“31 Masterminds of European Basketball” was released in 2019 to profile the greatest coaching minds the game has seen on the European continent. The limited-edition book, written by EuroLeague historian Vladimir Stankovic—who began covering many of those greats in 1969—and published by Euroleague Basketball, pays tribute to the stars on the sidelines who have led teams to countless titles. Stankovic tells the stories and digs into the strategies of each of the 31 profiled coaches and in doing so paints the path to trace greatness among European basketball coaches to the 1950s. However, it’s not just about the history of European coaches; five of them will coach in the EuroLeague this season. Enjoy!
Jonas Kazlauskas, Director of Lithuanian talent
In Lithuania, basketball is almost a religion. The “believers” vastly outnumber the “atheists”, as probably only one or two out of every 10 people in the country do not love basketball. It is the national sport, and the identity of a nation with a relatively small population (around three million) that still manages to be huge when it comes to basketball stars and the history of the game.
And that is not a recent phenomenon. Basketball has been Lithuania’s favorite sport for decades, to the point where a Lithuanian – Frank Lubin – sparked the first “passport case’ in world basketball.
A player under that name won the gold medal with the United States team at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, the first time basketball was played at the Games. However, three years later, Pranas Lubinas became a European champ with Lithuania in Kaunas. It was, indeed, the same player, a son of Lithuanian immigrants who was born in the United States before later accepting the call of his parents’ native land to help the team win its second gold medal at the FIBA EuroBasket. But that is another story.
Behind every player, aside from his talent and will to work, there’s always a coach: the figure who discovers a player, teaches him the first steps, then shows him the fundamentals and the tactical variants.
In Lithuania, there are many such coaches for young players in ordinary schools, basketball schools, neighborhoods and clubs, be they modest or large. And one of the most prestigious coaches in Lithuanian basketball is, without a doubt, Jonas Kazlauskas.
Born in Panevezys on November 21, 1954, he became a shooting guard at Statyba Vilnius, now known as Rytas Vilnius, between 1973 and 1985. Kazlauskas never reached glory as a player and his best result was third place in the USSR championship in 1979. However, as he played, he always showed the talent and the predisposition to work as a coach. Kazlauskas eventually became head coach at Zalgiris in 1994, and the following year he was also in charge of the Lithuanian junior national team. Two years later, he was named coach of the senior national team.
Two Euro-triumphs for Zalgiris
Zalgiris Kaunas experienced a golden era during the mid-1980s with players like Arvydas Sabonis, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Sergejus Jovaisa, Valdemaras Chomicius and Gintaras Krapikas taking orders from coach Vladas Garastas on the bench. They even reached the 1986 EuroLeague final, but never managed to take the title. Cibona Zagreb, with Drazen Petrovic starring, was the better team in that championship game in Budapest, 94-82, and the European crown remained a chip on Zalgiris’s shoulder until the 1997-98 season.
That year, Kazlauskas (combining his club and country duties) assembled a great collection of talented Lithuanian players, including Saulius Stombergas, Tomas Masiulis, Mindaugas and Eurelijus Zukauskas, Dainius Adomaitis and Darius Maskoliunas, alongside several experienced foreign players. American Ennis Whatley had a good season with 11.4 points, 4.2 assists and 3.1 rebounds, while a veteran big man from Croatia, Franjo Arapovic, who was 33 years old by then, also had a great campaign with 11.4 points and 8.6 rebounds.
Zalgiris won its group in the Saporta Cup with a 7-3 record and in the direct elimination rounds defeated Keravnos of Cyprus, Tofas of Turkey, Beobanks of Serbia and then Avtodor Saratov of Russia in the semis.
The title game was to be played at the legendary Pionir Arena in Belgrade, against Franco Casalini’s Olimpia Milan on April 14, 1998. Zalgiris played a good game, especially in the second half, and rolled to the title with an 82-67 victory. Stombergas was the star of the game with 35 points. He nailed 18 of 23 free throws, made 7 of 8 two-pointers and just 1 of 2 threes, despite those being his specialty. Whatley contributed 19 points, but the team’s strength was collective play. Of the nine players used by Kazlauskas, eight scored and the only one who didn’t, Tauras Stumbrys, was hardly on court (2 minutes). It was Zalgiris’s first European trophy, and also the first for any Lithuanian team. But it was only the first step towards an even bigger dream.
After that title, Kazlauskas set an even bigger goal for 1998-99: winning the EuroLeague. To accomplish the mission, Zalgiris signed some pretty good players: big man Jiri Zidek, forward Anthony Bowie and point guard Tyus Edney. Kazlauskas hit the jackpot with the three new names as, together with Stombergas and Adomaitis, they were the best players on the team that season.
Zalgiris finished the first stage with an 8-2 record after defeating Fenerbahce, Pau-Orthez, Tau Ceramica, Varese and Avtodor. In the next stage, Zalgiris overcame Crvena Zvezda, TDK Manresa and Cibona Zagreg, while in the eighthfinals and quarterfinals it eliminated two Turkish teams, Ulker and Efes, to clinch a spot at the Final Four in Munich.
The other three teams to advance were defending champ Kinder Bologna, coached by Ettore Messina; 1997 champ Olympiacos Piraeus, coached by Dusan Ivkovic, and the eternal candidate, Fortitudo Bologna, coached by Petar Skansi. Zalgiris was not a favorite by any means, but it would not be the first time the underdog had stolen the show.
Kazlauskas always respected his players’ talent. They had a lot of freedom, but always following certain guidelines. Edney entered the team as the key piece to turn a good team into a great one. Zalgiris had the talent of its Lithuanian players, plus the experience of Bowie and Zidek, but there was still something missing … and that was the spark provided by Edney: speed, rhythm, assists and even points when they were scarce.
In the semifinals, Zalgiris downed Olympiacos with authority, 87-71. Edney led the way with 13 points and 6 assists. Bowie had 19 points (7-of-11 shooting from the field) and Zidek added 9 points and 5 boards. (As an amusing footnote, the Reds had Johnny Rogers on their roster, who scored 8 points and would later become a Euroleague TV color commentator together with … Zidek!)
The clear favorite to win the final was Kinder Bologna, who had defeated Fortitudo 57-62 in the semis. However, Zalgiris played a great first half and early in the second it was already clear that the title would travel to Lithuania for the first time ever. Kazlauskas made good use of his usual eight-player rotation – all of them scored – and after avoiding foul trouble – except for Zidek, who fouled out – the team managed to keep the rhythm in the second half for the 74-82 win.
On the other side, Messina only had Antoine Rigaudeau delivering the goods (27 points), while Predrag Danilovic got stuck at 7 points, far from his best (3 of 11 from the field). For Zalgiris, everyone contributed. Bowie was the top scorer once again with 17 points, while Edney stepped in with 14 points, 6 assists and 6 boards. Zidek also had 12 points and 6 rebounds, while Stombergas scored 12 and Mindaugas Zukauskas 11. It was a team triumph.
National coach in three countries
At the same time that he was coaching Zalgiris, Kazlauskas was also the Lithuanian national team head coach. At the 1997 and 1999 EuroBaskets, Lithuania was sixth and fifth respectively and at the 1998 FIBA Basketball World Cup, the team finished seventh.
A great step forward was taken at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, when Lithuania stepped onto the podium to get the bronze medal. In the quarterfinals, they eliminated Zeljko Obradovic’s Yugoslavia – the team that had defeated them in previous years – 76-63, but in the semis Lithuania fell to the United States 83-85 despite a huge effort from Sarunas Jasikevicius. Saras made 5 three-pointers en route to 27 points, but his last shot from mid-court was just an impossible one. However, the bronze medal that followed with a victory over Australia was Lithuania’s third in a row after Barcelona and Atlanta, which proved the team was a continuing success.
After a few years coaching in Lithuania, 2004 marked the moment for Kazlauskas to leave his country and coach abroad for the first time.
The chosen team was Olympiacos Piraeus in Greece but, again, he would combine the job with that of assistant coach for Del Harris on the Chinese national team. In 2005, he became head coach in China and would stay there until 2008, leading China to the gold medal at the 2006 Asian Games. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Kazlauskas managed to take Yao Ming and company to eighth place.
His third national team was Greece, between 2009 and 2010. But at the 2010 FIBA World Cup in Turkey, his powerful team – containing Dimitris Diamantidis, Vassilis Spanoulis, Ioannis Bourousis, Antonis Fotsis, Georgios Printezis, Stratos Perperoglou, Sofoklis Schortsanitis and Nick Calathes – didn’t meet expectations, placing 11th.
Kazlauskas returned to the EuroLeague in 2011 with CSKA Moscow. Everything was nearly perfect that year, even the championship game against his former team, Olympiacos. But that day in Istanbul, May 13, 2012, became, I imagine, the longest of his professional career.
After 28 minutes, CSKA led 53-34 and nobody would have given Olympiacos the slightest chance. That, of course, is when the most consequential comeback in European basketball history started. Maybe it was because Olympiacos never ceased to believe, maybe because CSKA relaxed a bit too much, or maybe a combination of both. Whatever it was, Printezis lifted the ball to score at the buzzer and steal the trophy from CSKA with a 62-61 epic win, depriving Kazlauskas of a second European crown.
Kazlauskas subsequently returned to the Lithuanian national team as head coach and, again, he was successful with silver medals at the 2013 EuroBasket in Slovenia and the 2015 EuroBasket in France, as well as a quarterfinals berth at the 2016 Rio Olympics. After leaving that post, he briefly returned to China to coach Guangdong Southern Tigers, taking them to the Chinese League semifinals.
Kazlauskas never had very fixed rules. He basically goes for the fast game, with lots of fastbreaks. But he also knows how to use tactical resources, from zone defense to ball control, if the opponent also runs a lot. He respects the talent of his players but, in exchange, he asks for responsibility, dedication and limited improvisation. In Lithuania, his main weapon was shooting, something which comes very naturally to Lithuanian players. In his teams abroad, he always looked for other tactical solutions.
He won six Lithuanian League crowns, two Baltic Leagues, two Russian Leagues, the Saporta Cup and the EuroLeague. He was also twice named Coach of the Year in Lithuania and his medals with the national team suggest that his career is far from over. And if he finds another new national team in the future, he can match the record of four set by Bogdan Tanjevic, who coached Yugoslavia, Italy, Turkey and Montenegro.