|At age 29 and with three EuroBasket campaigns |
behind him, Blums is
Latvia's veteran leader
By Jeff Taylor
Latvia are not the hosts of the EuroBasket, but the large contingent of fans that have come to support them in Lithuania suggests otherwise.
Travelling Latvia supporters is nothing new.
At the last two EuroBaskets in Spain and Poland, Latvians were everywhere.
The fact that Latvia's capital of Riga is about an hour's drive from Siauliai makes it even easier for their fans to watch their team's Group B games.
France coach Vincent Collet dismissed the idea that Latvia, his team's first opponents, would be big underdogs.
"Two years ago (in Poland), we had a very difficult game against them in the first round," he recalled.
"Once again, the gym will be crowded with Latvian fans.
"We're close to Lithuania so we know it will be a very tough game for us."
Janis Blums, a 29-year-old veteran in the youngest Latvian side ever to appear at a EuroBasket, a squad that has an average age of less than 23, says that backing should not be underestimated.
"Our fans are coming, so it's like six players," he said.
"I hope they will try to help us.
"It's a good chance for us to show what we can do with this young team."
The Young Bertans
The baby of this "young team" is Davis Bertans.
Just 18, Bertans' career could be about to take off.
In June, the Indiana Pacers selected him in the second round of the NBA Draft.
The San Antonio Spurs then worked a trade to get the rights to Bertans but he'll spend the upcoming season with Union Olimpija.
Bertans has been playing a lot of basketball.
At the U19 FIBA World Championship staged in his own country at the end of June and early July, he averaged 15.3 points and 6.4 rebounds for Latvia.
"I've had just 13 days off this summer," he said.
"I've been practicing and playing."
The EuroBasket is a completely different level, though.
"This is probably the biggest challenge I've had, to come here, knowing even if I play only two or three minutes, to play against stars from Germany (Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman) and France (Joakim Noah, Tony Parker and Boris Diaw).
This Latvia team expects to have some fun in Lithuania.
On the one hand, there is no pressure because they know few outside of their own country expect them to go far in the event, especially as they find themselves in the tournament's ‘group of death' with Serbia, France, Germany, Italy and Israel.
On the other, the Latvia players seem to have a chip on their shoulders.
Just as Bertans and his teammates finished practice on Monday, Nowitzki and Germany walked into the Siauliai Arena to start one of their workouts.
The young Latvians paused for a moment and looked at their future Group B opponents and at Nowitzki, the NBA Finals MVP of the Dallas Mavericks, before exiting the floor and going to the locker room.
Bertans says he is excited to be able to compete against the likes of Nowitzki, but he's not awestruck.
"Actually, a professional basketball player doesn't think about that," Bertans said.
"Because the first thing, you must respect the player but at the same time, must be aggressive and play as you would against any other."
Good Basketball Stock
|Davis Bertans looks forward to matching up |
against the best in the world
It's not surprising that Bertans found basketball as a profession.
"My father (Dainis), he was a professional basketball player," Bertans said.
"When I was born, me and my brother were around basketball all the time."
Bertans' brother, Dairis Bertans, is 21 and also plays for the national team.
Davis says it's something he's very happy about.
"It makes it easier because we can go home and he can explain everything," Bertans said.
"He has more experience."
Bertans, like Blums, is looking forward to the support he and his teammates are going to get when they face France on Wednesday in their Group B opener.
And not all the fans, it turns out, will be Latvian.
"I know that even Lithuania fans will be in the gym and cheering for us," Bertans said of Latvia's Baltic brethren.
"Lithuania fans cheer for us when we don't play them."