In another case of Lithuanians chasing after silly superlatives (see 'Centre of Europe'), top politicians gathered in Vilnius Wednesday for the unveiling of the 'first monument in the world honouring basketball.' Though proper research would probably discredit that claim, the city's new monument is still a genuine gesture toward the sport most known and loved by Lithuanians. In fact basketball has been cheekily referred to as the 'second religion' of Lithuania.
Why Lithuania, with a population of only 3.4 million, has steadily been amongst the strongest b-ballin' countries in the world is inexplicable (it should be noted that Baltic neighbours Latvia and Estonia are hardly 'forces' in the sport). And yet they are. Several Lithuanians have had successful careers in the NBA, most notably Arvydas Sabonis - considered one of the best centers to ever play the game. Zydrunas Ilgauskas went to the NBA Finals last year as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers and at 7'3'' is the second-tallest player in the league. Lithuania won European basketball championships in 1937, 1939 and 2003. The national team also took bronze in three straight Olympic Games - from 1992 in Barcelona to 2000 in Sydney - before finishing 4th in 2004. These were the first Olympic Games after Lithuanian independence was restored in 1990. It should be noted that the Soviet Union's gold medal performance in 1988 was largely thanks to the performance of its Lithuanian core - four of the five starters were Lithuanian, including Arvydas Sabonis. In fact, it has been speculated that Sabonis' dominating performance against the US in 1988 directly influenced the US's decision to thereafter use professional players in the Olympics, thus the 'Dream Teams' of 1992 and 1996.
The name of Sabonis and 36 other players considered to be the greatest Lithuanian nationals ever are inscribed on the new monument, which stands outside Vilnius' Siemens Arena. Rising six metres high and weighing 30 tons, the monument is comprised of five unpolished columns of granite supporting a stainless steel basketball. Symbolically, a hand holding a basketball...aesthetically, rocks with a steel marble on top. Hopefully the new monument will spur the national team to gold in this year's European Championship. Currently, the Lithuanian team is ranked 5th in the world by FIBA.
Click here to see a photo of the new sculpture.