He's a fan favorite in many cities. Everywhere in Europe fans know him on a first name basis, but Sarunas Jasikevicius has always kept a place in his heart – not to mention a house and a bar he owned – for the city and club where he first won the Euroleague, Barcelona. Now that Saras is back, he is looking for a fifth Euroleague crown, which would make him one of only five players in Euroleague history with as many titles. “There are no guarantees for anything, but I thought this team had a legitimate chance to win the Euroleague. That was the biggest reason why I came back to Barcelona”, the 37-year-old Jasikevicius said of the reasons he returned after a decade away.
There is no detailed or reasonable explanation. It is simply one of those love-at-first-sight type of things, and it is no secret, Jasikevicius and Barcelona just have it going. “To tell you the truth, the first time I came to Barcelona I was 14, and I’ve been in love with the city ever since. I really cannot explain it,” Jasikevicius said of the ‘relationship’ he has enjoyed for more than two decades. “I am very happy and very comfortable here. Over the years, I have met a lot of great people, and made a lot of good friends. I just like it in Barcelona, and wish to stay here for many years.”
The city, club and its fans hold a special meaning for the Euroleague legend, and in 2003 that feeling was more than mutual as Saras helped Barcelona – after five title-game defeats over a span of 19 years – win its first Euroleague trophy ever. “Winning the Euroleague in Palau Sant Jordi was something very special”, Jasikevicius recalled of the Final Four when Barcelona beat Benetton in the finals. “This club waited for a long time to try to win the Euroleague, and we finally did it in 2003. It was such a huge thing for the city and for the club. It was really big, and it was my first Euroleague title, too. That made it even more special, it is just really an incredible memory.”
Exactly 10 years have passed since the team coached by Svetislav Pesic, and with other legends – including Dejan Bodiroga, Juan Carlos Navarro and Gregor Fuka among others – lifted the club’s first-ever Euroleague title. It has also been 10 years since Jasikevicius left Barcelona.
His career continued to blossom after leaving, as Jasikevicius developed into one of the greatest European point guards ever. He went on to win three more Euroleague titles, two with Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2004 and 2005, and another one with Panathinaikos Athens in 2009 to become the only player in competition history to win the Euroleague with three different teams. Saras was also the 2005 Euroleague Final Four MVP, a two-time All-Euroleague First Team selection, and has won national championships in Israel, Greece and Turkey in addition to Spain. During his time away, his feelings towards Barcelona have always come back. Especially when he would take the floor at Palau Blaugrana as a visiting player. “It was always one of the most difficult things, to come back and play in Palau because of the old feelings, and because of the sentimental part of this game. I always had really bad games when I would come back; maybe one out of five games I would play well. It was always very difficult.”
He no longer has that problem. Last summer, when he received the call to return, Saras was more than ready to re-join Barcelona. “When I left in 2003, I made it clear I wanted to come back. It was really strange how my career turned around, and how it took me so long to come back.” Of the players who played during his first stint with the club, and who won the triple-crown in 2003, only Navarro remained. But for Saras, being very familiar with the city and with the club, it feels like not much has changed.
“I was a kind of a person that was always coming back to Barcelona, either to see the basketball or football games, or to visit old friends. I pretty much know everybody on the staff – many people are the same. And even though only Juan Carlos has stayed with the team over these years, when you play so many times in the Euroleague, you know most of the players. So, to come back has not been very difficult.”
There is also another reason why coming back to join Barcelona was a no-brainer for Jasikevicius. To win! Jasikevicius has four Euroleague titles, the most of any active players. With another one, he would join a list of basketball greats with five or more titles. Clifford Luyk, Aldo Ossola and Fragiskos Alvertis have five, and Dino Meneghin has unprecedented seven Euroleague titles. And if Barcelona can overcome his former club Panathinaikos in the playoffs, Jasikevicius will reach the Final Four for the sixth time in his career, something only few players have managed to do.
It would only be suiting if Jasikevicius could accomplish those things while wearing a Blaugrana jersey. Quite a nice twist near the end of a glorious career, especially knowing there were times Saras was afraid he would not be a Barcelona player ever again. “To tell the truth, there were moments I did not think it was going to happen, and I thought I was going to finish my career without playing again in Barcelona. So, when opportunity presented itself, I really did not think about it that long. It was pretty clear for me that this is the place where I wanted to be again.”