The first day of the men’s basketball tournament produced an unexpected star. Not LeBron James, or Kobe Bryant. Not Tony Parker, or even Luol Deng.
No, it was the Lithuanian fans who were the top story, at least for those us attending the evening’s session.
If you watched the day’s earlier contests as a newcomer to the sport, you could be forgiven for thinking that basketball fans are a polite bunch who are there as much for the Kiss Cam as for the dunks.
But once Andrei Kirilenko had finished eviscerating Great Britain, Stratford’s Basketball Arena seemed to suddenly transform into the hostile Siemens Arena in Vilnius.
Having travelled to Lithuania for last summer’s Eurobasket, I wasn’t surprised by the passion of their support, but what I didn’t expect was the sheer number of green shirts in the crowd.
I should’ve known better. Lithuanians love basketball with a singular devotion unmatched by any other country. The fact that their team only qualified three weeks ago was never going to stop them from getting here.
Decked out in red, green and yellow wigs, they roared as their heroes emerged on the court. The sizeable contingent of Argentina fans were completely drowned out with boos as Ginobili, Nocioni and company were introduced.
The Lithuanian fans stood for a full-throated rendition of the faintly menacing national anthem ‘Tautiška giesmė’, and stayed standing throughout the game, despite fruitless pleading from the unfortunate volunteer stewards.
‘LI-E-TU-VA’ chants began well before the tip – during the GB game, in fact. Every Argentinian attack was jeered and whistled, and referees were berated for every call that went against the men in green. Throughout the fourth quarter, when the brilliance of Argentina had already put the game beyond doubt, the Lithuanian fans continued to chant, yell, and bellow their support.
Basketball in Britain has always used the razzmatazz of the USA for to inform its idea of what the game is and how it should be presented. Last night’s experience suggested that we ought to look closer to home, to the European model of basketball that values diving for loose balls more than swatting shots into the stands, and unrelenting devotion to your team more than winning and losing.