By Paul Nilsen
|With every single Lithuanian citizen of any age demanding the gold medal at the... very least, coach Kemzura probably has the toughest job in the country, but so far he's been vindicated for his choices|
Lithuania really has shown a phenomenal amount of guts so far. Or alternatively, in the splendid words of literary great Ernest Hemingway, grace under pressure.
The burden of being hosts at any tournament can weigh heavy on the shoulders. Expectation, emotions and sentiment can all run rampant, show scant regard for sporting logic and contribute to eventual tears of sorrow rather than joy.
With the added fact that basketball enjoys near religious status in Lithuania, Coach Kestutis Kemzura and his players have been under an intense spotlight. While this is nothing new for the Lithuanian team, they have perhaps suffered the glare more brightly than ever before.
Kemzura in particular has not had an easy ride. After losing the talismanic Linas Kleiza who was very much the heartbeat of their satisfying bronze medal at the FIBA World Championship in Turkey, he also had to deal with an unenviable dilemma which divided a nation.
Namely, whether to bring back the veteran stars who didn't contribute last summer. For outsiders looking in, it looked as if Kemzura was damned if he did (bring them back) and damned if he didn't.
As they now prepare for the quarter-finals in Kaunas, it's hard not to be impressed with how everyone associated with the Lithuanian team has stepped up to the plate.
The veteran players have generally justified their inclusion and there has been such a delightful fusion with some of the younger players, encapsulated quite beautifully during the game against Germany.
|Jasikevicius might not be the player he once was, but his pick n rolls with Valanciunas are poetry in motion and they tell a story about the past and future of Lithuanian basketball|
For not only Lithuanians, but indeed neutral fans everywhere, the sight of 35-year-old Sarunas Jasikevicius combining with 19-year-old Jonas Valanciunas for those glorious alley-oop plays in traffic underlined perfectly why we are all consumed so passionately by this game we love so much.
Whatever happens to Lithuania, this was an iconic basketball snapshot.
The interaction between Jasikevicius and Valanciunas was symbolic in so many different ways. In just a few seconds, it told a story about the past and future of Lithuanian basketball, in addition to the quite gorgeous synergy of the present.
Ever since the tournament tipped off, Lithuania could have crumbled under pressure, let nerves destroy them or even just change their style to anxiously grind out the wins they needed.
But instead, they have stuck to their principles, entertained and voraciously fed off the energy and intensity which has cascaded down to the court from the adoring hordes packed into the Arena tribunes.
Jasikevicius has been a prime example of what Lithuania is all about. We all know he isn't the player he once was and that time waits for no man. I also hold my hand up to thinking at one point recently, he was a turnover waiting to happen.
Against Germany however, he really did demonstrate what Hemingway meant by grace under pressure by producing that kind of performance and trusting in the courage of his convictions.
Oh yes, for no matter what happens next, believe me, this Lithuanian team has got guts.