When the Wizards' preseason schedule was released a few months ago, I nearly jumped out of my seat when I saw the game against Zalgiris Kaunas. It immediately took me back to my trip last winter to Eastern Europe for a story on international basketball - and one of the more memorable Thanksgiving meals of my life.
Yes, I spent Thanksgiving in Lithuania last year. It's not as sad as it might sound. I knew when I planned the trip that I was going to have to spend America's biggest pig-out holiday in a country that didn't know anything about it and didn't care, either. Plus, my wife was cool with me being there, telling me that we would celebrate the holiday when I returned.
But it was my last night of an exhausting two-week trip through Russia, Serbia and Lithuania and I decided to spend it watching a EuroLeague game between Zalgiris and CSKA Moscow.
Zalgiris-CSKA is about as big as a game can get in Lithuania. It would almost be like watching a Duke-Carolina game at Camden Indoor Arena, except the rivalry has even deeper intensity and historical significance. Zalgiris is Lithuania's flagship team (it was founded in 1944 - two years before the NBA was formed) and CSKA has its roots in the Soviet Red Army, which made for some hotly contested events - especially during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. I met a former Zalgiris player who told me in his broken English that fans would sometimes get into fights - with each other and with players - during the more heated games.
The game was played at the historic Sports Hall in Kaunas, the hometown of NBA stars such as Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionus, Zydrunas Ilguaskas and former Maryland point guard Sarunas Jasikevicius. The gym was built in 1939 in time for Lithuania to host the second-ever European Championships. Lithuania won its second consecutive gold medal that year in controversial fashion with the aide of Frank Lubin, an American born to Lithuanian immigrants. Lubin is known as the "Godfather of Lithuanian basketball" after popularizing the game in the country.
Trust me, the tiny little gym hadn't been touched much in the past 70 years. Only two years ago, the team added about 500 seats to raise the capacity of the gym to roughly 5,000. Fans were packed in like circus clowns in a Volkswagen Beetle. You really can touch the ceiling from the upper deck.
I happened to be sitting in the section with some tall, former Lithuanian basketball players and I know they had to be suffering because I'm 6-2 and I could feel my knees against my chest. Algis Pavilonis, Director of Lithuanian National Team Foundation and my tour guide for most of my time in Lithuania, was at least five inches taller than me.
But being so close created a really intimate atmosphere for the game. It was much more boisterous than any college game, with fans chanting and singing, constantly and loudly.
The coolest part about the arena, though, had to be the concessions. Zalgiris had its own beer. Not really. But one of the team's sponsors is a nearby brewery that produces beer cans with the team logo. I don't drink, but I took one home with me.
There was a section of the gym, where fans hopped up and down and waved gigantic green and white flags for the team. The fans were especially excited on this night, as Zalgiris went into the locker room with a 10-point halftime lead. But they left disappointed as CSKA, one of the premier teams in the EuroLeague, won in dominant fashion.
(An aside note: CSKA's coach, Ettore Messina, is bound to get a shot in the NBA some day. Cleveland Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown said that he went to CSKA's training camp in Italy to study Messina's offensive schemes this summer. The guy truly is as sharp as they come. He speaks fluent English, is a winner and really knows the game of basketball. I asked Messina after the game against Zalgiris if he had any interest in coming to America. The Italian native didn't exactly say no, but he knew that it wouldn't be easy for a coach from Europe to get through to NBA players. "If they don't listen to Larry Brown," Messina said, without finishing his thought.)
Sabonis, the former Portland Trail Blazers center, currently is the principle owner of Zalgiris, the team for which he made his professional debut at age 17. After the game, he angrily stormed off the court without saying a word.
So what made my Thanksgiving meal special? No, I didn't have a traditional Lithuanian meal with potato pancakes and mushrooms. I had McDonald's.
Before we took the hour-long drive from Kaunas to the capital city of Vilnius, Algis asked me if I was hungry. Indeed I was, having only eaten a salad about eight hours earlier. He suggested that we eat at McDonald's since it was the only nearby restaurant where we could grab something quickly.
I ordered a Big N' Tasty combo. Algis ordered a Filet-O-Fish and an ice cream and said he'd rather sit down and eat because he didn't want to drop any sauce on his coat. While we were eating, I kept reaching into the pockets of my coat and my pants. I had misplaced my tape recorder - which held all of my interviews from Lithuania. I would take a bite of my sandwich, reach in my pocket and repeat.
After awhile, Algis noticed what I was doing and asked me if I was okay. I told him, "I think I left my tape recorder at the gym." He was shocked, to say the least. He said,
"After you finish, we will go back and see if it is there."
I wolfed down my food so fast that he only had time to eat his ice cream. Algis drove over to the gym. For a few minutes, I was afraid that I was going to have to stay in Lithuania permanently. No way I could come back to America without my recorded interviews. Fortunately, Algis walked out after a few minutes with my tape recorder in his hand.
A janitor found it in the press conference room.
"You are lucky," Algis told me.
Indeed, I was. If we hadn't stopped to eat at McDonald's, that tape recorder and those interviews likely would've been lost forever. That's why it is the meal I'll never forget, one for which I will truly give thanks.
Algis made me pay him back by driving most of the way back to Vilnius. He wanted to eat his fish sandwich without having to worry about the sauce, the extreme fog on the road or the wild elk that roam throughout the countryside. It was a great trade for me.
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