With basketball taking center-stage in Latvia, the World Cup beckons
ISTANBUL (FIBA EuroBasket 2017) - Latvia's high-octane offensive-minded basketball has paid dividends for the Baltic country, with record numbers tuning in, and turning up, to watch the national team this summer.
Since New York Knicks phenom Kristaps Porzingis invited the nation's media to his hometown, Liepaja, back in April to announce he would be available for the national team this summer, basketball has been on the lips of every one of Latvia's nearly-two million citizens.
The sport was then given an even bigger boost in June when the country's women's team booked a spot in the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup 2018 – the first time Latvia will play in the event. Women's basketball plays an integral role in creating awareness for the sport in Latvia. Prior to Sunday's epic clash with Slovenia, the most-viewed basketball game in the nation's history was the FIBA EuroBasket Women 2009 Quarter-Final against Russia. The Latvian women's team is also the only team to represent Latvia at the Olympics.
On Sunday evening, Latvia's Quarter-Final game-for-the-ages encounter with Slovenia became the second-most watched program on Latvian television this year, second only to an ice-hockey game from spring's IIHF World Championships.
As well as tuning in with record numbers, fans are also turning up in encouraging numbers. A friendly game with Lithuania in the lead up to FIBA EuroBasket 2017 attracted a capacity crowd of 10,500, whilst games against the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania had similarly impressive audiences.
"The KP (Kristaps Porzingis) factor is very serious, but you can not attribute everything to that. There is also Davis (Bertans), our players playing in Europe who have been growing year-by-year, playing key roles on major teams," offered Latvia Basketball Federation President Edgars Sneps, as an explanation for the exponential growth in interest for basketball in Latvia.
"This is also a different generation and the attitude has changed towards how they work. It is much easier to 'sell' these players. You don't have to create the stories, you just take their stories and spread them. The team slogan, 'musu zeme – Latvija' (our land – Latvija), that comes from the team. Our merchandise line this year was printed around this slogan. So we are just able to take what they gave us and spread it around.
Sneps also points to the ethic of the team's biggest names, setting an example for the rest to follow.
"The guys are not paid to play. But someone like KP sets the standard, he was always in the gym one hour before with his physio guy. Janis Blums – it is his seventh EuroBasket, but he is not only on the team to make up numbers, as you have seen at EuroBasket, he is still contributing. He played a big role in a couple of the games."
This all leads to promising signs for Latvia, heading into November's FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers campaign, which begins on the road in Turkey on November 23.
"Before this campaign, we discussed with our players that China (2019 host nation) is a huge market, also for them as players. The World Cup is the goal for Latvian basketball – we have never been there, so we put some things into perspective: OK we are coming together for this EuroBasket, but there is a lot more ahead. All of the guys understood that the World Cup is the next goal."