Jonas Kazlauskas, director of Lithuanian talent

May 29, 2016 by Vladimir Stankovic, Print
Jonas Kazlauskas, director of Lithuanian talent

In Lithuania, basketball is almost a religion. 'Believers' vastly outnumber the 'atheists' as probably out of every 10 people, maybe one or two do not love basketball. It is the national sport, the identity of a nation with a relatively small population (3.4 million) that is huge when it comes to basketball stars and history of the game. And that is no recent phenomenon.

Basketball was always Lithuania's favorite sport to the point where a Lithuanian, Frank Lubin, sparked the first 'passport case' in world basketball. A player under that name won the gold medal with the United States team at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, the first time basketball was played at the games. However, three years later, Pranas Lubinas was a European champ in Kaunas in 1939. It was the same player, a son of Lithuanian immigrants who was born in the States and accepted the call of his parents’ native land to help the team win its second gold medal at the EuroBasket. But that is another can of worms.

Behind every player, aside from his talent and will to work, there's always a coach. The figure that discovers a player, teaches him the first steps, then shows him the fundamentals and the tactical variants... In Lithuania there are many coaches for young players in ordinary schools, basketball schools, neighborhoods and clubs, be them modest or big. One of the most prestigious coaches in Lithuanian basketball is, without a doubt, Jonas Kazlauskas. He was born in Panevezys on November 21, 1954, and went on to become a shooting guard at Statyba Vilnius, which is now known as Lietuvos Rytas, between 1973 and 1985. Kazlauskas never reached glory as a player and his best result ever was a third place in the USSR championship in 1979. However, as he played, he always showed the talent and the predisposition to work as a coach. Kazlauskas started at Zalgiris as head coach in 1994 and the following year he was also the head coach of the Lithuanian junior national team. Two years later Kazlauskas was named coach of the senior national team.

Two Euro-triumphs for Zalgiris

Zalgiris Kaunas lived a golden era during the mid-1980s with players like Arvydas Sabonis, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Sergeius Jovaisa, Valdemaras Chomicius and Gintaras Krapikas with Coach Vladas Garastas on the bench. They even reached the 1986 Euroleague final, but never managed to go all the way. Cibona Zagreb of Drazen Petrovic was the better team in that championship game in Budapest, 94-82, and the European crown remained a chip on Zalgiris's shoulder until the 1997-98 season.

That year, Kazlauskas assembled a great collection of talented Lithuanian players, including Saulius Stombergas, Tomas Masiulis, Mindaugas and Eurelijus Zukauskas, Dainius Adomaitis and Darius Maskoliunas alongside several experienced foreign players. American Ennis Whatley had a good season with 11.4 points, 4.2 assists and 3.1 rebounds, while veteran big man from Croatia, Franjo Arapovic, who was 33 by then, also had a great campaign with 11.4 points and 8.6 rebounds.

Zalgiris won its group in the Saporta Cup with a 7-3 record and in the direct elimination rounds defeated Keravnos of Cyprus, Tofas of Turkey, Beobanks of Serbia and then Avtodor Saratov of Russia in semis. The title game was to be played at the legendary Pionir Arena in Belgrade against Franco Casalini's Olimpia Milan on April 14, 1998. Zalgiris played a good game, especially in the second half, and rolled to the title with an 82-67 victory. Stombergas was the star of the game with 35 points. He nailed 18 of 23 free throws, made 7 of 8 two-pointers and 1 of 2 threes, despite those being his specialty. Whatley contributed 19 points, but the team's strength was collective play. Of the nine players used by Kazlauskas, eight scored and the one who didn't, Tauras Stumbrys, was hardly on court (2 minutes). It was Zalgiris's first European title and the first for a Lithuanian team, but also the first step towards an even bigger dream.

Unforgettable Munich

After that title, Kazlauskas set an even bigger goal for 1998-99: winning the Euroleague. To accomplish the mission, Zalgiris signed pretty good players: big man Jiri Zidek, American forward Anthony Bowie and American point guard Tyus Edney. Kazlauskas hit the jackpot with the three new names as, together with Stombergas and Adomaitis, they were the best players on the team that season.

Zalgiris finished the first stage with an 8-2 record after defeating Fenerbahce, Pau-Orthez, Tau Ceramica, Varese and Avtodor. In the next stage, Zalgiris defeated Crvena Zvezda, TDK Manresa and Cibona, while in the eighthfinals and quarterfinals it eliminated two Turkish teams, Ulker and Efes, to clinch a spot at the Final Four in Munich. The other three teams to advance were defending champ Kinder Bologna, coached by Ettore Messina; 1997 champ Olympiacos Piraeus coached by Dusan Ivkovic and the eternal candidate, Fortitudo Bologna, coached by Petar Skansi. Zalgiris was not a favorite by any means, but that would not be the first time that the underdog would steal the show.

Kazlauskas always respected his players’ talent. They had a lot of freedom, but always following certain guidelines. Edney entered the team as the key piece to turn a good team into a great one. Zalgiris had the talent of its Lithuanian players, the experience of Bowie and Zidek, but there was something missing, and that was the spark provided by Edney: speed, rhythm, assists and even points when they were scarce.

In the semifinals, Zalgiris downed Olympiacos with authority 87-71; Edney led the way with 13 points and 6 assists. Bowie had 19 points (7-of-11 shooting from the field) and Zidek added 9 points and 5 boards. On a funny note, the Reds had Johnny Rogers on their roster (8 points, 8 rebounds), and he would go on to become a Euroleague.TV color commentator together with... Zidek!

The clear favorite to win the final was Kinder Bologna, who had defeated Fortitudo 57-62. However, Zalgiris played a great first half and early in the second it was clear that the title would travel to Lithuania for the first time ever. Kazlauskas made good use of his usual eight-player rotation - all of them scored - and avoiding foul trouble (except for Zidek, who was eliminated) the team managed to keep the rhythm in the second half for the win. On the other side, Messina only had Antoine Rigaudeau delivering the goods (27 points), while Predrag Danilovic got stuck at 7 points, far from his best (3 of 11 from the field). For Zalgiris, everyone contributed. Bowie was the top scorer once again with 17 points, while Edney stepped in with 14 points, 6 assists and 6 boards. Zidek also had 12 points and 6 rebounds while Stombergas scored 12 and Mindaugas Zukauskas 11. It was a team triumph.

National coach in three countries

At the same time he was coaching Zalgiris, Kazlauskas was also the Lithuanian head coach. At the 1997 and 1999 EuroBaskets, Lithuania was sixth and fifth respectively and at the 1998 Worlds, the team finished seventh. A great step forward was taken at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, when Lithuania stepped on to the podium to get the bronze medal. In the quarterfinals, they eliminated Zeljko Obradovic's Yugoslavia - the team that had defeated them in previous years – 76-63, but in the semis fell to the United States 83-85 despite a huge effort from Sarunas Jasikevicius. Saras made 5 threes en route to 27 points, but his last shot from mid-court was just an impossible shot. However, that bronze medal was Lithuania's third in a row after Barcelona and Atlanta, which proved the team was a continuing success.

After a few years coaching in Lithuania, 2004 marked the moment for Kazlauskas to leave his country and coach abroad for the first time. The chosen team was Olympiacos in Greece, but again, he would combine the job with that of assistant coach for Del Harris in the China national team. In 2005 he would become head coach in China and would stay there until 2008. He led China to the gold medal at the 2006 Asian games. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Kazlauskas managed to take Yao Ming and company to eighth place. His third national team would be Greece between 2009 and 2010. At the world championship in Turkey in 2010, his powerful team with Dimitris Diamantidis, Vasilis Spanoulis, Ioannis Bourousis, Antonis Fotsis, Georgios Printezis, Stratos Perperoglou, Sofoklis Schortsanitis and Nick Calathes didn't meet expectations and placed 11th.

Kazlauskas returned to the Euroleague in 2011 with CSKA Moscow. Everything was nearly perfect that year, even the championship game against his former team Olympiacos. That May 13 in Istanbul was, I imagine, the longest day in his professional career. In the 28th minute, CSKA led 53-34 and nobody would have put their money on Olympiacos. However, one of the biggest comebacks in European basketball took place. Maybe it was because Olympiacos never ceased to believe, maybe because CSKA relaxed a bit too much or maybe a combination of both. Whatever it was, Printezis lifted the ball on the buzzer to score and steal the trophy from CSKA thanks with a 62-61 epic win that deprived Kazlauskas of his second European crown.

Since 2013, Kazlauskas has been back as the national coach for Lithuania and, again, he is successful. The proof is in the silver medals at the Slovenia and France EuroBaskets of 2013 and 2015 and the qualification for this summer’s Rio Olympics. Lithuania has not missed any Olympic games since its first appearance as an independent state in 1992. At the world championships in Spain in 2014, the bronze slipped away by 2 points; France won 95-93.

Kazlauskas doesn't have very fixed rules. He basically goes for the fast game, with lots of fast breaks, but he also knows how to use tactical resources, from zone defense to ball control if the opponent also runs a lot. He respects the talent of his players, but in exchange, he asks for responsibility, dedication and limited improvisation. In Lithuania, his weapon was - and still is - shooting, something very natural for Lithuanian players. In his teams abroad he always had to look for other tactical solutions. He won six Lithuanian League crowns, two Baltic Leagues, two Russian Leagues, the Saporta Cup and the Euroleague. He was also named Coach of the Year twice in Lithuania and his medals with the national team prove that his career is far from over. If he finds a new national team in the future, he can match the record by Bogdan Tanjevic, who coached Yugoslavia, Italy, Turkey and is currently with Montenegro.