The Lithuanian national team is one of the most historically dominant teams in International Competition. They performed admirably at the Rio Olympics, going three-and-two in group play, including wins over Brazil and Argentina, before losing to the red hot Australians in the first round of the knockout stage.
The name that American basketball fans knew heading into Rio was that of 7’0” Toronto Raptors Center, Jonas Valanciunas. Second on that list of guys they knew was Domantas Sabonis, who had just been drafted by the Thunder in June with the 11th overall pick after having just finished an excellent season at Gonzaga University and whose father, Arvydas Sabonis, spent seven seasons in Portland during the late 90’s (it’s hard to believe that we are seeing the kids of people I watched growing up in the league…). The third on this list for us NBA-loving-fans was that of Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who the New York Knicks had announced signing on July 9, 2016.
The Olympics was the first time that Knicks fans would get a glimpse of his game on their TV and it was clear that there was a lot to love right way. He gives his teams a little bit of everything. He moves incredibly well at 6’9” so he can defend multiple positions. He can score the ball inside and shoots well from the perimeter, and he is a high energy player that battles for offensive rebounds and does the little things needed from role players that become the nuts and bolts on a winning team.
These are the skills that brought Mindaugas from his small country of Lithuania to the bright lights of New York City and eventually to a chair in the visiting locker room of the Verizon Center after a 112 – 119 loss to the Washington Wizards on November 17th.
I was patiently waiting next to Derrick Rose as a member of the media peppered him with questions about his recently wrapped-legal case, in hopes of asking him a few questions about his game preparation for the Japanese magazine that I also write for (the magazine caters towards high school aged Japanese fans), when I realized I’d like to find out more about Mindaugas’ Olympic experience.
It was a refreshingly genuine conversation in an NBA Locker Room with a player that seems to be in awe of where basketball had taken him.
Here’s our conversation:
Mike: What was the Olympic village like down in Brazil?
Mindaugas Kuzminskas: It was my fourth summer with the National team but it was my first Olympic games. You know, it’s way different than other championships: you see the best athletes in the world…Michael Phelps, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal…you know it’s an unbelievable experience. I realized what kind of event that was. The Olympic village, I didn’t expect that it was so huge, you know, a lot of buildings, a lot of people.
Mike: How many people were there?
Mindaugas Kuzminskas: I’m not sure, but I think it was thirty-something houses, you can check the internet I think, so you are going to be right.
The difference is that everyone is so concentrated, especially the people that have, for example, the track and field runners or swimmers. You know, we as a team, if one guy plays bad then the others can pick them up, but them, you know, the individual athletes are so concentrated and so motivated. The feeling though is unbelievable. I went to the Opening Ceremony because you never know, your first Olympics might be your last Olympics. For our little country it’s not that easy to get into the Olympics.
Mike: When was the last time your country was in the Olympics before that?
Mindaugas Kuzminskas: We have been in all of the Olympics since our independence.
Mike: Do you remember any specific moments from the games themselves? Was the crowd good or was it empty in the arenas?
Mindaugas Kuzminskas: Our crowd is always pretty good. It doesn’t matter where we play, you know, Slovenia, Spain, Venezuela, or Brazil, our fans are coming. Our National Team fans are great fans, so our crowd was good all the time and it wasn’t empty. Maybe the best game was against Argentina because Brazil was really close to there and all of the fans came and the game was close. We won so that game was good.
Mike: Last year you played in Spain? So what do you see as the difference between the Spanish league and the NBA so far?
Mindaugas Kuzminskas: Well, it’s different. They have similar things, for example they have 18 teams but you can go against the last place team and still lose. All of the teams are pretty good but of course here, it’s different. For example, the amount of games that you play: one game is Euroleague and one game is Spanish league so you play two every week. Here you play back-to-back games. In November we’re playing 16 games. The tempo of the game speed is also different, you know? People are athletic, the rules are a bit different but I enjoy both leagues because I love basketball. Basketball has given me the opportunity to live in different countries, different cities, and to feel the different cultures.