They come by the thousands always, with their gold, red and green flags and their drums and their uniforms and their songs and their chants.
And their passion.
First and foremost, their passion. They are as recognizable to the global basketball community as any player has ever been. The wildly enthusiastic Lithuanian fans follow their team and the sport with a fervor possibly unmatched in any sport anywhere.
It is, in many ways, what defines the nation.
“Basketball is the most important thing in Lithuania, more than anything else,” said Maurizio Gherardini, a long-time follower of the international game and now managing director of Canada’s national teams. “Basketball is not only the sport, basketball is life philosophy, it’s religion. They are all basketball people, they know the game, they are all coaches, they are all players, you feel and smell basketball everywhere. So every time you have an international competition, you have thousands of Lithuanians coming, wherever the competition is.
“It’s not just sport . . . it’s a country that found a way to present itself to the rest of the world from it.
” There are an estimated 5,000 fans here to follow the team at the world championship and anyone who saw any part of Lithuania’s 70-68 win over Canada on Sunday knows what a ruckus they can make.
They are loud and boisterous and colourful.
“It’s passionate,” said Canadian coach Leo Rautins, who drew a smattering of applause when he congratulated Lithuania in the nation’s native tongue. “They’re there all the time and you know everybody who’s not here is glued to a television set back home. You’ve got to feel it as a player.
“And they’re not the hooligans, they’re just great fans. They love their team.”
The history of the game in Lithuania is brilliant, given the short time the small nation has been truly independent. As a breakaway nation of the former Soviet Union in 1990, it has developed more per capita basketball excellence than perhaps anything else.
The incomparable Arvydas Sabonis was the first great, the sublime Sarunas Marciulionis was another, as is Zydrunas Ilgauskas. New Raptor Linas Kleiza is a member of the national team — he had 17 points and 10 rebounds against Canada on Sunday — and there are players like Rimas Kurtinaitis and Ramunas Siskauskas few have heard of who are icons in Europe.
“The one thing that you’re shocked about going to Lithuania is how much basketball is part of everyone’s life and how much they really found in basketball a way to express their pride, the way to express their values,” said Gherardini.
The current Lithuanian team should be considered a long shot for a medal at this world championship. They are a youngish team because many of the veterans are taking the summer off in advance of the country hosting the European championship in 2011.
“You can imagine how crazy it will be next year when they play the European championships on their own court,” said Gherardini.
Judging by how crazy it is wherever the national team plays, it might be hard to imagine.