Shengelia living out boyhood dream by playing for Georgia
TBILISI (Georgia) - Tornike Shengelia remembers his young, carefree days in Georgia. He played basketball and loved every minute of it.
He also, on occasion, watched his national team in action.
One day, he imagined, he'd make the Georgia squad himself and be able to line up with his teammates on the court before games and sing the national anthem.
"Ever since I was kid and hearing the national anthem play, I had goosebumps and it was one of my dreams to be there and to compete for my country," he said. "And now that I'm there, the dream came true. It's something words can't describe."
Shengelia has been a leading player in the Georgia national team for almost a decade. He has played at three FIBA EuroBaskets and also competed in qualifying games for the FIBA Basketball World Cup.
The feeling of wearing that jersey never gets old, he says. If anything, it becomes more intense. When Shengelia heard, for example, that Georgia would be a Group Phase host for the next FIBA EuroBasket, it was as he'd been given a shot adrenaline.
"IT WAS ONE OF MY DREAMS TO BE THERE AND TO COMPETE FOR MY COUNTRY."
"The feeling that we had when we first heard, everyone in the country was excited," he said. "For me personally, it was an amazing feeling. It's something that's very important and not just for me and the players, but for everyone."
That includes those youngsters that look up to Shengelia and want to follow in his footsteps by playing pro basketball, and for the country.
"That's my motivation and they're my inspiration, too, because I've been there," he said.
Hosting a EuroBasket is about as good as it gets for a national team. There have been a combined eight countries to serve as a host nation for the last two editions. When the games are on, the fans are either piling into the arenas or watch on television.
The players feel the pride of running onto the floor in front of their own fans, and a new generation of players is born.
Zaza Pachulia and Shengelia were with Georgia in their first EuroBasket appearance in 2011
"It's important for the youth to be able to come and see the high level competitions and to get them on board playing basketball," Shengelia said.
Just taking part in the last four EuroBaskets has been important for the sport's overall development in Georgia. Their first participation was in 2011, when the tournament was expanded from 16 to 24 teams.
"It's done nothing but help," Shengelia said. "There was always a passion for basketball, but usually you would only feel this rise during the summer. But after the first EuroBasket Qualification Round (Georgia are playing qualifying games despite being assured of a spot as a EuroBasket 2021 host), you could already tell that basketball has become, if not the first sport, one of the first sports in Georgia. Statistically, many young players have started to play basketball."
Shengelia says there's been nothing in his career that matches playing for Georgia.
"For sure, definitely my best memory was when I first got my invitation from the federation to go to the national team training camp," he said. "I was super excited. It was one of the happiest days of my life.
"AFTER THE FIRST EUROBASKET QUALIFICATION ROUND, YOU COULD ALREADY TELL THAT BASKETBALL HAS BECOME, IF NOT THE FIRST SPORT, ONE OF THE FIRST SPORTS IN GEORGIA."
"I was inspired by the team and I wanted to be a part of the team that was fighting until the end, until the final buzzer. This is what I remember.
"We had so many amazing players like Zaza (Pachulia), (Viktor) Sanikidze, like (Manuchar) Markoishvili, like (George) Tsintsadze, (Nikoloz) Tskitishvili - I don't want to miss out anybody," he said. "At the end of the day, though, it wasn't that I was inspired by any one player, but the whole team and how they played as a team."
Shengelia played for Georgia when the country made its EuroBasket bow in 2011, in Lithuania, and after missing the event in 2013, he was a part of that team at EuroBaskets 2015 and 2017.
A lack of depth has probably undermined Georgia at all four EuroBaskets they have played.
"It's one of those tournaments where you have so many games in such a short space of time, you need a luxury to have a big bench," Shengelia said. "Most of the times we played, we could only use seven or eight guys, even though we had players that had sacrificed their bodies and were ready to compete on the higher level but didn't get a chance.
"You can also tell that the tournament is getting tougher and tougher to compete on the higher level, as you play so many minutes every other day.
"We have lost many important games but we have also won many important games," he said. "At the last one (in Tel Aviv), we won the first against Lithuania and then against Israel and their home crowd."
Shengelia had one of his best games for Georgia in a win over Lithuania at EuroBasket 2017
It took what was probably the best performance of Jonas Maciulis' Lithuania national team career in 2015 in Lille, France, to deny Georgia a spot in the Quarter-Finals in France. Maciulis had 34 points and his team beat Georgia in the Round of 16, 85-81.
In 2017, Italy scraped a 71-69 victory over Georgia in a vital Group Phase game in Tel Aviv that prevented them from advancing to the knockout stage.
"If you compare Italy's team to our team, I would say the luxury they have is a deeper bench than us," he said.
Even so, Georgia have demonstrated with their performances that they are probably capable of beating any opponent.
"If we're at our best and everyone is healthy, I believe we're going to be in position to compete against everybody," Shengelia said. "I don't want to sound biased, but that's my feeling. We've proved this many times and hopefully in the future, we're going to prove it again."
The next EuroBasket will be the first that Georgia will have home-court advantage.
"It's always special to play in front of our crowd," Shengelia said. "You can always tell if you look at history that when we play at home, it's something different to when we play away so we need to use that to our advantage."
And despite having had some very good teams in their first four EuroBaskets, the next version could prove to be the best of all.
"So far I think the team, the core of the team the past decade, it was one of the best decades of Georgia national team basketball but I believe we have many great young generations coming up and great prospects to joint the national team," Shengelia said. "It needs time for chemistry, getting it with as many practices and games, but in the future, it's definitely possible."