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John Masanauskas "President Reliving Basketball Glories", The Herald Sun(Australia)


When Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus made his first visit to Australia, Sir Robert Menzies was still in power, we spent pounds not dollars, and Aborigines could not vote.
That was 1964 - the year Mr Adamkus brought a team of American-Lithuanian basketballers Down Under for a national tour.
The ethnic Lithuanians blitzed their opposition, losing only one match out of 25.
Even Australia's national team succumbed to the tourists.
This week Mr Adamkus is back in the country for the Olympics and basketball is still a high priority.
It's Lithuania's national sport and the president, naturally, is his country's No. 1 cheerleader.
I caught up with Mr Adamkus in Sydney just after Lithuania lost narrowly to European champion Italy.
The president was born the same year as my late father and they both attended a boys' school in Lithuania's pre-war capital, Kaunas.
Speaking with a voice hoarse from barracking, Mr Adamkus said Lithuania would be hard-pressed to repeat its bronze medal performances of Atlanta and Barcelona.
This time Lithuania is without key players, such as the injured 220cm colossus Arvydas Sabonis, who plays for Portland Trailblazers in the US NBA.
Sabonis almost deprived Australia of a medal in Atlanta.
"With all these losses to injury, we definitely lost the opportunity to come to the very top," Mr Adamkus told me.
"But we are participating, we are playing."
Mr Adamkus, who settled in America after fleeing war-torn Lithuania in 1944, became a high-ranking official in the US government's Environment Protection Agency.
But he maintained his interest in homeland issues and took on various senior posts in the Lithuanian community, including team manager for that 1964 Australian tour.
I was five and I well remember that visit because one of his offsiders with a terrible snoring problem was billeted in my bedroom.
Mr Adamkus also attended a reception for the team at our house.
"Australia since then has made tremendous progress in basketball," he said.
"I was watching them throughout the years and they are now world class."
Part of Australia's progress may be attributed to the arrival of Lithuanian and other Baltic migrants after the World War II.
Lithuania and Latvia dominated European basketball in the late 1930s and some of their refugees from Soviet communism took the developing Australian game to new heights.
Most Australian national teams until the '80s boasted at least one player of Baltic origin.
One of Australia's greatest players and top overall scorer at the Montreal Olympics was Eddie Palubinskas, the son of Lithuanian refugees.
One of his teammates was ethnic Latvian Andris Blicavs.
Mr Adamkus, who was elected president two years ago after returning permanently to newly independent Lithuania, said basketball had played a big role in the liberation struggle against the USSR.
He said the Lithuanian team, Kaunas Zalgiris, had won the Soviet championship in the late 1980s and became a potent symbol of Baltic nationalism.

Maintained by the Office of the President of the Republic of Lithuania. Please specify source when quoting.