interview: Jonas Kazlauskas, Team China
by: Frank Lawlor,
September 14, 2007
Jonas Kazlauskas - Team China He jolted European basketball less than a decade ago as a coaching trailblazer. Now Jonas Kazlauskas is trying to bring a similar magic to basketball in China as head coach of that country's national team. Kazlauskas, 52, was an assistant on the Team China bench at the 2004 Olympics and took over the head coaching job a year later. His goal is to get China in a position to compete better than ever at next summer's Olympic Games in Beijing. That will be his goal, too, when Euroleague Basketball comes to China with CSKA Moscow and Benetton Tamoil Treviso for games on September 30 and October 1. The CBA Euroleague Challenge 2007 will show two basketball cultures at their best. No one is better equipped to speak of both like Kazlauskas, who won the Euroleague with Zalgiris Kaunas in 1999. "I try to explain to everyone here that in Europe you can see many good teams, interesting styles and great players," Kazlauskas told recently. "Maybe someone doesn't agree with me sometimes, but it's what I believe, and I cannot say it differently."

Hello Coach. The CBA Euroleague Challenge 2007 later this month is a great chance for the Chinese and the European basketball communities to exchange ideas. Is it fair to say that, as Team China head coach, you are already doing something similar?

"Yes, it would be. You are right. I want as much as it is possible to explain to them about European styles, teams and players. Of course I think that Europe, behind the NBA, has the best basketball in the world, so for China it will be very good that very, very strong teams like CSKA Moscow and Benetton Treviso - with great coaches, players and organizations - come to China. We can enjoy playing teams like these. And our Chinese national team - hopefully at full strength now with Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian and others - will give them good competition. As I told them, if you want to be among the best you have to compete against the best."

You come from a country that loves basketball, Lithuania, as everyone in Europe knows well. Tell us about the culture of basketball in China and the interest you see while spending time there?

"Basketball in China is very popular. For sure, it's not same as Lithuania, where basketball is a religion. But I think that maybe it won't be long before it will be the number one sport in China. I can say that here there are always full gyms for the games and there's a great interest in the competitions. It's a great place to see the interest in basketball growing all the time."

How much do you think that Chinese fans will like European basketball once they are exposed more to it, either live or on TV?

"First of all, this is not the same as going to a game in Greece or Serbia or such countries where the fans are so involved in the game. Fans in China are different. They support both teams almost always and they like to see good basketball. Of course, for the CBA Euroleague Challenge games, they will be behind the Chinese national team. But there won't be any of the things like you see in Europe because they will be paying attention to learn about the best of Chinese and European basketball styles."

Jonas Kazlauskas - Team China A few younger players from China played quite well at the ULEB Summer League in Italy. As someone who knows basketball there and here better than anybody, will Chinese players like the European style of basketball?

"For sure. No question about it. China needs more sports contacts, in general; not only teams, but players going to camps and similar things. It would be great for them because I am sure they will like European basketball."

What would you tell fans there - or even your own players - about teams like the two that are coming to CBA Euroleague Challenge 2007, CSKA Moscow and Benetton Tamoil Treviso?

"This part for me is a little difficult. The Chinese don't understand European basketball so well because we have only seen here the Final Four, the last game only, and that was televised three weeks late. I try to get DVDs to show my players, and the national team players know more and more from playing sometimes against European competition. But in China until now, the NBA has dominated, so that's what they know more, NBA basketball. I want to explain to them and show them that Europe has great basketball and players, too."

A lot of fans in Europe miss you and the style of play your teams always had. Have you kept your own playing system of Team China or have you adapted it to the players you found there?

"It's difficult to push my style immediately on the China players. Special players are needed for my style. When I started at Zalgiris, Lietuvos Rytas and the Lithuanian national team, those players were able to grow with me as a coach. We can still see many of the same ones playing now on the Lithuanian national team. For sure, I want to be close to that style, but i need players. This is not the same as a club, where you find the players who fit your style and bring them to the club. I have to use the Chinese guys, and to ask them to run the exact style I want wouldn't be fair. So our team has something from me and something of the Chinese style."

Jonas Kazlauskas - Team China Many European fans credit you with changing basketball for the better almost 10 years ago when Zalgiris won the Euroleague with offensive basketball. At the time, did you see yourself as doing something revolutionary?

"No. At that time, for me, everything was new. When we won the Saporta Cup, we were very happy because that meant the next season we could play the Euroleague. Later, when we won the Euroleague, Arvydas Sabonis came to visit us and said, 'Guys, you can't understand now what you did, but it is amazing.' And it is true what he said. Now, I see mroe and more teams playing this style, many of them in Europe, very good organizations, with good defense and good offense. That's what I try to explain to everyone here, that in Europe you can see many good teams, interesting styles and great players. Maybe someone doesn't agree with me sometimes, but it's what I believe, and I cannot say it differently."

Back to China, we all know that doing well at the 2008 Olympics is a major goal for Team China. How important are the games you play now with CSKA and Benetton in helping your players on the road to the Olympics?

"Last summer, in 2006, we came to Europe in order to understand the teams who will be our competition. We played good teams and we didn't care about the results. Some teams killed us. This summer, we came again expecting to have our full team and we wanted to win some games to get confidence. But in the end, we were without Yao Ming and some other good players. Everyone knows who Yao Ming is for us. We arrived also after playing the Stankovic Cup and our summer league, so we were tired and we did not have good results, either. I think now with that with rest, and with Yao back for us, the tournament with CSKA and Benetton will be important for us. We will try win something to get confidence, which is very important looking ahead to next summer's Olympics."
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