When Zalgiris clashes with Fenerbahce Istanbul on Friday, it will not be just an ordinary game night in the basketball-crazy Kaunas. It's true that the game is a rematch of last year's semifinal between them, which Fenerbahce won to end Zalgiris's quest for its first continental title in 19 years. But it will also be a special occasion for a hometown hero and Zalgiris team captain Paulius Jankunas.
The veteran power forward, playing his 16th season in the competition, will make his 300th EuroLeague appearance on Friday, becoming just the fourth player to reach that milestone. What's more, Jankunas is already the EuroLeague record-holder with 252 games started.
"When you play season after season, you are always looking at the next game up, and you never count the games you play," the 34-year-old told EuroLeague.net. "So I never think about how many games I played in the EuroLeague, or in my career. But, 300 is a big number, and it is nice."
It is a number that speaks to more than a decade and a half of consistency, as well as Jankunas's dedicated effort to be a part of the best competition on the continent.
"Reyes, Navarro and Zisis are great players... To have my name next to theirs is a big honor."
"I never thought I would play 300, or 200 games," he says. "But I wanted to play every year in the EuroLeague, to be in the strongest competition in Europe, and I am glad I achieved it."
Jankunas has done a lot more than show up, too. He also ranks second all-time in total rebounds (1,686) and offensive rebounds (491), fourth all-time in total points scored (2,877), fourth in two-point shots made (910), and sixth in free throws made (646) in the EuroLeague.
When it comes to EuroLeague appearances, Jankunas joins the company of Juan Carlos Navarro, Felipe Reyes and Nikos Zisis as the only players with 300 or more games played, making him a true part of modern EuroLeague history.
"It also means four of us are very old," Jankunas laughs. "But, Reyes, Navarro and Zisis are great players, they have been playing for a long time in the EuroLeague, and had, or are still having, great careers. And to have my name next to theirs is a big honor, and I am happy about that."
Friday night will be a special occasion against a special opponent, but Jankunas warns that he and his teammates want more than anything to win it, especially after dropping their home opener a week ago.
"I will prepare for that game like for any of the other 299 games I played so far," he says.
Jankunas may play it cool about his milestone, but Zalgiris home games in the EuroLeague have been special for a long time. Even visiting players and coaches always enjoy them, which might not be a huge surprise because basketball is considered as the number one sport in Lithuania. Going to Zalgiris games has become a tradition for many in the city, and for Jankunas, the feeling is definitely mutual.
"A long, long time ago, the fans started to be among the most important parts of the club," he said. "When we played in the old gym, we used to have a full gym every game. Of course, it was a small arena, but fans were very loud and supported the team very strongly."
In 2011, Zalgiris moved to Zalgirio Arena, one of the best arenas in all of basketball, with a capacity of more than 15,000 seats. One might think that for a city of just 300,000 residents, that could be too big, but Zalgirio Arena sometimes becomes too small for all the Zalgiris fans. The home opener against KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz last week was sold out long in advance, as is the game this Friday against Fenerbahce.
"In the last three of four years, as Zalgiris has become stronger and stronger every year, the fans are coming out to every game, and you see more and more fans coming not only from Kaunas, but from smaller cities all over Lithuania," Jankunas notes. "We also have many fans at our away games. They follow us on every EuroLeague trip. You can feel that the fans here really care about the players, about the team and about the results."
One of the players they especially care about is Jankunas. Born and raised in Kaunas, Jankunas has played 15 of his 16 professional seasons with Zalgiris. Despite being a calm, polite and low-key guy off the court, probably every person in Kaunas knows who Jankunas is, and his iconic status brings a lot of attention on the streets of his city.
"Lithuanians are not aggressive, like it might be the case in some other countries", he laughs. "They come and say hello, good game yesterday or wish me a good game tomorrow."
"You can feel that the fans here really care about the players, about the team and about the results."
Believe it or not, in the city that lives and breathes basketball, he actually can have talks not related to basketball, too.
"Well, when you talk to your neighbors every day, you cannot talk only about basketball. But of course, during the conversation they will ask questions about the club, new players, about upcoming games."
On the other side of the spectrum, playing in your hometown for such a basketball institution can create more pressure for a player.
"There is a pressure, for sure", Jankunas admits. "Everybody expects me, and all the other players, to play good. But I am the captain, the oldest, one of the most experienced players. Everyone wants to play good every game, but it is not easy to do that. Also, that is also a big motivation for me to stay at that level, and to practice hard every day, to be here in the EuroLeague, and to be here for the team.
"I feel like my relationship with the fans is great. I respect them, they support me. Fans were here when we had tough moments, they were here when we had really great wins, and I am always trying to do my best on the court, to make them proud of me."