Few players live and breathe Zalgiris Kaunas like playmaker Mantas Kalnietis, who is now in his third stint with the club. Kalnietis was first seen with a Zalgiris's uniform at the original Euroleague Basketball Adidas Next Generation Tournament in 2003 when he helped the Lithuanian powerhouse win the title. He made his EuroLeague debut in March 2006 and played there until the end of the 2011-12 season. Kalnietis had a brief second stint with Zalgiris in the 2015-16 campaign; he spent a half-season there and is now back on a two-year contract.
"I'm super happy, you know? I feel the best in my city, where I was born, where I grew up. It was very important to be in a team where the team needs me. So it was one of my goals. And when that team is Zalgiris, I'm extra happy," Kalnietis said, pointing out that he secretly waited for this moment for some time. "Let's say deeply in my heart and I had that wish, but you never can be sure."
Kalnietis had many reasons to come back: living in his hometown, where he became a basketball superstar, around his family and friends. Some of his best friends play for Zalgiris Kaunas, like team captain Paulius Jankunas. Kalnietis and Jankunas grew up together and it is hard for the former to even remember when they saw each other for the first time.
"I feel the best in my city, where I was born, where I grew up."
"Yeah, yeah, I know him... Even I don't remember when [was the] first time… meeting because even our moms are good friends, so we don't remember that!" he laughed. "He's one of my best friends, so we understand each other without words."
It is not just Jankunas, of course. All the Lithuanian veterans on the team, Edgaras Ulanovas, Arturas Milaknis and Lukas Lekavicius, know Kalnietis really well. And of course, Kalnietis missed Zalgiris's fans, who are finally back in the stands in big numbers. Asked about the things he missed, the atmosphere was one of the first things that came to Kalnietis's mind.
"I would like to say the locker room because, you know, we have really great chemistry and team spirit. I cannot say that, you know, other teams where I played was bad, but here is something special," Kalnietis said. "People in Kaunas live for basketball and they really care, and people understand basketball here. So it's a big joy for them and for me. As you see, it's already past 10 years when the arena was opened, but it still remains one of the best facilities in Europe."
Kalnietis remembers the first time he played against his lifelong club at Zalgirio Arena. Kalnietis had left to Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar, which he led to the 7DAYS EuroCup title in 2013. That allowed Lokomotiv to play the 2014-15 EuroLeague, so Kalnietis played as a visitor at Zalgirio Arena on March 20, 2014. Being used to playing in that building led to a funny, awkward situation: "During halftime, I remember for Loko, I was going in the home locker room!" he exclaimed. Kalnietis left with a smile on his face, too; he had 11 points in Lokomotiv's 85-86 triumph.
He is back as a different player and in one of the best moments for his career; Kalnietis was chosen to the All-EuroCup Second Team last season after leading that competition in assists (7.1 apg.).
"I know probably I have never been so fast, but probably I became even slower. But I have more experience and I'm trying to still use my strong sides and have only one wish: to try to help the team," he said about the way his game has changed since he left Zalgiris for the second time. "My teammates are laughing at me because they say 'now you cannot jump anymore, so you start to pass, finally!'"
Not only has he changed a lot, but Zalgiris became bigger and bigger. One thing remains the same: EuroLeague games are still the biggest events in the city.
"Kaunas doesn't have too many events. Even now, it is changing and the city is improving, but I think Zalgiris is still the most important, let's say, brand in the city and it's going to be long in the future," he explained. "We really live for basketball because every EuroLeague game is a big celebration in Kaunas."
Kalnietis was in Belgrade, as a fan, when Zalgiris made it to the Final Four in 2018. Of course, he would love to bring his hometown team back to European basketball's showpiece event.
"Every EuroLeague game is a big celebration in Kaunas."
"It was a great feeling [to see Zalgiris in the 2018 Final Four] because, you know, in that year I didn't play too much in Milan and I was outside of the team, so even I was in Belgrade to support my guys," Kalnietis said. "I would like to be [in the Final Four], better on the court in a Final Four that from a fan's perspective. But yeah, it would be my dream."
At age 35, Kalnietis is facing the final years of his career. Finishing it with Zalgiris is a possibility, but he wants to think about the next game, the next opportunity, and take decisions as they come.
"I would like to finish here, but this is what I said. You know, I don't want to come here to finish my career. I would like to be important here and to help the team and after to think about how to finish my career,” he summed up. “It was very easy to come back because as I said, you know everybody and you don't need time to adjust with some people... It's home. One word: home."