How the European country is dealing with its current hoops frenzy.
by John Hobbs / @johnswisshobbs
In just over two weeks, all eyes will focus on the basketball-crazed nation of Lithuania as NBA stars such as, Tony Parker, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Chris Kaman, Pau Gasol and the Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki will grace the Lithuanian cities such as Panevezys, Siauliai, Alytus and Klaipeda for the group stage of EuroBasket 2011.
The sheer volume of excitement is through the roof. Fans that were lucky enough to grab tickets at any time during the tournament have, in their grasp, the hottest tickets in basketball as of this moment. Especially if you’re playing the hosts—tickets for all Lithuania games were sold out in a matter of minutes—such is the frenzy in the Baltic state over EuroBasket.
From the world’s biggest basketball hoop in Vilnius to sold-out merchandise and posters galore on the streets, the small republic has one of the biggest basketball followings, and this upcoming EuroBasket has certainly been one of the most anticipated EuroBaskets on record.
Local Lithuanian journalist Simas Baranauskas is just one of many basketball fans who are talking all things EuroBasket right now, and he explained what the country is doing to help gear up for their big moment.
“Everyone in Lithuania can’t wait for EuroBasket to begin,” he said. “Tickets for the Lithuanian games have long gone, but fans around the country have found other ways of how to get involved. One of the events is called dribble for Lithuania—regular fans have the chance to participate in a relay dribbling the official ball of the tournament around the cities and towns of the country to its final destination of Panevezys.”
And in Panevezys on August 31st at 21:00 (local time), once the first two games are but a distant memory, the Cido Arena will be a sea of yellow, green and red, as over 6,000 excited Lithuanians will announce their arrival and support their heroes, as they square off against Great Britain, led by the Chicago Bulls’ own Luol Deng.
Such was the heavy demand for tickets for Lithuania’s opening game against the Brits, that the fans that nearly lost out completely were the supporters traveling from Great Britain themselves, as Lithuanians were purchasing tickets left, right and center. Most GB fans though were able to get their hands on some tickets eventually, but it wasn’t as easy as planned.
“It was difficult, very disorganized,” said one Great Britain fan, who eventually got his precious EuroBasket tickets. “Rather like Poland two years ago when we were there, there was only two-three days to order tickets. And as you probably know, what we were told we were being sold wasn’t the case in the end.”
That is just a small taster of what the mood is like not just in Panevezys, but the entire country of Lithuania, the nation most definitely expects, and after a poor showing at EuroBasket in Poland two years ago, they will be desperate to impress in front of their adoring public.
Panevezys is also home to the well documented “group of death” aka Group A, where the hosts and Great Britain are slotted with World Championship silver-medalists Turkey, Poland (who just suffered a major setback as the Polish Federation could not insure Marcin Gortat), reigning EuroBasket holders Spain and a qualifier. So the quiet city of Panevezys will be seeing tourism like no other for the first week of competition.
On the subject of qualifiers, right now a triangular tournament is in progress between Finland, Portugal and Hungary where two out of the three nations will qualify. The other qualifier will be housed in Group C in Alytus with Greece, Croatia, Montenegro, FYR of Macedonia and Bosnia & Herzegovina.
If you’re not in Panevezys, then you can breathe a sigh of relief, especially if you’re Slovenia and Russia, who have both been pitted in what most people are calling the easiest group with Georgia, Bulgaria, Belgium and Ukraine, who will be coached by Mike “The Czar” Fratello. Fratello is happy with his team’s progress in training camp and his side has a reasonable chance of advancing to the second round. It really is wide open with regards to the final qualification spot in Group D.
It wasn’t as difficult as it was in Panevezys to get a hold of tickets, but some fans still had their struggles.
“We wanted to buy tickets a couple of months back and they were all sold out. We had to buy them via agency. It seem most of tickets were bought out by agencies,” said Jure, a Slovenian fan. He also added: “We got our confirmation right away, but we get the tickets in Lithuania, we just paid for them.”
It’s been a challenge, but when a tournament this big comes to a country that has a love of basketball like no other, nothing is going to be easy.
Now with the NBA lockout in progress, EuroBasket will be anticipated more than ever. And Lithuania will undoubtedly make a superb host.
John Hobbs is a basketball writer, based in the United Kingdom. He will be covering EuroBasket 2011 in Lithuania for SLAM. You can follow him on Twitter @johnswisshobbs.