AX Armani Exchange Milan center Arturas Gudaitis was born into a sports family, but not the sport you might think.
His father and his grandfather were wrestlers, and their desire was that he followed in their footsteps. But in a country were basketball is a religion, especially at the turn of the century, when Zalgiris Kaunas and the Lithuanian national team made major achievements, it was easy for Gudaitis to choose basketball.
"When I was a child, I went to watch my father practice," Gudaitis recalls. "I don't remember that I saw him fight in any match. He would have liked that I also became a wrestler, but growing up I followed basketball. Lithuanian basketball was great and my passion increased day by day more for basketball than for wrestling. He helped me to develop my passion, he was in the same page with me, and I have to thank him because many times fathers force their sons to do the sports they prefer."
"I have to thank him because many times fathers force their sons to do the sports they prefer."
Gudaitis inherited from his family the big body, the strength and the habits of a warrior.
"I got my size from my father, for sure," he says. "I also got from him my character because he was hard on me. When I was child and growing up, he was hard with me but in good way, to grow me like a man, like a real warrior. Both my dad and my grandfather look like strong men. They were heavyweight wrestlers. They're genetically really big and strong."
Gudaitis, who has built a reputation as something of an enforcer under the baskets, blocking shots and rebounding, thinks his wrestling lineage has helped him.
"There are similarity between the two sports," he says. "You have to resist against the big bodies fighting with you under the basket for a rebound, for taking position. You have people who are 110 or 120 kilos coming at you for a box-out, and I think you can compare those things, even if people might not think so. In other words, you have to be a warrior."
The wrestling legacy of Gudaitis family started during the Soviet Union and continued through to Lithuanian independence.
"My grandfather Jonas was a Greco-Roman wrestler in the Soviet Union. He was a really strong guy but he lived in Lithuania in my hometown, Klaipeda, because he was a great patriot. I don't know too much from him because he doesn't like talk too much, but people around him talk and respect him and told me about his wins and the respect he got around the Soviet Union. My father followed his steps, and it was easier for him because the times were different and life was better. With the Lithuanian independence, he did not fight in such a big country as Russia, and he won a lot of national championships. He does not talk too much about his sports career, either. As with my grandfather, it's the people around them who talk about both."
The youngest Gudaitis was born in 1993, right after Lithuania became independent again, and tough times meant that he saw little of his father, who had to combine his sport with other jobs to support his family.
"It was hard time in Lithuania, and wrestlers were not well paid," Gudaitis says. "To give everything to his family, my father was leaving home early in the morning and coming back late in the night after a long day on the job. He was a taxi driver at the same time that he was dedicated to his sport. I did not see too much of my father, but he did his best for me."
One of the things that his father made sure of was that Gudaitis learned the values needed to become a sportsman.
"Wrestling is an individual sport, but they had many guys around helping them to reach the top level, and that was their team."
"He was teaching me how to be a sportsman, a man, to be a good sportsman is not just about your performance," he says. "You have to respect the people with you on the same team, the people who help you to be better. That means a lot to me. I'm always hard on myself because I cannot upset the people who trust in me. This is the main lesson I got from them, starting when I was a child, and this helped to create my mentality. Wrestling is an individual sport, but they had many guys around helping them to reach the top level, and that was their team."
With time, his father started following more of his son's basketball games. Gudaitis debuted in the EuroLeague with Zalgiris as a 20-year-old in 2013 for two seasons. He returned to the competition with Milan in 2017 and established himself as a top-level scorer, rebounder and shot blocker. Last season, which he could not finish due to injury, Gudaitis was the third-ranked performer in the EuroLeague, with an average PIR of 18.7. He was also third in rebounds, with 7.1 per game, and sixth in blocks, with 1.0 on average. Of course now, the Gudaitis men are following their youngest athlete far from home in Milan, on the first team that he has played for outside Lithuania.
"They enjoy my career. They support me a lot," he says. "They started following more game when I become an high-level player and now they watch more EuroLeague games because they're interested in basketball and have become great basketball fans. My father is also coming to Milan, while my grandfather no, because is very old."