This is my third trip to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. I’ve blogged about it before and each time I come, I learn a bit more about this tiny country. Vilnius and the Lithuanians have a nice, cozy, vibe and I had a delightful visit. The photo above shows a still snowy March afternoon sunset of Vilnius. I took the photo while walking from the school to my hotel.
On this particular trip, the focus was basketball. The 3 million Lithuanians are obsessed with the sport so it was a perfect country to host a high school basketball championship. I blogged about the tournament on my Principal’s blog,
The games were held at the Sarunas Marciulionis Basketball Academy. Marciulionis was one of the first European players to star in the NBA in the late 1980’s. He is most famous for the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic Basketball Team and their affiliation with the Grateful Dead. We watched the powerful documentary, “The Other Dream Team” that portrayed the story of the forming of that team and the independence movement of Lithuania from the Soviet Union. I thought that basketball was a way for them to express their independence and “fight” against the far more powerful Soviet army. Their defeat of the former USSR team in the bronze medal game in those ’92 Barcelona Olympics, must have been an amazing experience for the players and citizens of Lithuania. To this day, basketball is an obsession for the country.
We watched hundreds of players of all ages play in the Marciulionis Academy during the three days we were there. All of the teams were super organized with uniforms, and precision and fast-paced basketball. I noticed the proto-type Lithuanian “big” is lean and long-limbed, with short-cropped hair and a pointy head. Most of them can really play the game! Below is a photo of one of Marciulionio’s teams playing against the other Lithuanian great, Arvydas Sabonis‘s team.
It was a great trip and I hope to come back and visit again!
Thursday night I attended the Euroleague Basketball game between Besiktas of Istanbul and Partizan of Belgrade. As a basketball fan, it was almost a religious experience because of the most rabid basketball crowd I have ever seen in my life! Partizan won 87-72 to earn their first win in six tries in this year’s Euroleague, which is the basketball equivalent of soccer’s Champions League.
Partizan plays their early round games in the old, state owned, Pionir Hall. The stadium only seats around 8,000 people, but it is very, very loud. We arrived two hours before tip off and it was already almost full. Like soccer fans, the Partizan basketball fans sing many songs during the game, and have impromptu group cheers based on what is happening in the game. For example, when the small delegation of Turkish fans arrived, the crowd started singing about the history of the Serbs,defeating the Ottoman Turks and killing of a particular sultan. Of course it was in Serbian, so I doubt many of the Turkish fans understood.
The photo above is from after the game. The crowd and team stayed after and they sing “Partizane!” An amazing, exhilarating experience! It showed the best characteristics of the Serbs, they are a passionate people and love sport.
This is for a team that is 0-5 in this year’s Euroleague competition! They have a good, very young team, but with a payroll many times lower than other teams in the competition, they have a difficult time competing year in and year out. Their strategy is to develop young players and then sell them to the bigger teams. This is one of their main sources of revenue. They also get import players who want to make a name for themselves in Europe or who are new to international basketball. The positive is many players want to play for the club because the team is famous throughout Europe, they have an intense training program that develops many players, and of course, they will play in what I argue, it the best atmosphere to play basketball in the world. The experience must compare to Madison Square Garden in New York, or perhaps Cameron Stadium at Duke University.
Partizan will improve this year and will be tough to beat next year. They have three 7-footers, Leo Westermann, a French guard that reminds me of the San Antonio Spur’s Manu Ginobli, Drew Gordon, a 6-8 power forward from New Mexico that has great inside moves, and a host of athletic Serbs that can shoot. It will be fun to follow them this season, at least in the Adriatic Basketball League. I will upload a video of the post game singing when I fix my internet connection.
I would like to give a big thanks to my friend, and former Partizan player, Jagoš, for taking me to the game and sharing his knowledge of Serbian basketball with me.
This is something you might not see for awhile – Dirk Nowitzki playing basketball. Last night, Serbia defeated Germany in the European Basketball Championships hosted by Lithuania. I enjoyed watching some of the game last night, especially big Dirk! He scored 25 points but he was not mixing it up and playing with the aggressiveness that he does in the NBA.
The Serbs are now 4-0 in the competition and play France tonight to determine the winner of their group. After tonight, then the knockout phase begins. Serbia has looked very solid with contributions from many different players. They have the deepest team in the tourney. My favorite player, Dusko Savanovic scored 25 points, mostly from the three point line. They also have a smooth point guard, Milos Teodosic, who many consider the top point guard in Europe. Nenad Krstic, the Boston Celtic center, also played well last night, taking it right at Nowitzki in the post.
I am looking forward to see who Serbia handles Tony Parker, the San Antonio Spur and French point guard. The winner will earn first place in the group and get a higher seed in the Round of 16 knockout phase. Germany also qualified as the third-place team in the group.
“March Madness” is a nickname referring to the end of the basketball seasons. The American universities and high schools complete their seasons in the month of March. I am a coach of the high school boys’ basketball team at the International School of Belgrade. March Madness started a bit earlier for us as we won the basketball tourney this weekend. It was hosted by the Anglo American School of Sofia, Bulgaria. We played against four private schools in Sofia over two days of competition. Yesterday afternoon we defeated the Sofia Christian Academy in the finals, by a score of 53-49. It was a great weekend of basketball and besides having fun, we improved as a team. We are preparing for our Central and Eastern European Schools Association (CEESA) basketball championship in two weeks in Riga, Latvia. The Dragons are now 9 wins and 5 losses for the season. We have 2 more games and then we are off to Latvia on March 9th.
I also made is a father-son weekend by taking Oliver on the trip. The little guy was a trooper and was patient during all of the games. We went to Burger King three times and swam in the hotel pool. He would sit on the bench next to me and draw pictures. I would then have to run him out to the school’s playground between games. He was a fan favorite there and everyone knew his name. He is a charismatic little fellow with a ton of energy! It was nice to be with him alone and not with his brother and sister. Oliver kept wanted to get food or toys to take back to Belgrade for his big brother Owen.
Last week Partizan defeated Maccabi Electra 3 games to 1 in a best-of-five quarterfinal series in the Euroleague Basketball playoffs. They now qualify for the Final Four tourney to be held in Paris in early May. Maccabi is from Tel Aviv, Israel and for those readers not knowledgeable about basketball, the Euroleague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer. It is the premier professional club basketball league in Europe.
Above is the logo of club. On top it says шампиони which translated from the Serbian Cyrillic means champion. In the Serbian Latin alphabet, is reads a bit easier for English speakers – Šampioni. On the bottom, KK stands for košarkaški klub. Košarka is “basketball” in English. The name Partizan in the cyrillic script then follows. The team is named after Tito’s resistance army in World War II, hence the Red Star in the middle. The club was founded right after WWII in 1945 as part of a youth sports association in the People’s Army of Jugoslavia (JNA).
I’ve been thinking about the Euroleague and Partizan. I wonder how Partizan would do in America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) or in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). One point I want to make, the Euroleague should study the nba.com and espn.com web sites on how to market and cover its league. The Euroleague website really could do a lot more in promoting the teams and players. There is little in-depth information and commentary on the games or match-ups. They do not highlight star players at all. If I was running the Euroleague, I would make it a lot better. I know that basketball is not as popular in Europe and it needs to compete with soccer, but a David Stern-like commissioner could really raise its level of popularity and money earning. They need an American sense of marketing sports entertainment.
When I arrived to Serbia last year, I picked Red Star as my team. (note – I just read an article that describes how Red Star basketball is facing bankruptcy.) But this year, I have admired the Partizan basketball team and now am a big fan. Two of our students at the international school have parents on the management board and another two play for the youth teams. I have a connection to the team and hope they can win it all. Unlike most European countries, basketball is a bit more popular in Serbia than soccer, although the Serbian national soccer team is in this year’ s World Cup and Red Star won a Champions League title in 1991. This gives Partizan an advantage in that it has access to a big pool of good young players and the packed arenas with knowledgeable and rabid fans, makes them tough to beat at home. Other arenas are much quieter. Serbs are also tall, active, and tough generally as a culture and this also translates to good basketball teams.
Partizan plays an exciting, fundamentally sound style of basketball. A big factor is their coach, Duško Vujoševic. The guy began coaching at age 17 and spent most of his career in Italy. He must not have been much of a player. He is currently the coach of the national team of Montenegro besides Partizan.
Like all the Euroleague teams, Partizan does have several imported players and three start for Partizan. This also gives a good chance to compare Euroleague basketball to the NBA or NCAA. The type of American players that end up playing in Europe are those guys that had excellent university careers, but couldn’t stick with an NBA team. So considering they are a bit older than the current college players in the US and they had strong careers in the NCAA, I think that they would do well in the “March Madness’ tourney, but not so well in the NBA. The two Americans players for Partizan are 6-8 center Lawrence Roberts and 6 foot point guard Bo Maccalebb. Roberts used to play for Red Star so I have followed him for over a year. He was an All-American and the SEC Player of the Year for Mississippi State. Maccalebb was the Sun Belt Conference player of the year for the University of New Orleans. Both guys first played in Turkey or Greece before coming to Serbia. I would like to interview them to see how they like living in Belgrade. The other import is 6-11 Czech forward, Jan Vesely. He is very thin and more of a small forward than a power forward. The other two starters are Serbian. Dušan Kecman is a solid 6-5 shooting guard and Aleks Marić is a 6-11 center that is a force inside, averaging 17 points and 9 boards in Euroleague play this year. Marić is a Serb that grew up in Australia (many Serbs left during the war) and then had a good career at the University of Nebraska, being named to the All Big-12 team as a senior.
They also have a strong bench of young local talent. Slavko Vraneš is a 7-6 giant Montenegrin. He played one game for the New York Knicks. He is a bit slow, but he takes up a lot of space near the basket. Aleksandar Rasić is a good back up point guard. Partizan puts a lot of effort into its youth program and they produce many great players. Unfortunately, many of them eventually leave for more money on other European club teams.
I’ll be watching the Final Four in Paris. Partizan faces some stiff competition with three giants of Euroleague basketball also qualifying for the final four. Barcelona (with Minnesota Timberwolf prospect Ricky Rubio), CKSA Moscow (last year’s runner up), and Athens Olympiacos (also in Final Four last year). The format is knock-out, just like the NCAA Final Four, and they play Olympiacos on May 7th. I don’t understand the delay, perhaps the national leagues are finishing first.
For those of you following my blog, our team won the grand final game against Gimnasium Milos Crjnanski by 2 points and were crowned CEESA champions for 2009-2010. More on this later. I am blogging about today is the basketball machine called FMP.
Saturday we played the final games of the CEESA basketball tourney at “Basketland” which is a wonderful basketball/steel factory facility. Above is one of the two gymnasiums on the basketland grounds. We took the tour of Basketland and between the two gymnasiums are the assembly lines and warehouses for making metal products like aluminum cans, silverware, etc. This combination of factory and basketball training center is the vision of the owner of FMP (Fabrika Metahl Proizvoda), Nebojsa Covic.
When Covic bought the basketball club ILR Zeleznik in 1991, they had folded due to the increased cost of competing in the higher leagues in Serbia. They started out as a neighborhood (Zeleznik is a large suburb of Belgrade with about 20,000 inhabitants) team that played their games outdoors in the 1970’s. They eventually got better, but could not afford the costs of maintaining the team in a higher division.
Covic has made KK FMP into the third Belgrade basketball team after Red Star and Partizan. They do well in the NBL, or Adriatic Basketball Association. Note that the KK stands for kasorka (Serbian for basketball) klub. The strength of the club is its youth program. Covic has several basketball complexes in Zeleznik and they really develop great players. On Saturday, a group of 14 and 15 year olds were practicing in the other gym. One of them had to be close to 7 feet and was dunking with ease.
FMP is represents for me, Serbia’s serious approach to basketball. I can see why there are so many Serbs in the NBA and European leagues. They just play a lot and many of them are very tall. The neighborhood also has a lot of Communist era block apartments. This combination of beautiful basketball facilities surrounded by industrial and grey ugliness impresses me.
All of the CEESA teams had a fantastic final day at Basketland. With four games, it was an orgy of basketball and the great facilities. Thank you Mr. Covic.
We had a successful day number one of the CEESA “Blue” Division tourney. In the first game we defeated the Anglo American School of Sofia 50-20. In the second game, we came back from a sluggish first half to beat Nova School from Skoplje, Macedonia 55 – 38.
We now complete the round-robin schedule with a game tomorrow morning against the Pechersk School of Kiev, Ukraine.
Note the big fellow in the back right. I wish he was playing for our team!
All of the results for Day One of the Tourney are below.
Belgrade 51-20 Sofia
Pechersk 46 – 33 Skopje
Belgrade 55 – 38 Skopje
Pechersk 52 – 34 Sofia
Latvia 45 – 13 Helsinki
Zagreb 43 – Crnjanski 59
Latvia 42 – 50 Crnjanski
Zagreb 42 – 22 Helsinki.