The Lithuanians Are Coming! The Lithuanians Are Coming!

26 Sept. 2013: a different version of this piece (and its sequel) runs today at, a fine English-language site for all things to do with Chinese basketball. The name roughly means “hoops is cool”. Check it out.

Ignas Vycas isn’t somebody you should know, particularly. He’s a son of Lithuania, that tiny Baltic state, a former ward of the Soviet Union that is geo-politically insignificant but fascinating in one respect. Though a struggling nation of fewer than three million, sending migrant labourers all over Europe,

A hoops hotbed. I’d like to know why; many blame Sabonis.

it has one resource that is a prized export: astounding levels and amounts of basketball talent. Ignas isn’t a pro-level talent, but he is young and Lithuanian and left-handed and a major upgrade in my middle-aged hoops adventures. He’s too young for the job, but he’s my new best friend and temptor.

Even if you don’t follow basketball much, you may remember the Lithuania national side playing in the 1992 Olympics. Four of their stars, including the magnificent Arvydas Sabonis, had played for the Soviet Union when they won gold in ’88 in Seoul, the last straw for the American habit of winning with a college all-star team. The U.S.A. “Dream Team” of NBA pros dominated in ’92 in Barcelona, winning their preliminary games by an average of over 40 points. The Dreamers were a huge story (and marketing campaign), but even occasional basketball fans fell in love with Lithuania that summer. The team had talent, but no money from home. Their warmups were outrageous tie-dyed duds designed by an American artist who donated proceeds to the team and to charities in the newly independent republic; the Grateful Dead were said to have donated, too. They looked like charity cases or

“The Other Dream Team”, as a 2012 documentary film calls them. The great Sabonis is the giant wearing shades; the wonderfully named and gamed Sarunas Marciulionis is fourth from the right.

hipsters lost in time, but they played with flair and real joy. The Yanks drilled them by 51 in the semifinal, but their real Olympic moment followed: in the bronze medal game, Lithuania defeated the “Unified Team”, the leftovers of their former Soviet masters, and all was right in Lietuva for a golden time.

When I met Ignas and found where he was from, I wasn’t surprised that he knew his way around a basketball court. He’s no Jonas Valanciunas, but he’s a fan of his 21-year-old countryman, the future hope of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors. (Ignas says he’s gonna be a star,

Lietuva: The Next Generation, starring Jonas Valanciunas.

and he’s been dominant at times in the opening rounds of the European qualifying tournament for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.) We met two sunny Sundays ago at my favourite outdoor basketball courts, about a 15-minute jog from our apartments at the north gate (“Beimen”) of the neighbouring university. I’d have noticed a 6’1” white guy with his shirt off – few Chinese players go “skins”, even on blazing days – even if he didn’t have casual ballhandling ease, game-hard abdominals and a funky-but-effective jumpshot. He stood out. We met. We talked. He was friendly and encouraging with my 13-year-old Son the Fourth, so he got bonus points right away. His English was great, and we talked hoops for half an hour, which is an oasis of pleasure for this old coach and his chronic thirst for sporting conversations, especially of the face-to-face, ball-in-hand sort.

So here’s this 22-year-old kid, not making millions in downtown Toronto but rather fresh off graduation from an English university, working in a Chinese financial management company and struggling to learn Mandarin. I felt, at 22,

A Lithuanian in RaptorLand.

that I was living with some panache, but my adventures were pretty pale compared with an out there move like Ignas has made. Although there was a pretty young friend who dragged him away from this weekend’s “Beimen Olympics” to go sing Karaoke — a very Chinese-youthful thing to do — he doesn’t have many friends here and his basketball has been, as mine have so often been for me, a fine companion in his solitude, a soothing and rejuvenating filler of hours.

Because that particular post-noon was a hot one, he had a basket to himself, which I suspect is what he prefers. It’s a rare phenomenon on Dalian’s outdoor courts, though, and I’ve mainly given up on the idea of going out to get a few hundred (who am I kidding? Those days are past!) dozen  jumpers off, or to try to rediscover my handles. (My love handles are much more remarkable, I’m afraid.) Usually there are too many guys, and a ball at a basket is viewed as community property.

This past weekend, though, Fourth and I showed up a little later. Ignas was in the mix in the ‘A’ games at Beimen, but he was playing with three guys who didn’t belong on that court. Though he knows how to play, and laments the lack of passing in typical Chinese half-court 4 on 4, winners stay, he was willingly but hopelessly going 1-on-everybody, and losing, and waiting for ‘next’. I’d played a bit the day before, too, so I wasn’t planning on exerting myself much. After I sauntered through one game with Son 4 at the ‘C’ (or maybe ‘D’ level) court – we lost, but it was fun to see him fire all four of our hoops – Ignas yelled at me.

His mates had left the ‘A’ court, finally. Somehow the guys on the pre-stacked teams were persuaded to draft some new sides, and Ignas grabbed me and two Masters students from western China’s Xinjiang province, ethnic Kazhaks with some game. Thus ensued a too-long afternoon for me and my blisters and my aching thighs, but it was competitive and engaging and helped Ignas to know some of the guys a bit better. I did a little of my usual carping about the touch fouls that Chinese guys call when they miss a shot – I speak an occasionally comprehensible mix of histrionic gestures and fairly hilarious Hanyu – but avoided anger and brought some lightness and laughs to a damned competitive series of matches, surrounded on three sides by 50 or 60 watchers. We eventually found a team-defence harmony that could at least slow down the best guy who plays at Beimen, a strong 6’3” shooter with a surprisingly sophisticated game, inside and out. (I’d like to know how he learned the game, and whether he’s the unusual guy who has actually played on a team before.) He even passed pretty effectively when he found his 1-on-1 moves turning into 1-on-3.

I’m glad to know Ignas. The evening after was a vaguely euphoric one. I had a rare and sweet old taste of the athletic afterglow: a body well used, and a competitive spirit beneficently stoked. I was happy, and basketball had taken me there. The next day, though, I had no brain, and my lower body was in full-on apolitical protest. Curse you, Iggy. 

Nope. That’s not right. I couldn’t do that if I wanted to, but it might be helpful, when frisky young men lure me into their games, to remember how to get out. But when some jumpers are falling, and clever passes are finding the right hands, and defending feels like fun? (I even blocked a shot.) It’s pretty hard to find an exit ramp on that asphalt freeway. This week, I catch myself day-dreaming forward to next Sunday at Beimen. I speculate about whether my abs and my cross-over could be rediscovered at this late date. Uh-oh.

A tie-dyed DragonBaller? Is that Lithuania? Maybe not entirely, but China did hire Jonas Kazlauskas as its national team coach leading up to Beijing ’08, and he’s now with their top pro club. Maybe the Dragon helped.

 NOTEThis article has been updated to correct my misspelling of my new BF’s given name.

Comments (2)

  1. guo

    Zhong qiu kuai le.
    Happy Mid-autumn Day.

    • A wish from my most devoted Chinese subscriber (and a good friend and former Beimen basketball man, the Smiling Tiger) inspired me to a brief meditation on mooncakes in “At First Glance”. Thanks, XQ.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *