“You guys are from the UK? And you’re basketball fans? Really?” Polite but slightly incredulous questions such as those were asked on a daily basis by Lithuanians, Poles and Turks in Panevezys, towards the characteristically conspicuous hardcore British hoops fans who had snapped up cheap flights and not-so-cheap camping just to see their team at Eurobasket.
It was a surreal week for the contingent who had travelled to northern Lithuania to follow their national team – a lack of hotels in Panevezys, off the tourist trail even by Lithuanian standards, meant the organisers had to arrange a temporary campsite to host most fans, and TV cameras trekked out to the former airfield to document this curiosity. Brits formed the majority, but there was a healthy number of Polish and Turkish fans, including a Spanish man who wore a Lithuania tshirt on top of a cow costume for most of the week. Turkey was by far the most exuberantly represented visiting country at the Panevezio Arena, their full drum line and chorus happily posing for photos with all and sundry long after final buzzers.
The spartan accomodation conditions were completely outshone by the devotion of the Lithuanian people to basketball, which for someone like me, coming from a country which treats the sport with indifference-bordering-on-derision, was like every Christmas and birthday rolled into one. Menus shaped like basketballs, pizzas shaped like basketballs, huge basketball installations on top of shopping malls, you name it, they had it. The memories of British players chasing shadows down 30 against Turkey have already faded, what will endure is the way that Lithuania as a country embraces and celebrates basketball. The draw may not have done the British team any favours in terms of advancing in the tournament, but I personally would not have traded playing Lithuania in a sold out arena for anything. Likewise the mutual appreciation society that was formed between British and Turkish fans after the former’s victory over Poland ensured the latter qualified for the second phase, causing the GB team to be celebrated more in the Turkish press than in its own, was a memory that will live long after the nets have been cut down in Kaunas.
On court, the hosts rode both homecourt advantage and tournament-leading three point shooting to come back to beat GB and then out-manouevre Turkey, but then ran into a buzzsaw of ball-movement, spacing and execution from Spain in the first half of their matchup that will likely not be matched again in the entire tournament. Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro starred as Spain put up 62 points in the first half. With Pau absent against Turkey, they scored only 2 in the fourth and finished with 57 for the game. Lithuania dropped 30 on GB in the second quarter but were held to 5 in the third. Group A had no absolutely dominant team, with all three qualifiers taking 1-1 records to the next phase. Spain with a healthy Pau Gasol are still the pick of the bunch, although they need more from the point guard position, as they struggled for stretches in the two games in which Navarro wasn’t firing, against GB and Turkey. Speaking of the latter, the enigmatic point forward torch seems to have been passed from Hedo Turkoglu to Emir Preldzic, the Fenerbahce man leading the team in usage rate at 27.0 (source: In The Game). Preldzic and Enes Kanter are the future of this team, and the second group phase with its killer lineup could be their coming out party.
For Team GB, it was a typically British tale of heroic failure, abject failure and then partial redemption leaving the fans going home happy, even with a nagging sense of what might have been. Had Joel Freeland been fully fit and well, had Robert Archibald been available for the whole five games, not to mention had Pops Mensah Bonsu not been injured or that guy from Detroit suited up, a more realistic margin of victory over Poland may have been enough to see us through. Nevertheless, the tournament was also a wake up call as to the gulf in class in terms of talent, infrastructure, organisation and basketball culture between GB and Europe’s elite. It’s not enough to pat ourselves on the back for a good effort in the last game and chalk it off to absences. Most countries had players absent, but long term investment in and appreciation for basketball that has delivered them many, many more options than our improvised, hastily assembled programme could call on.
All this is not to say the GB project hasn’t made achievements – it has, and they should be celebrated, but we have a long way to go before we become part of the European basketball mainstream. It won’t happen quickly – authentic basketball culture isn’t something that can be manufactured or marketed in an insant. It takes time, attention and above all passion for the game on a mass scale. it’s bubbling under the surface, but this week in Lithuania showed both how far we have to come, but also how incredible it would be if we could get there.