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Captain Kalnietis calls time on long Lithuania career
KAUNUS (Lithuania) - For the better part of 15 years with Lithuania's national team, Mantas Kalnietis felt wanted and appreciated.
It was his favorite team.
Having played for the senior side since his last days as a teenager at the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2006 in Japan, when he became the youngest to ever suit up for Lithuania, Kalnietis, 35, the national team captain, has decided the time is right to finish this chapter of his life.
At 19, Kalnietis became the youngest player in Lithuania national team history in 2006
He leaves as the longest-serving player in national team history.
"This isn't something that I decided in one day," he said to Basketnews.lt. "I've had a great time in the national team and I've never had thoughts or doubts of passing up the opportunity to play.
"The decision came mostly because of a difficult season, because of my injury, which changed my trajectory last year."
There is also the realization for Kalnietis, who will always be thought highly of in his country and international basketball, that others are now ready to assume responsibility.
"Finally, there are also some people who can replace me," he said. "It's not like before wen we didn't have someone to play. There are a lot of talented up-and-comers. It's normal that the time has come to step aside – I've taken this decision in peace.
"I saw that everything is alright with the new generation. I'm not one of those old guys, who'll say, 'Oh you know, back in our day'… I'm very supportive of the young guys and everything will be more than fine with them. In some aspects, possibly even better than with us."
Kalnietis experienced the thrill of reaching the podium in 2010, in Istanbul
Chief among those "up-and-comers" is 21-year-old guard Rokas Jokubaitis, who plays for former Lithuania guard Sarunas Jasikevicius at Barcelona.
If there were some haters, or naysayers, early in is Lithuania career that had doubts about Kalnietis being the point guard the country needed to maintain its elite status, they grew quiet nearly 12 years ago. That's when Kestutis Kemzura, the coach at the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2010, firmly declared that Kalnietis was his point guard.
"That (2010) national team and medal was definitely something spectacular and we had an unrealistically good time both on and off the court."
That tournament was one of Kalnietis' best.
He'd raised eyebrows when coming out of the Lithuania second division and going straight into the team at the World Cup in Japan thanks to former coach Antanas Sireika, but it was in Turkey where Kalnietis began establishing himself as a linchpin.
He helped Lithuania go from wild card to a spot on the podium, leading to big celebrations back home.
Remember how stunned and disappointed the huge legion of Lithuania supporters had been at FIBA Basket 2009 in Poland when the team came up short of the Quarter-Finals?
Kalnietis was instrumental in bringing the good times back.
Only the Kevin Durant-led USA beat Lithuania that summer, in the Semi-Finals in Istanbul.
Lithuania bounced back from that 89-74 defeat and beat Serbia, 99-88, in the Third-Place Game.
Kalnietis had a terrific performance with 14 points, five rebounds and five assists.
"That national team and medal was definitely something spectacular and we had an unrealistically good time both on and off the court," he said.
To appreciate the good, teams need to fail as Lithuania did at EuroBasket 2011 in Kaunas
The success in Turkey was followed by the shock of a Quarter-Final exit at EuroBasket 2011, in his hometown of Kaunas, at the hands of North Macedonia, yet Kalnietis travelled to Venezuela the following summer and proved his worth again.
He had nine points and nine assists in a win over the Dominican Republic at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament that punched Lithuania's ticket for the London Games.
After featuring at the Olympics for the first time, Kalnietis played in 11 EuroBasket games in 2013 and poured in 17 points, 18 points and 19 points in the last three as Lithuania finished runners-up to France.
After missing the World Cup through injury the following year in Spain, Kalnietis returned to the fray in 2015 at the first multi-hosted EuroBasket, which was staged in Croatia, France, Germany and Latvia.
He had an incredible performance in the Quarter-Final overtime win over Italy with 14 points and 11 assists, and he followed that with 12 points, nine assists and five rebounds in the Semi-Final triumph over Serbia that clinched a spot in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Kalnietis had been so important to the cause that beginning with the team's fourth game of the event and through to the Final, he never played less than 35 minutes.
After taking part in Rio, Kalnietis played at EuroBasket 2017, in European Qualifiers for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 in China and at the event itself, and in the eventually successful EuroBasket 2022 Qualifiers for Lithuania, helping his side punch the ticket to the Final Round with a crucial defensive play against Denmark.
He competed for the last time with Lithuania in Kaunas, at last summer's FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
The team made it to the Final but fell to a Luka Doncic-inspired Slovenia.
Rampant Slovenia left all opponents in their wake on the way to Tokyo, including Lithuania
He leaves as the fourth most capped player in his nation's history with 95 games.
"I was very lucky that my wife and kids wanted me to play for the national team," he said.
"Sometimes there might be offers in other families to relax or travel to warm countries, and I had the opposite - everyone supported me."
He also goes as the player with the most assists in national team history with 484, having surpassed Jasikevicius in his last game.