Modestas Paulauskas, the first Lithuanian "King"

Mar 25, 2013 by Vladimir Stankovic - Print
Vladimir Stankovic at 2012 London Olympic GamesIt was early April, 1964. FIBA had just inaugurated its first junior European Championship in Naples, Italy. Only eight teams took part in that tourney (Spain, Yugsolavia, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Italy, France, Poland and the USSR) and in the title game, the Soviet team defeated France by 62-41. The first player to receive that trophy was number 10, Modestas Paulauskas, born in Kretinga, Lithuania on March 19, 1945. He had just scored 14 points in the final that would make the USSR the first junior champ in Europe. It was a lot less than his average of 21.2 (against Yugoslavia he had scored 36 and against host Italy, 26) but enough to be chosen, unofficially, MVP of the tourney.

Ranko Zeravica, at the helm of the Yugoslavian team, confessed when back at home that he had just seen "a phenomenal player". From that generation, aside from Paulauskas, there would be another player to leave a strong mark in basketball, Zurab Sakandelidze, but there were other interesting players and future superstars like Aldo Ossola and Carlo Recalcati for Italy, Jiri Zednicek (Czechoslovakia), Bogdan Tanjevic (Yugoslavia, even though he would become better known as a coach), Vicente Ramos and Juan Martinez for Spain...

Many years later, Paulauskas revealed that it was fate who drove him to this title. The Soviet team, for some reason, missed the flight that had to take them to the tournament. The plane crashed and left no survivors. The young players avoided the tragedy and also won the European championship. Only a year later, in the final of the Eurobasket men's tournament, Paulauskas was already a big star. In the final, a 58-49 win over Yugoslavia, he was the top scorer of his team with 16 points. He was named MVP of the tournament with an average of 13.8 points. He was 20 years old. He was a shooting guard by size (1.94 meters) but he was able to play point guard or, due to his great rebounding skills, small forward. It was clear that the USSR had a true star for the future.

Unforgettable Munich

In the following nine years, the USSR would win three more EuroBaskets golds (1967, 1969, 1971) and a bronze medal (1973) with Paulauskas, as well as World Championship gold (1974, Puerto Rico) and bronze (1970, Ljubljana) medals, an Olympic gold (1972, Munich) and an Olympic bronze (1968, Mexico City). He lacks titles at the club level because he spent his entire career, from 1962 to 1976, with Zalgiris Kaunas, which was always behind CSKA Moscow and Spartak St. Petersburg in those years. However, his wish was to stay with the club he started with, and so he did. "I had offers from CSKA and Spartak, but I didn't want to leave my club nor my city," he said many times. "It was my choice and I don't regret it."

If he was short on titles with Zalgiris, he had no room for more with the national team. He shined in each and every tournament. In the final of the Helsinki EuroBasket in 1967 against Czechoslovakia, an 89-77 victory, he scored 19 points, even though the MVP was Jiri Zednicek, his "classmate" from that first junior tournament in 1964. In the final of the 1969 EuroBasket in Naples, his favorite city, the USSR beat Yugoslavia by 81-72 with 20 points from Paulauskas and also 20 by big man Vladimir Andreev, but the MVP of the tourney was Sergey Belov, another great. After a "pause" for the World Championships in Ljubljana, where the USSR "only" took the bronze (11.4 points for Paulauskas), at the next EuroBasket, in Essen, Germany, the USSR beat Yugoslavia again in the final game, 69-64, with 12 pints by Paulauskas and 16 by Alzhan Zarmuhamedov. The all-tournament team was formed by Belov, Paulauskas, Edward Jurkiewicz of Poland, Kreso Cosic of Yugoslavia and Atanas Golomeev of Bulgaria.

At the Mexico Olympics in 1968, the USSR lost to Yugoslavia in semis and took the bronze with an average of 16 points by Paulauskas, but four years later, the gold would be for the Soviets. In the final against the USA, famous for the last three seconds that William Jones - the FIBA secretary general at that time - ordered to be replayed due to a mistake from the officials table, the USSR turned a 49-50 into a 51-50 victory thanks to a basket by Alexander Belov. Paulauskas only scored 3 points that day, with 3 of 4 free throws, but he was one of the best rebounders of the team during all the tournament, averaging 3.9. Even though he normally puts all his triumphs and medals at the same level, Paulauskas admits that Munich does have a privileged spot in his memories: "Because of the circumstances, its importance, the rival... basically because of everything implied by beating the United States in an Olympic final, Munich 1972 is something unforgettable," Paulauskas said in an interview for a Lithuanian newspaper in 2005.

Best sportsman seven times

For Lithuanian basketball connoisseurs, the basketball stars from that country are Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Jasikevcius, Arturas Karnisovas, Sarunas Marculionis, Valdemaras Chomicius and Rimas Kurtinaitis. But for those with the oldest memories, the first great Lithuanian was Modestas Paulauskas, a very complete player. For coaches he was like life insurance, a player who never let you down. Of course, he could not always play at the highest level but he never went down to the point that he was not recognizable on court. His averages in big competitions were always similar, the minimum was 11.1 points in Munich 1972 and the top maximum was 17.0 points in the 1969 EuroBasket. His average in FIBA competitions was 13.7, just like most of the tournaments he played.

His popularity in Lithuania was huge. He was named the best sportsman in Lithuania seven times: 1965, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1971 and 1972. The first "king" of Lithuanian basketball retired at just 32 years old because he felt that "the batteries had run dry". He stayed in basketball as a coach, but far from the spotlight. "Maybe destiny had it for me to be a player and not a coach," Paulauskas said, "just as it decided that we did not catch that plane in 1964".

In 1991, FIBA chose him among the best 50 players of all times. In that list (until 1991, of course) there are 12 names from the former Yugoslavia and 10 from the USSR (Sergei Belov, Aleksandar Belov, Stepas Butautas, Otar Korkiya, Sarunas Marculionis, Anatliy Myshkin, Modestas Paulauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, Aleksandar Volkov and Vuktor Zubkov).

As the three most important things in his life, Paulauskas highlights the fact of having been raised in a sports family, as his elder brothers and one of his sisters were athletes also. In second place he names his club, Zalgiris, and in third, his family. Some 10 years ago, he was asked who was the God of basketball if it could be considered a religion. His answer: "Many, but today I would say Arvydas Sabonis. I admire his talent and I even feel a little envy."

He had his childhood idols in Stepas Butautas and Stasys Stonkus, the best Lithuanian players in the early sixties. Talking about talent, he points out that nowadays, in basketball "there is more desire than talent". He thinks that a sportsman, in order to succeed, aside from talent he has to be "hungry" and be ready to sacrifice himself.

And if anybody wants to see a very talented player, versatile, able to play in as many as four positions, try to track down a video of Paulaukas in his prime. One of the greats.