Jasikevicius gladly points out basketball world beyond NBA

Athens Olympics

August 22, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

ATHENS -- An answer to the question "Whose game is it anyway?" was furnished last night, courtesy of a dead-eye Lithuanian guard.

Sarunas Jasikevicius single-handedly shot down the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team like a latter-day Sarunas Marciulionis, scoring 11 of Lithuania's last 12 points for a 94-90 win.

Don't call it an upset.

Jasikevicius' reward, if you can call it that, was to endure a string of remedial questions from the not-so-international media.

Hey, do you still have nightmares about that three-pointer you missed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics that would have given Lithuania the win over the U.S. team in the semifinals?

"No, I'm in total peace with that shot," he said.

Hey, every team you've played for in Europe (Barcelona, Maccabi) has won a championship, so how come you haven't "made it" in the NBA?

Jasikevicius, 28, smiled, rolled his eyes and handled the media scrum with the good-tempered aplomb of a seasoned veteran, which he is, just not in Sacramento, Houston or Detroit.

In his world, Barcelona and Tel Aviv are pretty good places to live and play, so why send the message that life would be so much better if only he had made it in the NBA?

"I guess I'm just a slow, fat white guy," Jasikevicius said.

If he smirked, it was with good reason. It was the smirk of someone who relishes the fact that American players who make oodles of money in David Stern's glamour league are now on his turf. So are the journalists here to measure every flaw and foible of the U.S. squad.

"If 30 general managers in the NBA say you can't play in the NBA, they should know," he said, the smirk now a smile.

We still don't get it, really, even with Jasikevicius getting the spotlight instead of Stephon Marbury or Tim Duncan, two NBA stars Jasikevicius faced in the Atlantic Coast Conference when he was at Maryland.

"But you really know about them from watching them on TV," he said.

Americans are still fascinated that the United States can't Dream Team its way through international competition, even when first-round NBA draft picks such as Carmelo Anthony still refer to basketball as "our game."

It's weird. Everyone fully expected Lithuania to beat the U.S. team last night. The Americans were actually the underdogs in this game. Nevertheless, watching them struggle and fall continues to produce a flurry of inquiries, hand-wringing and contradictions.

The U.S. players are the greatest in the world. Even Jasikevicius said that. It's just their brand of basketball that stinks -- or, at least, suffers in a tournament that rewards teamwork, moving the ball, sharp shooting.

It's also no surprise the Lithuanians, just like the Argentines and the Serbs, have players who can stand up to anyone.

"There are probably 30 or 40 players in the European leagues who can play in the NBA. They're not going to be Dirk [Nowitzki] or Peja [Stojakovic], but they can do the same things," Jasikevicius said.

"They're just not seen enough, and the international scouts [for NBA teams] don't have the kind of [impact] to make teams change their minds. It's really what's under your eyes," he said.

Under the eyes of NBA general managers are phenoms like Amare Stoudemire, LeBron James, Shawn Marion and Anthony. These are the young, unskilled players who cannot be tossed into international competition and expect to stay above water.

That's why the idea that the United States could go back to using collegians is comical. They wouldn't advance into the elimination round, not when teams such as Lithuania are using pros like Jasikevicius.

It's not exactly as if Jasikevicius fell off the turnip truck on the way to the Olympics. He left his country to play high school basketball in Lancaster County, Pa., jump-shooting his way into Gary Williams' recruiting sights.

Education first, his parents said, but like every kid addicted to hoops, Jasikevicius dreamed of the NBA.

That's why he stayed in College Park all four years (1994-1998), sometimes seeing his starts and minutes squeezed by other players on the Terps' roster.

Overlooked? Underappreciated? Jasikevicius could feel a theme song for his basketball career starting to brew.

After finally cracking the starting rotation at Maryland, the dead-eye shooter racked up minutes and piqued some interest. Once, an NBA official called the Terrapins guard a can't-miss NBA prospect.

That was then, before he was not drafted by NBA teams. That was before his agent could never get a deal.

"Milwaukee did call my agent last season and offer a deal for the minimum. I said no. It wasn't worth moving for. It has actually sunk in for me that I am not going to play there," he said.

He doesn't expect anything he does in these Olympics to change things, either. He played well enough in Sydney to expect offers, but they didn't come. Just Milwaukee, finally.

"It was nice to get some attention," he said.

Milwaukee may be the NBA, but it's not the only way to succeed at basketball.

"It's cold over there," Jasikevicius said.

True, but it's colder for the Americans who can't shoot straight.

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