17 - 25
August 2018
Long Read
to read

Olympic basketball bloodline, lure of redemption driving Visockaite

KAUNAS (FIBA U16 Women's European Championship 2018) – When you're born to Lithuanian parents, the love they will offer you for the rest of their lives is so often accompanied by a passion for basketball – in whatever form that takes.

It's in the blood of the entire nation and at birth, your dedication to the sport will be confirmed - adding further gravitas to a beautiful dedication that has an entire population captivated.

It's the family heirloom you don't need to wait until later in life to receive, male or female, the first time your baby arms are fully outstretched, you can expect a mini basketball to land lovingly in front of your eyes. 

Following in historical Olympic footsteps

Arunas Visockas was a member of the bronze-medal winning 1992 Lithuanian Olympic team

For Simona Visockaite, the instinctive elements were underpinned by something even more special, since she was about to start a precious journey with a father who could also offer a rare insight into basketball at the very highest level.

Arunas Visockas appeared at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, not only participating, but getting to stand on the last podium step, dressed in those now-famous Grateful Dead-inspired t-shirts. He was part of a true landmark moment for his country as Lithuania signed off their first Games since regaining independence with a bronze medal.

The extra significance was that it showed Lithuania had the strength to write an exciting new chapter of their own at global level, managing to win three bronze Olympic medals in a row. Notably, Visockas also played against the legendary and original USA ‘Dream Team’ including the likes of Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Larry Bird.

Once you've shown you can mix it among those on the biggest stage of all, it's understandable that instilling belief and confidence in your own children to follow suit is a natural next phase.

"It was my father who took me to my first basketball practice," revealed Visockaite.

"At that time, he had already started coaching himself. I really wanted to play myself, but my dad also gave me a lot of encouragement. He believed that I could become a basketball player and it became an inherent part of my life."

Arunas has gone  on to have a successful coaching career within the Lithuanian Federation system

To those on the outside looking in, it might ring of a familiar athletic tale – one where a young person reaps the rewards of being able tap into expertise living under the same roof and inevitably start to tread the previously worn path to stardom.

Only there is no inevitability about it whatsoever. The only person that can make you a successful baller is the one staring back at you in the mirror. 

Not always a natural path; Unseen struggles

Visockaite was bold enough to confess that at times, there were struggles – and doubts. While not saying it, an outsider might wonder if there was the burden of extra pressure and expectation.

"My first steps in basketball weren't easy, but everything got better as things got rolling," stated the teenager.

"In the early days, I couldn't have imagined ever becoming a professional player. In the very beginning, I wasn't really able to execute much of what the coach was showing.

"There were moments where I couldn't take it anymore, but I showed up at the gym the next day and continued to work. Making a great effort always brings about something positive and those thoughts about me not wanting, or not being able to do something, started to disappear altogether.

Smiling now, but for Simona, basketball was never a natural progression

"As time went by, I understood that this is my field and now I don't plan on giving up basketball anytime soon.

"My father always told me I can reach my goals. He has always been supportive and I have him to thank for what I have achieved so far." 

Because of her age, it's easy to forget that her blossoming career on the hardwood must also be balanced with life-skills and those essential learnings drawn from education. As with any student-athlete who is looking to emulate a successful sporting parent, it helps if there is something to get excited about in the classroom too.

"I am pretty good at school," smiled Visockaite.

"My father was always ambitious, he was also a good student and I think I inherited this desire to be first everywhere.

"They say, the more you do, the more are able to get done. Right now, I'm getting it done both at school and on the court." 

In need of redemption and a renaissance

Last summer was a struggle. Lithuania won just one of their seven games at the FIBA U16 Women's European Championship 2017 in Bourges and in any other year, would have tumbled unceremoniously into Division B. As it was, the Federation had already agreed to host this year's Division A event and so a waiver was issued so they could continue competing in the top tier for another edition.

Visockaite was the one shining light on French soil. She did everything she could to avoid her team requiring that special dispensation. The forward collected more than 12 points and 10 rebounds per game, meaning she was one of only 5 players in the competition to harvest a tournament double-double.

From top scorer and rebounder last year, Visockaite is being elevated to simply the leader. Not only by those involved with Lithuania , but also by the player herself. She is acutely aware that it's necessary to perform to an even higher standard if her country wants to secure a major improvement on what went down in France and not even flirt with the unimaginable prospect of relegation. 

The 2017 campaign is one Lithuania would rather forget

Perhaps drawing upon her father's traits and specifically a desire to be the best, it's clear that Visockaite sees what is about to unfold as less of a risk and more of an opportunity presenting itself. The prospect of redemption is highly appealing. 

She commented "I am excited to have this opportunity to show myself and play for the national team. I have always dreamed of putting on the national team jersey.

"That has inspired me to work even harder and continue moving forward. I feel a great deal of responsibility and I would really like to continue representing this jersey many more times in the future.

"I hope we get a lot of support. We will be playing here in Lithuania and a lot of friends and acquaintances will come and watch us play. There will be some nervousness, but we hope that the home walls will work in our favour," concluded Visockaite.

What might end up working even more in their favour is that they have a player who has had a Lithuanian basketball upbringing with even more of an edge and focus than many of her peers.

And, as always, a proud basketball nation awaits with baited breath.