This past weekend in Toronto, Jonas Valanciunas manned the middle as usual for the Raptors, finishing with 12 points and 16 rebounds in the team’s win over the Knicks. He was also the centerpiece of the day’s festivities, hosting—along with the Raptors and the Canadian-Lithuanian Sports Federation—the annual Lithuanian Heritage Day for fans at the Air Canada Centre.
Before the game, kids from Toronto’s Lithuanian community had a chance to meet the players, including Valanciunas’ national teammate and Knicks forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas. Also, the national anthem was performed by Canada’s Gintareliai Lithuanian Children’s Choir and the halftime show featured the Toronto Gintaras dancing to the song “Bajorelis” in traditional Lithuanian costume. After the game, Valanciunas had a Q&A session with his fellow countrymen who were in attendance.
“I’m trying to show the Lithuanian heritage and have a big celebration for Lithuanians,” he told the NBPA. “It makes me feel proud to see Lithuania represented around the NBA. I see flags in the stands. Washington, [D.C.] is one of my favorites. The Lithuanian Embassy is there, so you never know who will be in town. A lot of times, other [NBA] teams reach out about organizing the meetings. And I try to meet the groups of Lithuanians in every city—chat with them before or after the game. I’m just trying to connect everybody through the basketball court.”
Since his NBA rookie season in 2012, Valanciunas has also made a major impact among Lithuanian’s at-risk, homeless and basketball youth, from the states to his native country.
“It’s important for me to give back to my country,” he said. “I have kids now, too, so I want to set an example.”
For the past five years, Valanciunas has been an ambassador for the Lithuanian division of Save the Children, an international organization that helps kids in 120 countries, providing support for health, education, protection, disaster relief and more. Every summer, he returns to the country’s capital, Vilnius, where he meets with children who have parents with problems at a day care center called Duok ranka (meaning “give a hand”). The facility, which has 32 different locations throughout Lithuania, offers an after-school environment where kids can eat, do homework, and receive the social and educational services they need.
When Valanciunas visits, he sits down with them in intimate settings (he prefers no media) to interact with them during their activities and inspire them with motivating messages. His talking points focus on training, discipline, following direction, being a team player, and understanding the values of winning and losing.
“These are priceless fundamental lessons for the children who are indifferent to their parents,” said Duok ranka’s manager, Lina Gedmintiene.
One time, in the summer of 2014, when 20 teenagers at Duok ranka were rebelling and not following order, Valanciunas stepped in to help. He gathered them together, developed a set of rules and had them sign a sheet to agree to follow instructions. His leadership helped bring order and discipline to the day care center.
“During eight years of work with Save the Children, I haven’t met any other person that would share his words to the children so strongly as Jonas,” Gedmintiene said. “He is young, but strong-willed, goal-driven and disciplined. He honestly spends time with them not for any other reason but just for the children. He is not an ambassador just for publicity. Regularity and stability is very important for these children, and he truly helps them.”
In addition, Valanciunas works closely with the Kazickas Family Foundation’s Basketball Power program, which is a social responsibility initiative that incorporates basketball lessons and life skills to assist the youth who have parents missing or suffering from substance abuse problems. He also donates signed Raptors jerseys to kids in the program, including a teenager who was diagnosed with bone cancer in his leg. While they were in contact, he fought through the treatment and was cured this past October.
Valanciunas’ first event was in the summer of 2015—the inaugural year of Basketball Power, which is based in Lithuania and spans 15 cities—when he attended the program’s opening of a new basketball court in Vilnius. His second appearance was last April in Riverhead, N.Y. (in Long Island), a popular area for his fellow countrymen that includes the nearby Alexandra Kazickas Lithuanian School.
For his involvement in April, he took part in a basketball clinic and fundraiser to aid at-risk children back in his country who can’t afford clothing and basketball shoes. On hand for support were the NBA and the Consulate General of the Republic of Lithuania in New York.
“I am honored to be the ambassador and grateful to the Kazickas family for doing such important work: taking care of Lithuania’s children,” he said to his guests at the event. “The Kazickas family is making a huge progress encouraging these kids to follow good role models. The basketball court, refurbished by the Kazickas Family Foundation and the NBA, is an opportunity for children to have a place to spend time at, to keep them occupied, to escape the problems and find something good. It’s a small step, but we’re moving forward and I believe it’s only a question of time when we, together with Kazickas family’s help, accomplish a lot more.”
Looking ahead, Valanciunas is planning to attend a second basketball-fundraiser event in Long Island in February or March, and then another in June. Also on April 9, when the Knicks host the Raptors, the Alexandra Kazickas Lithuanian School has reserved 104 tickets for New York’s native community to cheer on Valanciunas and Kuzminskas.
Another way Valanciunas changes the lives of Lithuanian’s youth is through his annual weeklong basketball camp for 20 standout players, in partnership with the Lithuanian Basketball Federation. After holding the camp the first two years in Vilnius, last summer he changed the location to his hometown, Utena.
“Lithuania is such a small country, so for us guys who play outside of Lithuania, we’ve all got to help Lithuanian basketball to grow,” he said. “I’m just trying to find new talents in Lithuania and not let the basketball die in Lithuania. The kids love basketball, so they’re trying to play at small ages. The talent is coming up.”
Valanciunas targets some of the country’s best 18-year-olds to prepare them for the professional leagues, and Pacers assistant coach Bill Bayno and former assistant Neal Meyer lead the instruction. Some notable campers he’s helped groom include Tadas Pazera, Paulius Petrikonis and Aistis Pilauskas (who all play in the LKL, the premier hoops league in Lithuania), and Rokas Gadiliauskas (who plays for Club Baloncesto Gran Canaria, which is in Spain’s top-tier ACB league).
His main message to them is: “If you want to make it to the top, you have to practice, you have to live with the ball and make your mindset right: to fight and not fear losing.”
Thinking of ways to connect more to his roots, Valanciunas is exploring building an outdoor basketball court in Dusetos, a small-country town bordering Lake Sartai where he spent his summers as a kid visiting his aunt. The quiet, nature life defines Valanciunas, who loves to fish and hunt in the offseason back home, where he lives with his Lithuanian wife, Egle, in the middle of the Labanoras forest on the coast of the Didysai Siaurys lake.
“I’m a simple guy. I’m not a celebrity or something,” he said. “I’m just happy to be in the NBA, happy to have what I have right now and I don’t feel like I’m some special guy. It’s not about the bright lights. I’m trying to transfer a small piece of me to all the kids who want to be successful on the court. And I’m trying to show them what it means to be here.”