Sarunas Jasikevicius
Photo: EuroLeague Basketball

The only player in European basketball history ever to win the EuroLeague titles with three different clubs, Zalgiris Kaunas head coach Sarunas Jasikevicius, is Joe Arlauckas’s latest guest on The Crossover.

Jasikevicius enjoyed one of the greatest runs by any single player when he won titles with FC Barcelona in 2003, Maccabi Tel Aviv the next two seasons, and Panathinaikos Athens in 2009.

Along the way, he collected all the accolades possible and played with iconic teammates on some of the best teams of the century, all of whom he discusses with Joe Arlauckas.

Born into a sporting family, Jasikevicius seemed almost destined for success after his mother gave up an Olympic-level volleyball career to have him.

[14:30] “I was always taught to be tougher, not to give up, not to use too many excuses… My parents were extremely tough-minded athletes, so I think it kind of came a little bit natural for me.”

That Jasikevicius would succeed in basketball, however, was not a given, because he almost quit the sport in favor of tennis as a pre-teen.

[22:05] “It’s true, I was a dumb kid,” he laughs now. “I was always playing with kids one year older than me, and one year is a big deal growing up, so I could never be really good. They told me I was talented, but I was kind of a late bloomer. I was getting beat up. And I was a little on the lazy side until 15 or so.” Growing up in Kaunas, Jasikevicius always wanted to play for Zalgiris. He idolized the great Arvydas Sabonis, who he later joined on the national team and is now close friends with.

[26:10] “He was a hero for us,” Jasikevicius says. “It was everything I wanted to do, play with Sabonis and [Khimki Moscow Region head coach Rimas] Kurtinaitis. Now, to think that they are my boys, it’s absolutely crazy. We’re texting and talking all the time, having parties when we can see each other.”

The player who came to be known by a single name, Saras, reached his first EuroLeague success by helping FC Barcelona win its first title in 2003, although he admits to being so nervous that he didn’t play as well as usual.

[35:15] “I didn’t sleep for a week before,” he recalls. “It was like one or two hours. I was just like shaking.”

The century’s first back-to-back EuroLeague titles, won in 2004 and 2005, wouldn’t have been possible without a miraculous five-point comeback in 10 seconds to force overtime as Maccabi beat his home-town team, Zalgiris, and Sabonis in the last game of the Top 16 to reach the 2004 Final Four.

[38:10] “I don’t like to go and talk about and believe in luck, but that was one game that I just don’t understand what came about to have an ending like that…” he says. “In order for that game to be won by Maccabi, there had to happen seven or eight things that, if they didn’t happen, we lose… I think you have to give yourself a chance to get lucky.”

By the end of the last decade, Saras had teamed up with the most successful coach of them all, Zeljko Obradovic, to win his fourth title in 2009 with Panathinaikos.

“Zeljko was the boss, and that was it,” Saras recalls. “You can tell, even when you play for him, that he has a great human side.”

Now forging a coaching career that saw him take Zalgiris to the 2018 Final Four, Saras has made the full transition from his playing days to try to make the best careers for his own players.

[2:55] “I have to get down to the players’ level, understand how they think, understand the thought process going through their heads, and hopefully in that way they become better players and better people,” he says. “For us coaches, I believe, it’s all about thinking the situation as a whole. Every player is very important. Every player is a piece of the puzzle.”