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Paulius Jankunas, Zalgiris Kaunas
Jan 06, 2009
by Antanas Pakula, Kaunas
Despite their team being in the unfamiliar situation of occupying last place in its regular season group, Zalgiris fans are rally around the players on Thursday as they try to save their shared Top 16 hopes. For forward Paulius Jankunas of Zalgiris, that unqualified support is something he has come to expect while growing up in the city and the club. At just 24 years old, Jankunas is in his sixth season already, having debuted as a teenager and then played a season alongside legend Arvydas Sabonis. Now, Jankunas is the team's best scorer and the emerging leader of his Zalgiris generation. With the club's consistent presence in the Top 16 at stake, Jankunas wants to summon the Zalgiris pride he grew up in Zalgiris learning about through every step of the club. From experience, he knows that he can count now on a full house of devoted fans behind the last-ditch effort of Zalgiris to salvage its season. "They are just the best," Jankunas said of the Zalgiris fans. "The greatest thing about them is that they are supportive even when their team struggles. This season we won only once, but they stood behind us no matter what."
After six seasons in a Zalgiris uniform, longer than any of your teammates, do you feel yourself becoming a team leader at just 24 years old?
"Yes, and it feels good. Being just 24 years old, I am not a very experienced player, but for me it seems that I am playing with Zalgiris almost forever. Now, I can hardly recall my very first days on the team. I am happy that things went well for me in Zalgiris. I started my career as local player here and I learned a lot and grew up as a player. Every year I played better and better and every year I got extra minutes. That means that coaches had confidence in me and I am happy about that. We have a lot of young players on the team now and sometimes I can give them some hints or pieces of advice, but they can share their opinion with me as well. We are team and everybody matters."
Is it hard for you to believe that now, after winning just one game, Zalgiris still has a chance for the Top 16 with only two more to play?
"Yes, it is hard to believe that we still have a chance for the Top 16. It would be fantastic if we make it to the Top 16 with a few wins only, and I believe we can make it. During preseason, we thought we would have a better regular season win-loss record, but our team faced a lot of problems and changes, which led to poor results. But we have to forget about past and focus our minds on the remaining games."
In those six seasons, you have played in the Top 16 all but once. How important is that goal for you and Zalgiris right now?
"It doesn't matter whether we're talking about right now or back then, because it's always important to set the highest goals. For me and for my teammates, it is very important to make it to the next round. In the Top 16, you face new strong teams and you gain more experience. With every tough game, you gain experience and games in the Top 16 are always tough. We have a lot of young players so this Top 16 experience is invaluable to them."
How difficult was it to lose seven games in a row to start the Euroleague regular season?
"Yes, we had a rocky start. In the preseason, we did a good job and played good basketball, but later some problems hit our team. We were off the rhythm, but now we are playing better."
How tough is it to face Barcelona, Panathinaikos and Montepaschi in a row, as your team did before beating Prokom?
"It was really tough because we had to play against them precisely when we needed a win badly. Those teams play better basketball than we do this season and we lost to them. But when you play against such teams, you can be sure that you are on the right learning curve."
It seems that you and Jonas Maciulis have been a package since your Euroleague debuts in 2002-03. How long have you two been together and how long do you plan to stay together?
"We know each other from the Arvydas Sabonis basketball school, but he was one year younger. Later, we played together for Zalgiris's junior teams. Jonas joined the main Zalgiris team a little bit later than me, because he played one year for Kedainiai team, but we understand each other very well. However, when you are club player you can not choose your teammates. When I played in the basketball school, I knew whom I would play with in the next year, but now I cannot say anything for sure."
What was it like for you to play alongside Arvydas Sabonis in 2003-04? Was that the highlight of your career so far?
"No doubt it was the most remarkable season. It was fantastic to play with Arvydas Sabonis. I was very young and it was very exciting. In the beginning, I was little bit afraid and uncomfortable, but later things got easy and I learned a lot from him. When I was a kid, I used to watch him playing on TV and never dared to dream that I would be playing with Arvydas Sabonis. One day I woke up and Sabonis was my teammate. It was great. He had huge experience and gave a lot of advice to me. It was big honor to play with him and I hope I learned something from Sabonis."
This week's home game with Nancy is a must-win situation if you want to reach the Top 16. Is Zalgiris ready?
"This game is very important for us and we are preparing for it very hard. We had a training camp in Palanga and worked really hard. We had a game against Ventspils this weekend and starting Monday we focused on Thursday's match. We are watching their tapes, analyzing their plays and polishing our defense. We know that we need a 15-points winning margin. It means we will have to play hard from the very first minute until the buzzer."
Despite the losses this year, fans in Kaunas are still 100% behind you, as visiting players and coaches always mention. You are from Kaunas, so how would you describe the mentality of a Zalgiris fan?
"I think that all European basketball players know Zalgiris' fans. They are just great and I can easily imagine that they do impress visiting teams. They are so loud and supportive. The greatest thing about them is that they are supportive even when their team struggles. This season we won only once, but they stood behind us no matter what. When a young player enters the court, the fans give him warm support and the player gets confidence. It's very important. I want to thank them a lot. They are just the best."