s, Lithuania would once again play for their own glory. After making it to Barcelona, the Lithuanian national team, led by Sabonis and Marčiulionis, would wreak havoc on the unsuspecting opposition. The team had reached the quarter finals, destroying Brazil 114-96, but were then blown out by the United States “Dream Team” consisting of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, and many more of the absolute best players the NBA had to offer. 

The defeat would send Lithuania to the bronze medal game, which had still exceeded the newly independent country’s expectations. In a storybook-worthy twist of fate, Lithuania would have to face the Unified Team – a team made up of the countries of the former Soviet Union, including Russia – to win the bronze medal. The Lithuanian team was no longer simply fighting for a bronze medal, but they were fighting for the very same ethical freedom they strived to capture during rivalry games between Žalgiris and CSKA Moscow, now on an international level. 

In an incredibly close match, the Lithuanian national team defeated their former oppressors on the world stage and won the bronze medal when no one else had even expected them to move past the group stage. 

Not only did Lithuania defeat their oppressors from just years prior, but they had made their mark on the international landscape. Lithuanian players would soon move into the NBA, Sabonis and Marčiulionis being some of the first. Sabonis would become a core piece in the playoff Portland Trailblazers team of the 90s, while Marčiulionis joined the Golden State Warriors, making a huge impact on an already good team. 

Lithuanians, after years of occupation and forced hiding behind the Iron Curtain, were finally on the map. 

“Any time we see a Lithuanian name,” said Petruškevičiutė, “we go crazy. We love seeing people from our tiny country in the spotlight.”

The occupation of Lithuania, and the subsequent conflict following the country’s declaration of independence, has been in the news lately serving as a parallel to the Ukranian-Russian war. Russian tactics are even being reused, as the TV Tower from Ukraine was attacked a month ago, just like the way the Soviet Union centered their attack on Lithuania at their own TV Tower in 1991. 

Basketball, again, becomes a place for solidarity to be shown. Many players on the current roster of CSKA Moscow – including Georgian Tornike Shengelia, German Johannes Voigtmann, and even Lithuanian Marius Grigonis – have abandoned the club. The club itself has been suspended from EuroLeague related activity. 

While sports are the last thing on every Ukrainian’s mind, the symbolic nature of the sport in places like the Baltics and the rest of Eastern Europe remain strong and offer a glimmer of hope and support in a time of undeniable tragedy. 

“These people still try to live a normal life,” said Vyšniauskas, “and people in psychological backgrounds would advise that. You have to keep your normal life, because otherwise it would be hard for you to live every day. It’s important to keep normalcy. Playing basketball can be one of those things.” 


Not Searching for Validation: Emerson College’s Quidditch Team is the school’s highest rated athletics program

by Niklas Walker

BOSTON – Quidditch practice starts with bananas. 

“It’s a culture thing,” says co-captain Danny Dessner. “I used to eat a banana before practice and then people started asking for it, so I buy people bananas now.” 

Culture is important, as it is with all sports, but it’s especially important within Emerson College Quidditch. Culture and comradery may as well become the Emerson Lions’ motto. For a team playing what is essentially a “fake sport” – which, for the record, isn’t the case: it was adapted from a fictional sport – the Lions have an intense friendship, fantastic chemistry, and seem to pay no mind to the social stigma of playing the “Harry Potter sport”. Funny enough, they’re also the highest rated student athletes at Emerson College. Their squad is rated Division II within US Quidditch and they’re ranked 19th nationwide out of 43 colleges. 

If you’re scratching your head wondering how a sport centered around flying broomsticks and “golden snitches” has evolved into a sport with divisions, rivalries, and nationwide rankings, you wouldn’t be the first person to do so. Quidditch has become the prime example of a “sport for people who don’t play sports”, through mockery in popular culture. For many people, quidditch is something that they’ve only seen used as a punchline on an episode of The Big Bang Theory, a show meant to essentially mock “nerd” culture. Movies like “The Internship” offer an interpretation of quidditch as something that unathletic Silicon Valley kids play in their free time, as if they were role playing within the Harry Potter universe. 

“One of the worst things to happen to quidditch is Harry Potter,” Dessner said. “The similarities start and end with the name. People who try it for Harry Potter are oftentimes disappointed when they realize how physical it is, and the people who would like it end up having a pre-conceived notion about the relation. It’s a barrier.”

This is as far from the truth as you can get. Under US Quidditch’s Media Coverage archive, there’s a plethora of articles validating the sport as something worth looking at. In 2014, CNN published a report titled “Quidditch is real, and it wants to go pro”. Two years later, in 2016, the Chicago Tribune published an article titled “Real-life Quidditch: No flying, but lots of strategy, tackling and athleticism”. For years now, the sport has been growing and evolving. 

“It’s evolved a ton,” says Emerson Lions coach Kieran Collier. “Quidditch as a sport is only 16 years old or so, so it’s really in its infancy as far as sports go. It was definitely a bit more whimsy. We were still using wooden brooms to put between our legs. They used to have capes — it was very cosplay-esque — and then it [evolved to] ‘oh, we’re athletic but with like, wooden brooms and just a bit of whimsy. It’s definitely faded out a bit, that ‘not taking it seriously’ nature. I think the fact that you’re playing quidditch in itself shows that you’re not taking it too seriously. That’s kind of intrinsic to the sport. But everything else has been pushed in a more competitive format.”

While flying brooms and the image of a young Daniel Radcliffe saturate the general public’s knowledge of the sport, the game is incredibly athletic. Think of quidditch of it as a cross between rugby and basketball. There are post moves, screens, blocks, even dunks to some extent. It’s an incredibly fast paced game, with multiple facets to its offense and defense. There’s basically two games happening at the same time during a match: the beater game and the chaser game. 

To oversimplify, the role of the beater is to deny the other team an even matchup, as a hit from a beater’s dodgeball (or bludger) sends a player back to their own goalpost. The chaser’s play more of a man-to-man game, attempting to score with a volleyball (the quaffle) through footwork and passing. Positioning and strategy are incredibly important, with team effort being a necessity to win. There is no “hero ball” in quidditch, there is only team play. Its physicality is also something that one may not think about without watching a match. 

Quidditch is a full contact sport, and a co-ed one at that thanks to its inclusive gender rule; not allowing more than half of the team on the field to consist of one gender. Games are filled to the brim with full tackles, may contain bleeding noses and mouths, and in the worst cases, broken bones. It’s the last thing that would happen during an “unathletic game for unathletic people”.

While the validity of the sport might be the only thing on a casual viewer’s mind, it’s the absolute last thing on the minds of the players and coaches. There’s a certain disdain that shows up in the players’ face when there’s any mention of Harry Potter, or anything related to the media’s interpretation of the sport.

Instead, the players are hard at work perfecting their craft. Practices are lighthearted and fun. Cee-Lo Green plays on a Bluetooth speaker while each player run around the field doing high knee warmups. 

“I woke up at 12 today!” one player enthusiastically tells the entire team. Cheers erupt from the cohort.

One half of the field focuses on beater techniques. In this case, beaters are learning a new defensive move: dropping the bludger currently in their hand in order to catch one being thrown at them. The movement is slick, and an instant advantage offensively when facing other colleges in season. The other half, essentially the rest of the team, does general training so that they can achieve great offensive and defensive possessions. Passing is the first drill. 

“The day I have to make a hail mary, that’s gonna be the pass,” said one player, while throwing the quaffle as hard as he could to another player. 

It moves from passing practice to a 2v2 scrimmage, where the main focus was communication off ball. The Lions players yell “I got ball” and “on your left” loud and clear, obviously aware of the necessity for communication within this team sport. Players call for screens like its basketball and run past defenders as if they were Kobe Bryant heading into the midrange. There’s speed, skill, and footwork. It all coalesces into a fast and fluid offense that can put many other collegiate athletes to shame. 

The team is also well managed. Weekly meeting between captains and coaches lead to roster changes and play creation. The team even creates certain per-team lineups that give the Lions an advantage during tournaments.

“We do have a few set quaffle lines or beater pairs we try to keep together as much as possible because they see success together, or they’ve built chemistry,” mentioned Delk. 

The team even scouts their competitors, and the competition can get serious.

“Coaches and captains do a lot of research prior to games by watching footage and talking to other people in the community in order to best prepare the rest of the team,” said Delk. “So far there hasn’t been a tournament where we haven’t scouted our competition and it has certainly helped us prep the rest of the team.”

While the athletic part of the sport is no doubt important, what comes off in a greater concentration with this Lions team is chemistry. 

“We try to emphasize from day one that this has the potential to be the first friend group people have on campus,” says Sierra Delk, co-captain. “As the season goes on, we emphasize cheering on teammates successes and uplifting them when they are learning. Growth isn’t linear for anyone and creating a space where people don’t feel the need to compare their progress to another player’s has been a key part of creating relationships on this team.”

The Lions’ social focus when it comes to team chemistry becomes palpable energy on the field. In between drills and scrimmages, teammates are discussing Halloween costumes, highlighting opportunities in the next drill, and just laughing together. It’s jovial, while also being productive, something that other team sports programs may lose in exchange for a “winning culture”. For coach Collier, failure is a winning culture. 

“I’m really big on encouraging people to make mistakes,” said Collier. “The only way you’re gonna learn is by trying new things, making mistakes, and failing, and learning from that failure. I think when you’re telling the whole team ‘No, I want you to fail together’, it can help people bond because they’re all learning at the same time, so they can have that shared experience to bond over and to make connections.”

For this team, being the “Harry Potter” sport means nothing. There is no shame in the flying brooms and capes because the team knows that what they do is so much more than that. It’s intense competition, legitimate strategy, and their own blood, sweat, and tears. They pour their entire being into quidditch the same way basketball or football players do, and they pay no mind to the people who feel negatively about a “nerd’s game”.

“I never want to leave the tight knit community that I’ve found just based on some associations from something that we have no control over,” said Dessner, “especially when this has the competitive spirit and diversity I’m looking for.”

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