“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Arturas Karnisovas – King without a crown
I remember perfectly when I saw Arturas Karnisovas play for the first time. It was at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. However, more than his 17 points against Puerto Rico, 15 against Brazil or his average of 11.2 throughout the games, I remember a scene that I had never witnessed before or since. In the game between Lithuania and the United States, Karnisovas only played for 13 minutes, but he scored 10 points. In the final minutes, he was sitting on the bench and somehow pulled a small camera from somewhere, sat down by the basket closest to his team’s bench and, like a photographer, recorded some unforgettable moments. His native Lithuania, in its first appearance after regaining independence, was playing against the first and unrepeatable Dream Team, the American team that took the courts by storm. The U.S.A. team won 127-76, Michael Jordan finished with 21 points, Karl Malone had 18. Meanwhile, young Karnisovas took pictures of the American stars but also of his own teammates: Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, Voldemaras Chomicius and Rimas Kurtinaitis – all of them Olympic champs four years prior in Seoul with the USSR stars – as well as Sergejus Jovaisa, Gintaras Krapikas and Gintaras Einikis.
Lithuania won the bronze medal, the first important trophy in Karnisovas’s career. He was the youngest member of the team. He was 21 years old, 15 years younger than Jovaisa, 12 years younger than Chomicius and seven years younger than Sabonis. However, those Olympics were not his international debut. At 16, he was selected to play with the USSR in the U16 European Championship of 1987 in Hungary. The USSR finished third, beating Spain 84-76 in the duel for bronze. In the Soviet team, the names that later would be well-known were Valeri Daineko and Raimonds Miglinieks, while the top scorer of the team was Sergey Minashkin with 16.3 points, far fewer than the 28.4 points from Arijan Komazec, the leader of the champs, Yugoslavia.
A star in Seton Hall
With an obvious talent, Karnisovas, who was born in Klaipeda, Lithuania on April 27, 1972, left behind his beginnings in Stayba Vilnius and in 1990 he moved to the United States to study at Seton Hall and play basketball. Both things turned out well. His studies in economics were no problem for him while in his four basketball seasons his numbers pointed towards a future star: 11.2 points and 4.5 rebounds in 1990-91; 17.3 plus 4.2 in 1991-92; 14.8 plus 6.0 in 1992-93; and 18.4 plus 6.8 in 1993-94. His numbers almost guaranteed a draft pick that summer, but he was not chosen. His height was that of a power forward, 2.04 meters, but he lacked muscle and weight. So maybe those were the reasons why the NBA teams didn’t trust him, apart from the fact that there was not the same kind of confidence there is nowadays when signing a European player.
While the criteria of the NBA teams could be understood, it is harder to wrap one’s head around the fact that no major European team grabbed Karnisovas. He had to sign for humble Cholet in France, but he was looking for a platform. And he found it. Karnisovas ended up the 1995-95 season with 20.5 points and 6.5 rebounds on average. In the Korac Cup, those numbers were even better (22.2 and 4.8). On November 30 of 1994, Cholet faced off against Fortitudo Bologna and won 83-79. The duo formed by Antoine Rigaudeau (27 points) and Karnisovas (21) defeated the one on the other side formed by Vincenzo Esposito (26) and Djordjevic (18). Not long afterward, Djordjevic and Karnisovas would be teammates in Barcelona.
That same season, playing with Lithuania in the 1995 EuroBasket qualifiers, Karnisovas averaged 24.5 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. A star was born. In the 1995 EuroBasket in Athens, where Lithuania won the silver after falling to Yugoslavia in the final (96-90) in an unforgettable game, Karnisovas averaged 19.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists. He was his team’s third-best scorer behind Sabonis (23.7) and Marciulionis (22.0). All the big teams in Europe tried to sign him, but Barcelona was fastest. On July 3, one day after the Athens final, the Catalan club announced the signing. In the summer of 1995, then, Karnisovas returned to the city where he was first noticed, three years earlier. His debut was exceptional: 30 points on 7 of 8 three-point shooting. His coach then, Aito Garcia Reneses, remembered Karnisovas in this way:
“Arturas was very fast, ran the fastbreak well and penetrated well from both sides. He was also a good shooter and correct in everything else. I remember his first game with Barcelona in Vitoria, in the opening game of the Spanish League, where he left everybody watching in awe. After that, his game was
hurt by the tendency of the refs to call him for traveling, especially on breakaways.”
Two lost finals
In his first season with Barcelona, Karnisovas won the Spanish League while averaging 20.9 points, but the big goal of the club was winning, at last, the EuroLeague. Barcelona reached the Final Four in Paris with ambition, boosted by having defeated the Real Madrid of Zeljko Obradovic in the semifinals 76-66 after trailing by 4 points at the break. The man of the comeback was Karnisovas, who netted 24 points and pulled down 6 rebounds in 36 minutes. In the final, the rival was Panathinaikos, coached by Boza Maljkovic, the former coach of Barcelona. The game ended with a 67-66 win for the Greens, but with great controversy. The Catalans still consider that the title was stolen from them due to an illegal block by Stojko Vrankovic on Jose Montero when, in the last seconds, he was running alone to the basket for a bucket that was worth a title. I saw the game live and I think the same now as I did then: the block was illegal. But the whole play itself was also illegal because the official clock was stuck at 5.4 seconds. Why the clock had stopped is another story, unforgivable in such a big game, but that’s the way it happened. Dominique Wilkins was the MVP, but there is no doubt that if Barca had won, the MVP would have been Karnisovas, who netted 23 points plus 8 rebounds and 6 assists in 38 minutes.
The spring of that season I had the pleasure of telling Karnisovas that he had been elected MVP of the season by FIBA Basketball, the official magazine those days for the international organization. He gave me a good interview for that magazine. Since then, we have had a very good relationship.
In the summer of 1996, Arturas won his second Olympic bronze with Lithuania, this time in Atlanta. His contribution was 16.3 points and 5.1 rebounds as he was the second-best scorer of the team, after Sabonis (16.9).
Midway through the 1996-97 season, Barcelona inked Sasha Djordjevic and together he and Karnisovas formed one of the best foreign duos ever seen in European basketball. The two players, previously rivals with their former clubs and especially national teams, established an excellent relationship. On the court, they just understood each other and in private they had a good friendship. Barcelona reached the Rome Final Four with no problems. In the semis, the team defeated ASVEL Villeurbanne 77-70 with 17 points from Djordjevic, 16 by Jimenez and 9 by Karnisovas. Olympiacos awaited in the final, but Barcelona experienced another Greek tragedy. Olympiacos won 73-58 led by an excellent David Rivers, who scored 26 points. On the other side, Barcelona’s great duo only combined for 20 points – 6 for Djordjevic and 14 for Karnisovas. That season’s Spanish League title was a consolation prize.
Gone and back
Another failed attempt at the EuroLeague forced a new coaching change in Barcelona, with Manel Comas arriving. The club made a bold move and let Karnisovas go. The Lithuanian chose Olympiacos. He played the McDonald’s Open with the Reds in Paris and scored 19 points (10 of 10 free throws) plus 3 boards and 4 assists against the Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan (27 points). That was the proof that he had a place in the NBA, but his ambition to play there had faded. Karnisovas’ third attempt at the European crown was not the charm either as Olympiacos fell in the quarterfinals to Partizan and was out of the Barcelona Final Four in 1998. Karnisovas was the best scorer on the team with 17.1 points plus 5.2 rebounds, but he didn’t win any titles that season.
At the 1998 World Cup in Athens, Lithuania finished seventh. Karnisovas scored 17.1 points and was the third-best scorer of the tournament behind Alberto Herreros (Spain) with 17.9 and Mohamed Acha (Nigeria) with 17.5. Karnisovas also added 5 rebounds per game.
His next go at the EuroLeague was in Italy with Fortitudo, but he didn’t win it the next two seasons either. In the Munich in 1999, he played his third Final Four but his team fell in the semis against local archrival, Virtus Bologna, 62-57. In 1999-2000, Fortitudo lost its quarterfinal series with Maccabi Tel Aviv 2-1 and didn’t reach the Final Four. The team did, however, win the Italian League.
At the turn of the century, Karnisovas decided to go back to Barcelona, something not very usual in the history of the club. In the last 20 years, only Zoran Savic, Juan Carlos Navarro and Sarunas Jasikevicius, apart from Karnisovas, have managed to play two different stints at the club. His last two attempts to win the EuroLeague were with Barcelona, but he was not successful back there either. In 2000-01, Barcelona stepped down to Benetton Treviso in the eighth-finals, 2-0. The following season, the team finished the Top 16 with a 4-2 record, just like Benetton, but with a worse point differential, so it didn’t make the Final Four again. In those two seasons, Karnisovas showed a solid level in the EuroLeague, 13.9 points, with similar numbers in the Spanish League, where against Cantabria Lobos he established his personal high of 40 points scored. In 2001, he won the Spanish King’s Cup and again the league in 2002, but at 31 years old, he decided to retire. That was the end of a great career with many national titles and several medals with the national team, but without a EuroLeague title. He was a king without a crown, but his name stayed in conversations reserved only for the greats.
I was fortunate to follow his games during his four seasons in Barcelona, the Olympics in Barcelona and Atlanta, the EuroBaskets of 1995 and 1999, and the 1998 World Cup. That was more than enough to confirm that Karnisovas was a great player, especially a great shooter. He was able to run the fastbreak but also to grab many rebounds. He was a smart player, complete and always an example of fair play.
After his career, Karnisovas decided to go back to the States, the home country of his wife. He quickly found work there, first as an NBA counselor for rookie players, especially from Europe. After that, he signed as a scout for Houston and Denver, where he is now the club’s general manager. His former coach, Aito, comments:
“If I had to find a flaw in him, it would have been his overall understanding of the game. That’s why it surprised me later that he worked as a scout for the NBA and how well he did it. Nowadays, he shows magnificent criteria and reading of players, and he has a good analysis of team play. All of which means that he has kept maturing personally and gaining more knowledge.”