The godfathers of Lithuanian basketball
KAUNAS (Lithuania) - Perhaps no country has a more fascinating tale of basketball development in Europe than Lithuania, who won the second and third EuroBaskets, in 1937 and 1939.
Europe will never know how many more titles the Baltic country might have won in the half-century that followed World War II and the Soviet invasion of Lithuania. The Baltic country didn't play as Lithuania again until the 1992 Olympics, winning the bronze medal in Barcelona after it gained independence.
Lithuania has been a European powerhouse and one of the best national teams in international basketball ever since.
For those wondering why there is so much passion for Lithuanian basketball and why the sport is often called a religion in the Baltic land, it relates to what happened nearly a century ago.
Pranas Lubinas, aka Frank Lubin, was a player-coach for Lithuania's title-winning FIBA EuroBasket 1939 side
While basketball had arrived in Lithuania in the 1920s, its growth and popularity did not accelerate until the mid-1930s, following the arrivals of American-born Lithuanians Feliksas Kriauciunas (who Americanized his name as Phil Krause) and Pranas Lubinas (Frank Lubin).
In 1935, another Baltic country, Latvia, had the best national team on the old continent, winning the inaugural FIBA EuroBasket that year in Switzerland. Latvia thumped Hungary and then defeated Switzerland in the Semi-Finals and Spain in the Final to capture the crown with a 3-0 record among the 10 countries taking part.
Though Lithuania did not play at the first EuroBasket, 1935 was a seminal year for the game's development in the country.
As part of the First World Lithuanian Congress, a basketball tournament was held and a team of American-Lithuanian players from the Chicago area took part. They dominated, and captivated the Lithuanian public. One of the American-Lithuanians to play was Edward Walter Kriauciunas (Ed "Moose" Krause), a legend at the University of Notre Dame sports.
This excitement helped fuel the desire to have a strong team at EuroBasket 1937, which was to be staged in Latvia.
One year later, and that's where the legendary Lubinas began to have a place in Lithuanian basketball history.
Born in east Los Angeles to Lithuanian parents, Lubinas played basketball at high school and then at UCLA until 1931. He later made the USA team to compete at the 1936 Berlin Games, the first Olympics to have a basketball tournament.
The Americans had a perfect 5-0 record and captured the Olympic gold medal in Berlin, in a tournament that was played outdoors.
The first USA Olympic basketball squad; Lubinas is back row, third player from left
While in Germany, Lubinas was contacted by Lithuanian officials and invited to his parents' homeland. Following the Games, he travelled to the country with his father, wife and sister-in-law, with all three having just watched him at the Olympics.
"When we got there, we were met at the station by this young athlete from the educational department," Lubinas recalled in an interview he gave to the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles in 1988.
"He took us to a hotel where they had everything all set up for us. We met the President of Lithuania and all the different officials. It was just wonderful."
Lubinas had apparently not intended to stay in the country very long but something happened that forced him to remain.
"We were in a wagon traveling in the countryside to visit my father's sister-in-law on a farm," he said. "It had been drizzling and raining and the horse veered by a puddle of water and tipped the wagon over. My sister-in-law was the only one hurt; she broke her leg. We had to return to Kaunas, Lithuania, where the hospital was, and we stayed another three and a half months."
"I MADE THEM TOE THE LINE WITH MY STYLE. I TAUGHT THEM FAST BREAK, PASSING AND DEFENSE. IT MAY NOT BE THE STYLE OF THE PROS TODAY WHERE ONE MAN, LIKE MICHAEL JORDAN, SHOOTS ALL THE TIME. I DIDN'T TEACH THEM TO BE A ONE-MAN TEAM..."
During his stay, Lubinas agreed to train some of their basketball players and also suited up in a game in which a Lithuania team squared off against an opponent from Latvia. Just months before, Lubinas had captained the USA to Olympic gold. Events were moving fast.
"I said, 'Oh no, these (Lithuanian) athletes aren't ready to play a championship type of game'," Lubinas said. "But we played them anyway. They allowed me to play and, fortunately for us, we beat the Latvian team. Then they were ready to not let me come back to America."
But Lubinas did go home, and Lithuania continued to prepare for the EuroBasket that would be staged in Latvia without him.
In the lead-up to the 1937 event, the Lithuanian and Latvian national teams squared off in a friendly game, with the Latvians getting the upper hand, 41-29.
Lithuania responded by bringing in two American Lithuanians, one of which was Feliksas Kriauciunas, who agreed to both coach the team and play at the EuroBasket.
After weeks of preparations, which took place under air-tight secrecy, Lithuania travelled to Latvia and won the title with five wins in as many games.
The legendary Lithuania team that won EuroBasket 1937 in Riga
This championship success ignited interest in basketball in Lithuania like never before.
In an account offered by Alfred Erich Senn, a former history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Senn's parents were from Lithuania), an opera was interrupted so the audience could hear what had happened at the EuroBasket. The famous tenor, Kipras Petrauskas, stopped singing and announced that Lithuania had beaten Italy to win the title, with everyone in the State Theater responding by standing and singing the national anthem.
Lubinas, meanwhile, had been thinking of going back to Lithuania from the time that he set foot back in America.
"We finally got home (after leaving in November 1936) and I received letter after letter from the Lithuanian government asking me to return to Lithuania," he said.
"My dad said, 'You should go back. It's my homeland and I'd like to see you go back and help them.' So my wife and I went back to Lithuania and we coached various club organizations, teaching in the American style of offense and defense."
In 1939, Lithuania hosted the third EuroBasket and this time, Lubinas coached and played.
Caricatures of the players that won EuroBasket 1939 in Kaunas
It was a huge event, with a grand opening ceremony. In a video made about the tournament, Lubinas can be seen wearing the No. 9. He was a 2.01m (6ft 7in) center and was the best player in the tournament.
In a 1990 interview with Los Angeles Times, Lubinas talked about preparing the team for the EuroBasket.
"I made them toe the line with my style," Lubinas said. "I taught them fast break, passing and defense. It may not be the style of the pros today where one man, like Michael Jordan, shoots all the time. I didn't teach them to be a one-man team, I taught them to pass it to the man who had the best open shot."
The key game was the opener, against Latvia, and it went to the wire. Lubinas described the frantic finish to Senn.
"We played a very close game," Lubinas said. "Latvia was well instructed. They gave us a hard battle. It came down to the last minute of the game. They had the ball; we intercepted it, however. They were leading, 36-35. We saw our downfall.
"IN THE LAST SECOND I WHIRLED AND MADE THE SHOT THAT WON US THE GAME 37-36. THE CROWD ERUPTED; THEY CAME DOWN ON THE FLOOR AND CARRIED US AROUND ON THEIR SHOULDERS."
"For one brief moment I forgot all my Lithuanian. I hollered and I cussed our players. 'For goodness sake, pass me the ball!'
"I was standing under the basket. Finally Arturas Andrulis, who knew English very well, nodded his head, and he threw me the basketball. In the last second I whirled and made the shot that won us the game 37-36.
"The crowd erupted; they came down on the floor and carried us around on their shoulders."
Lubinas (far left) and Lithuania at EuroBasket 1939
In their next six games, Lithuania were decisive winners. They demolished Finland in their last contest, 112-9. Despite Lubinas being the tournament's top player, he wasn't allowed to be crowned MVP because the award could not be given to someone taller than 1.91m (6ft).
Might Lithuania have gone on to three-peat or win a string of EuroBaskets had not World War II happened? The basketball world will never know.
And why was Lubinas allowed to play for Lithuania after representing the USA at the Berlin Games? Estonia and Latvia had voiced their disapproval over his presence as a player, citing his height and birthplace. But a birth certificate was apparently presented, indicating that Lubinas should be allowed to play.
Lithuania returned to the top of the EuroBasket podium in Sweden, 64 years after their 1939 triumph
Lubinas travelled to Italy after the EuroBasket triumph and was coaching a Lithuanian women's team when the war broke out.
He returned to the United States and the following year, the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania.
Lubinas passed away at the age of 89 on July 8, 1999.
Lithuania have won just one EuroBasket since 1939, and it happened in 2003, in Sweden. They were runners-up in 1995, 2013 and 2015.