“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!
Saulius Stombergas – The man who made 9 of 9 triples
What do Arvydas Macijauskas, Saulius Stombergas, Tomas Delininkaitis, Arturas Karnisovas and Eurelijus Zukauskas all have in common? Sounds like an easy question, right? Any mediocre basketball connoisseur would say that they are all Lithuanian. That is correct, but they have one more thing in common: all of them were born in the town of Klaipeda, Lithuania’s most important port.
When we talk about Lithuanian basketball, Kaunas and Vilnius are first in line, but Klaipeda, a town of 180,000 inhabitants on the coast of the Baltic Sea, is also very important for basketball in that country. Saulius Stombergas, one of those five great players from Klaipeda, was born on December 14, 1973, but he spent most of his career away from his hometown. As a great young talent, he landed early in Kaunas to sign with Zalgiris during the 1992-93 season. However, even though he stayed in Kaunas, he spent the first three seasons there playing with Atletas. By 1995, he had made his debut with the national team at the EuroBasket in Athens. He was part of a great team with some of his idols: Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marculionis, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Valdemaras Chomicius and Karnisovas. Stombergas made a symbolic contribution, 2.9 points per game, but he came back with the first important medal of his career, a silver one after losing the final to Yugoslavia, 96-90. In 14 minutes in the final, he scored 2 points on free throws, but he pulled down 6 rebounds, 4 of them on offense. A year later, at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, he won the bronze medal.
After three years at Atletas, Stombergas made what was then a bold career move to play for Vostok Shanghai in China, becoming an immediate sensation in the national league there, and enough to impress a young local player named Yao Ming for a long time afterward. “The year before I started my career, actually, we had a Lithuanian player, Saulius Stombergas, in the CBA,” Yao told Euroleague.net in an interview back in 2007. “I think that until now he remains one of the best players to come from Europe or even America to play in China – the best one, really, in CBA history.”
From China, Stombergas returned to Europe to play at the 1997 EuroBasket, where Lithuania fell in the quarterfinals, again against Yugoslavia (75-60). But by then Stombergas was already a key player, averaging 10.8 points, behind Karnisovas (14.2) and Sabonis (13.3). Having risen to star status and become known as a three-pointer specialist, he returned to Zalgiris in 1997.
Two Euro trophies in two years
Going back to Zalgiris would be the best decision of his career. On April 14, 1998, Stombergas won his first trophy at the club level. In the title game of the Saporta Cup, played at the legendary Pionir Arena in Belgrade, Zalgiris defeated Olimpia Milano 82-67. The MVP of the game, you ask? Well, after he scored 35 points, it was only fair that the award was given to Stombergas. It was his night. He made 7 of 8 two-pointers, 1 of 2 threes and 18 of 23 free throws. He also had 2 rebounds and 5 assists. A star was born. By the end of the season, Zalgiris won the Lithuanian league and began preparing with ambition for the EuroLeague the following campaign.
In the group phase, Zalgiris won with authority, compiling an 8-2 record to rule the group above Fenerbahce, Pau-Orthez, Tau Ceramica, Varese and Avtodor. In the eighth-finals and quarterfinals, Zalgiris defeated Turkish teams Ulker and Efes Pilsen, respectively. Then it was time for the Final Four in Munich, Germany, with the other three teams being Olympiacos, Kinder Bologna and Fortitudo Bologna. Each bench featured a basketball master: Dusan Ivkovic for Olympiacos, Ettore Messina for Kinder, Petar Skansi for Fortitudo and Jonas Kazlauskas for Zalgiris, although the latter was not yet so well-known at the time. The rosters of the four teams were full of stars, of course. The defending champion, Kinder, had the likes of Predrag Danilovic, Alessandro Abbio, Radoslav Nesterovic, Hugo Sconochini, Augusto Binelli and Antoine Rigaudeau. Olympiacos had Arijan Komazec, Anthony Goldwire, Panagiotis Fasoulas, Milan Tomic, Johnny Rogers, Fabricio Oberto and Dragan Tarlac. For Fortitudo, Marko Jaric, Gregor Fucka, Vinny Del Negro, Carlton Myers, Dan Gay and Roberto Chiacig. And Zalgiris had Tyus Edney, Eurelijus Zukauskas, Kestutis Sestokas, Dainius Adomaitis, Anthony Bowie, George Zidek and, of course, Saulius Stombergas. A stellar Final Four if you ask me.
In the semifinal, played on April 20, Zalgiris eliminated Olympiacos 81-71 after great collective play, with 10 players scoring. Kinder was waiting in the title game, but Zalgiris also defeated the defending champs by the score of 82-74 after leading 45-30 at the break. Anthony Bowie was the top scorer with 17 points, followed by Tyus Edney (13), Stombergas and Zidek (12 apiece). For the Italian team, the 27 points of Antoine Rigaudeau were useless because the rest of his teammates, especially Danilovic (7 points with 1 of 5 triples), didn’t have a good day. So, 13 years after the Sabonis generation lost the final against Cibona in Budapest, Zalgiris won the first EuroLeague crown for Lithuania.
Unbelievable night in Athens
For Stombergas, the triumph in Munich was the culmination of that stint with Zalgiris. The time had come to leave the country. His first stop would be Bologna, with Kinder. It was a blank season for him, losing the final of the Italian Cup, but he found some consolation at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Lithuania lost by just 85-83 in the semifinals against a powerful USA team with Jason Kidd, Alonzo Mourning, Kevin Garnett and Gary Payton, but Stombergas took home a bronze medal thanks to an 89-71 win over Australia in the third-place game.
After that, Stombergas joined Tau Ceramica of Spain, where he played the first season of the new EuroLeague. Stombergas and his club were protagonists of two nights that went into the history books. In the first semifinals game against AEK Athens, the Greek team won 75-74 with a basket that fell after the buzzer, and the EuroLeague, for the first time in the history of the competition, decided to invalidate the result. The game was replayed and Tau won 70-67 with only 1 point by Stombergas. Only 5 days later, on the same stage at OAKA in Athens, the Lithuanian forward played what was probably the best game of his career. Tau won 90-65 with 39 points by Stombergas. His shooting was nearly perfect that night: 4 of 4 twos, 9 of 9 three-pointers and 3 of 5 free throws! Unbelievable and unrepeatable. I had seen Sasha Djordjevic also score 9 threes in that very same arena in the 1995 EuroBasket final, but he needed 12 attempts.
Stombergas’s game that night was like a symphony. It’s worth a look on Youtube for a video of that game. It didn’t matter whether he was shooting from the right or left wings, the corner or the top of the arc. His coach that season, Dusko Ivanovic, remembered Stombergas this way:
“Of course, his main weapon was his shot, but as a shooter, he was smart, disciplined and with a heavy dose of self-control. He shot with feeling, he knew that if it was his day, like that night in Athens, he was able to shoot non-stop. He was smart, a good defender, could go for the rebounds and could also score penetrating. Yes, he was a great player.”
In the EuroLeague final, the first and only one ever decided in a best-of-five playoff series, Kinder defeated Tau Ceramica by 3-2. Stombergas could not repeat the title won with Zalgiris in 1999, but he made the history books by being in the first repeat game ever of the competition and by scoring 9 of 9 threes, still the record in the competition.
The following season Stombergas would move to Efes Pilsen, with which he won the Turkish League and national cup, but for 2002-03 he was back to Zalgiris. One year later he moved to Russia to play with UNICS Kazan.
His next memorable highlight was winning the gold medal at the 2003 EuroBasket in Sweden. It was the first gold for Lithuania since 1939! A great tourney had its best moment in the final against Spain, which featured Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, Felipe Reyes, Alberto Herreros, Jorge Garbajosa and Jose Manuel Calderon. Lithuania won 93-84 with 21 points by Macijauskas, 10 by Sarunas Jasikevicius, 18 by Zukauskas, and 9 by Ramunas Siskauskas. Stombergas was the captain, and now, a double European champion, with his club and his national team.
In the summer of 2004, between UNICS and a new stint in Turkey, this time with Ulker, Stombergas took part in the Athens Olympics. On August 21, Lithuania beat the United States 94-90 behind a great Sarunas Jasikevicius (28 points) but also with a great Stombergas, who scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. I saw the game live and I remember the offensive festival put on by the Lithuanian talents. Stombergas finished the tournament with 12.3 points per game and left the national team after 11 years with 97 games played and 1,036 points scored.
After a two-year hiatus, he played again with humble Naglis Adakris of Lithuania, but in 2008 he retired for good. One of the best shooters of the modern era called it a career. With two European trophies, a EuroBasket gold medal plus two Olympic medals and another EuroBasket silver, Stombergas has six important titles and many good memories. Just as we do, after having been able to enjoy his play – and most of all, his sensational shot – for many years.