Zalgiris Kaunas center Robertas Javtokas is happy every day just to be alive, let alone play basketball at the elite level, which is exactly what he has been doing for more than a decade now. If we were to combine Turkish Airlines Euroleague and Eurocup numbers during his remarkable career, the veteran big man is approaching 1,400 career points, 1,000 career rebounds, and 200 blocked shots. He has won both the Euroleague and Eurocup titles, in addition to EuroBasket and World Championship medals with the Lithuanian national team.
Javtokas’s successful career would not be all that surprising, considering that at the turn of the century, he was not only Lithuania's most-promising talent, but a physical marvel who dunked at record heights. Then, on May 1, 2002, his motorcycle crashed at 140 kilometers per hour into an oncoming car. The 22-year-old Javtokas was sent flying toward an uncertain future. It took 10 months to complete all the necessary surgeries on his leg, knee and shoulder. He couldn't play basketball for almost a year-and-a-half.
After three surgeries, a special bone reinforcement plate implanted in his leg, long treatments for an injured shoulder nerve, and months of rehabilitation exercises, his recovery still sounds like a miracle. But not only did Javtokas survive and recover, but went on to have a career that many other players would love envy.
“I never think [about] what would have been different, but I am thankful I am still on the basketball court, because doctors said that for sure I am not going to play,” Javtokas explained. “I am happy and thankful for everything in my life, I got (sic) beautiful family, I play basketball and I am still here.”
After short stint in the NCAA at the University of Arizona, Javtokas returned to his homeland in 1999 where he quickly became very popular. Fans admired the young player's ability to fly high and perform spectacular dunks. Javtokas showcased his stunning jumping abilities at the Lithuanian League All-Star Weekend in 2001, when he dunked the ball on a basket set 3.65 meters high, 60 centimeters more than the normal rim height.
However, after the accident, it was highly doubtful he would be able to do anything close to that ever again. The doctors were optimistic when saying he could start walking after six months, but some eight months after the accident Javtokas entered the gym again. It took a few additional months to get off the stationary bike and step onto the court, but he eventually did play, and with plenty of success.
“I remember the first game after my accident. They were saying ‘he cannot jump any more, he cannot run anymore.’ I came back and I had a pretty good game. I remember that I proved to everybody [that] I came back, and not only to walk on the court.”
When he looks back to what happened more than a decade ago, Javtokas says that without a question basketball was one of the main reasons he returned to normal life. He had huge support from his family, like his mother who admits of initially thinking her son might never walk again, or from his brother who was also a professional basketball player. His club back then Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius, found the best Lithuanian specialists, and the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA, which selected him in the second round of 2001 draft, flew Javtokas to the United States several times.
“When I had the accident, the only motivation was to return to the basketball court. People around me supported me so much. Friends, teams, everybody around me helped not to give up.”
By 2005, Javtokas had won the Eurocup title as Final MVP with Lietuvos Rytas. Two years later, he became a Euroleague champion with Panathinaikos Athens, and won a Eurobasket bronze with Lithuania. The longtime captain of the national team also added a FIBA World Championships bronze medal to his collection in 2010, and just this summer collected a silver medal at EuroBasket 2013.
“It does feel like a miracle sometimes,” Javtokas said. “I am so glad I am in this situation. You never know what would [have been] before the accident, but life puts it the way it is, and I am happy for everything that I have right now, and for me it’s the best thing that could happen.”