A famous Brazilian footballer, Waldir Pereira, also known as Didi, a world champ in 1958 and 1962, had “Mr. Football” as his nickname. For today’s story, I am going to paraphrase that because for Sarunas Jasikevicius, I cannot find anything better. Those two words explain what he was all about: his greatness, his huge talent, his character, his basketball IQ, his shot, his genius assists, the joy he spread to teammates, fans and sometimes even opponents.
Sagadin, the discoverer
The story of Sarunas Jasikevicius could start in many ways. But I think that the first graphs belong to the man who discovered Saras for European basketball: Zmago Sagadin. The Slovenian coach, a former boss of Union Olimpija and the Slovenian national team, told me this week about his decision to take Jasikevicius to his Olimpija team.
“My sources in the United States, where Sarunas played, told me about his talent and sent me a few videos, and it is true that I liked him on the spot. I also had some reports from Lithuania, but decided to see him live in France at EuroBasket 1999. I spent 10 days following Sarunas, but he didn’t play much, not enough to convince me. I had to trust the videos and my instinct. I decided to sign him and I can safely say it was one of the best decisions of my life. Sarunas was a brilliant player. He had it all: talent, technique, character, leadership… He was also a hard worker. For me, he’s among the Top 10 players ever in European basketball.”
Sagadin highlights the game against Olympiacos Piraeus in the 1999-2000 Euroleague Eighthfinals. With the series tied at 1-1, the decisive game was being played in Ljubljana, where Olimpija won 85-67 as Jasikevicius netted 30 points.
“He played a flawless game. He scored 30 points with 7 of 7 threes.”
Olimpija had a good team, with Marko Milic, Sani Becirovic, Primoz Brezec, Slavko Kotnik, Jure Zdovc… In the quarterfinals, FC Barcelona ousted Olimpija 2-1, but struggled to do so and advance to the Thessaloniki Final Four. However, Coach Aito Garcia Reneses laid his eyes on the guard and asked his club to sign him as top priority.
Signing for Barcelona in the summer of 2000 was a key step in the career of Jasikevicius. He was already 24 years old, the perfect moment to clear the doubts about whether he was just another strong Lithuanian talent or a top-class player who could play on great teams to achieve great things.
I can say that Jasikevicius is one of the players that I have seen the most in person. I saw him at the EuroBaskets in 1997, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2007 and 2011.Also, at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Athens in 2004, and London in 2012. In all his Final Fours and, especially, in the four seasons that Saras spent in Barcelona. I can also say it has been a privilege to enjoy his game.
It could be said that Sarunas Jasikevicius can ‘blame’ his mother, an important handball player in her day and a member of the USSR international team that would play the world championship in 1973. They were in the competition played in Rostov and Kiev, but Rita Jasikviciene was no longer with the team. She was pregnant with Sarunas, who would come into the world on March 5, 1976. Igor Turcin, the team’s head coach, was mad at Rita because her absence due to motherhood broke his plans for the tourney and the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where women handball would be played for the first time. He never called Rita to the team again.
Rita gave preference to his motherhood over her sports career. Many years later, she told her son that he “owed her an Olympic title”. In Sydney 2000, Saras bought two tickets for his parents. His father Linas, was a table tennis player. Sarunas for sure didn’t lack sports genes. His parents say that he was a lively kid, always on the move. His worst punishment was having to be still and sitting down. When he started playing basketball, his coach Felixas Mitkevicius quickly saw his talent, but Sarunas wasn’t sure his future was in basketball and at 12 years old, he decided to switch to tennis.
Mitkevicius went to the Jasikevicius’ household to explain that Saras had a huge talent and a bright future in basketball. The three of them convinced Saras to stay in basketball, even though he has admitted that he didn’t see himself in basketball until he was 14 years old. The first calls to the cadet Lithuanian national team sparked his ambition and his competitiveness. Little by little he realized that he played good, that it was easy for him and that he had fun. This last one, his joy for the game, would become his career trademark. In 1994, when he won the U18 EuroBasket with Lithuania in Tel Aviv (73-71 against Croatia and two years later 85-81 against Spain in the World Championship U22), his future was decided.
At 17 years old, he moved to the United States to study in Solanco High School (Quarryville, Pennsylvania). The next logical step was college. He chose University of Maryland, but when four years later the NBA showed no interest, he moved back home and signed his first pro contract with Lietuvos Rytas for 50,000 dollars. From Vilnius to Ljubljana and from Slovenia to Barcelona, where he started rewriting basketball history as the point guard for the club’s first, long-awaited Euroleague title. It would continue later in Tel Aviv, Istanbul and Athens and then to finish his career in his native Kaunas. After winning his first Euroleague with Barcelona, in 2003 at Palau Sant Jordi against Benetton Treviso in the final, he signed for Maccabi and they won back-to-back European crowns. Since the days of the great Jugoplastika there had been no players with three consecutive titles. He entered a select list with Toni Kukoc, Velimir Perasovic, Zoran Sretenovic, Luka Pavicevic and Zan Tabak. His fourth title arrived in 2008-09 with Panathinaikos. Until Saras, obody had ever won the Euroleague with three different teams.
Exhibition in Sweden
I was a direct witness to his four continental crowns, but I think that the one that brought him even more happiness was a fifth one, won with Lithuania at EuroBasket 2003 in Sweden, where his national team won for the first time in 64 years. In the big final, Lithuania defeated Spain, 93-84. Jasikevicius ended up with 14.0 points and 8.2 assists per game. In the final he scored 10 points but dished 9 assists. It was his great moment. In May that year he had won his first Euroleague trophy with Barcelona, and months later his first EuroBasket. Lithuania had a great team: Ramunas Siskauskas, Saulius Stombergas, Arvydas Macijauskas, the Zukauskas brothers, Ksistof Lavrinovic, Darius Songaila, Donatas Slanina…They averaged over 90 points in six games at the tournament. It was an offensive display of happy basketball, with imagination and improvisation that could only come with huge talent. The tournament MVP? Of course, it was Jasikevicius.
One year later at the Athens Olympics, I saw the victory of Lithuania over the United States, 94-90, one of the best in Saras’ career. In 32 minutes, he scored 32 points with 7 of 12 threes and four assists. It was his particular revenge for the semifinal defeat in 2000 Sydney Olympics (83-85), in which the Lithuanians missed the last shot. The bronze medal was a good consolation.
It’s not easy to count all the titles he has won. If I am not mistaken, he was a champ nine times in five different national leagues: Greece (3), Spain (2), Israel (2), Turkey (1) and Lithuania (1). He won 10 national cups in five countries: Olimpija (1), Barcelona (3), Panathinaikos (3), Maccabi (2) and Fenerbahce (1). His individual accolades ask for a lot of space. One of the biggest accolades off the court has been the naming of one of the meeting rooms in Euroleague Basketball headquarters in Barcelona after him. The other two who enjoy the same privilege: Zeljko Obradovic and Dejan Bodiroga. This is how the stars that leave their mark in the competition should be respected.
In February this year, Jasikevicius was honored by the Euroleague, which honored him as a Euroleague Basketball Legend before the Top 16 game between Zalgiris Kaunas and Real Madrid. Before a long, standing ovation from his hometown fans, a video was screened at Zalgirio Arena in which some of his best moments appeared, along with statements from former teammates like Juan Carlos Navarro, or his coach in Panathinaikos, Zeljko Obradovic.
I am happy to see him on the Zalgiris bench. It was the club of his dreams, in his native city. With basketball in his blood, it’s only a matter of time before we see him become head coach of Zalgiris or any other team.
If somebody must teach how basketball is played, that is Mr. Basketball, Sarunas Jasikevicius.
(April 26, 2015)