|As a few other players of his generation, Olympiacos star Linas Kleiza has grown up between two basketball cultures. His parents, who are artists, left Lithuania for New York in the mid-1990s, while young Linas stayed behind to live with his grandparents and nurture his budding basketball career. When he was about to turn pro in Lithuania, at age 16, his parents decided he should get an education in the U.S. That led to a high school, university and NBA basketball career, every step of it a success. Almost every summer along the way, he returned home to continue his Lithuanian basketball education by playing for Lithuanian national teams. This season, at age 24, Kleiza returned to play club basketball for the first time on the continent where he grew up. On Wednesday against Lietuvos Rytas, in a key Group B game for both teams, he will walk on-court at Siemens Arena in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, as a visiting player - another first. Re-adjusting to European basketball has hardly affected Kleiza, who is the Euroleague's fifth-rated performer so far this season, leading Olympiacos in scoring, with 17.9 points per game, and rebounds, with 7.6 on average. As good as those numbers are, when he looks back someday on his European return, Kleiza will likely measure it by one criteria: winning. "No question about it, when you have such a talented team as this one, in which the president invested so much, it's about winning," Kleiza told Euroleague.net. "We haven't talked about anything else, our goals or anything, because we all know our goals are the highest - to try to win it all."
Against Lietuvos Rytas in Vilnius this week, you will play your first game ever as a visitor in your home country. Will it be strange for you?
"It's true, I have never gone there like this, on a visiting team, so it's going to be exciting. I have always had the fans on my side there, with the national team, but going to play Lietuvos Rytas in this way is going to be fun. I don't think it will be strange. It will just give me extra motivation to beat them."
Is Vilnius your hometown and were you ever part of the Lietuvos Rytas youth system?
"I lived in Vilnius from the time I was three until I was about nine, but my hometown is Kaunas."
You ended up going to America at age 16, but not necessarily for basketball by itself. Can you explain the story?
"My parents left when I was 10, and staying home was good for me, basketball-wise. I had a good coach at that time, so I stayed with my grandparents. When the time came and I turned 16, my parents felt it was time for me to come over to the U.S., get an education there and pursue basketball there. I had an offer to go pro with a Lithuanian team when I was 16, but they got worried and kind of sent me to the States."
At the time, there was a lot of debate in Lithuania about whether U.S. basketball was a good choice for young players. It obviously worked out for you - and you had your family reasons to go - but at the time was it a tough decision?
"To be honest with you, it was tough to leave, but the decision was made for me. My parents talked me into it. They had made the decision. But of course it was tough to leave my friends, coaches and teammates and go to a new world, really, not knowing the language. But as you said, it worked out great for me. Everyone has to look at his own case, what's going on for them, and see what opportunities they have here and there."
This all happened in the summer of 2001. Is it true that you visited the World Trade Center a few days before 9/11?
"Yes, I actually came into the U.S. right at the end of August, so we were there on September 1 or 2, I think, so it was pretty close. I came, we went around, visited the World Trade Center and took a picture, but within a week I was in high school in Maryland. We were in class when we heard that one plane hit. No one knew what was going on. Then they said about the second plane. Someone called in a bomb scare and they evacuated our school. There was a lot of nervousness because we were close to Washington D.C. I didn't understand much of it yet."
Fast forward to your decision last summer to your career back to Europe - your own decision this time. Was that tough, too?
"It definitely wasn't an easy decision after four years in Denver, but this was a great opportunity, Olympiacos is a top team, so it was hard to say no. I saw a big opportunity to develop my career, take a big role on a good team, and decided to come over. Now, I am just trying to expand my game and get better."
Now that your are here, and Olympiacos can reach the Top 16 as soon as this week, what are your impressions compared to what you expected when you signed?
"The competition is great in the Euroleague. It's definitely different basketball than in the NBA. Once you go on the road here, it's very tough to win. Any team can beat you. So far we haven't been good on road. We've had a couple losses so far and barely escaped in France, so that tells you the competition is definitely good."
Indeed, in that road trip to France, you needed to score 19 points in the last quarter to save the victory against Orleans, which still hasn't won a game. Does that kind of prove that there are no easy games in the Euroleague?
"We went there after our big domestic win against Panathinaikos and we kind of took Orleans lightly. And they almost hurt us. It came right down to the end. They played a good game, but we pulled it out. I was struggling the whole game, so I definitely thought I had to do something to help us. I didn't think it would be 19 points in six minutes, but the game open up for me suddenly. My teammates were finding me good, wide-open shots. During the whole game before that, their defense didn't leave me, but in the fourth quarter, they forgot about me. That's when having great teammates and guards like Theo Papaloukas, Milos Teodosic and Yotam Halperin helps so much, because with them looking, the ball was going to find me, and it did."
Other European veterans, upon returning to the Euroleague, have said that the adjustments were very difficult. But you are thriving as one of the top performers in the league. Why?
"I think that I am still making adjustments, but for me it was easier because I spent pretty much every summer since I was 14 or 15 playing for our national teams, up until now with the men's national team. So in that way, I got very familiar with European basketball. It's definitely different than the NBA, but all that experience in European Championships, Olympics and World Championships kind of made it easy for me to adjust now."
From the start of your season, what sticks out that made you say to yourself "I'm really back in Europe now"?
"Definitely there have been some games where I felt that. The big difference is the fans, I think. That's the big one for me. When you play Panathinaikos, when you play in Belgrade, you are shoot free throws and get hit in the face with something. Those type of things never happen in the NBA. The fans here haven't seen or met you yet, but you see the hate in their eyes because you're on the other team. That was weird at first. I'm definitely not used to those things, but I am getting used to it."
What would make this a successful season in your mind?
"Winning. No question about it, when you have such a talented team as this one, in which the president invested so much, it's about winning. We haven't talked about anything else, our goals or anything, because we all know our goals are the highest - to try to win it all."
That would mean reaching the Final Four. Is Paris in springtime the perfect destination for a family of artists?
"If we make it there, my whole family will definitely be there. Especially my mom, who loves are, would enjoy that."