After the Knicks-Raptors game on Sunday, the colors of green and yellow took over the 102 section at Madison Square Garden in the usual territory of blue and orange.
Thirty-two kids (and their parents) from Lithuanian Saturday day schools in Long Island, New York City and New Jersey had attended the game and were awaiting the arrival of their fellow countrymen, Knicks forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas. Many of them were wearing or holding the players’ national team jerseys, planning to get them signed, while others had their NBA jerseys.
When Valanciunas and Kuzminskas arrived, they met with each fan and family, signing autographs, with them even holding some of the kids in group photos. The meet-and-greet was part of the players’ busy Lithuanian heritage weekend in New York City, which included an event at NBPA headquarters on Saturday and business meetings with representatives of the Lithuanian Basketball Federation, who were making their annual one-week U.S. tour.
— NBPA (@TheNBPA) April 9, 2017
“I’m just happy that even Lithuanians living in the U.S. don’t forget Lithuania,” Kuzminskas told the NBPA. “And I’m a patriot of my country, so it’s just fun to see so many people who are supporting you. It didn’t impress me that it’s big; I knew that it’s big [in New York]. I was impressed that they all came together. I will always find time for them and just happy that there are people who are organizing this. NBA basketball really unites all the people and we feel like one unit.”
“I’m trying to show the Lithuanian heritage and have a big celebration for Lithuanians,” Valanciunas told the NBPA. “It makes me feel proud to see Lithuania represented around the NBA. I see flags in the stands. 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.”
At the root of Valanciunas and Kuzminskas’ involvement this past weekend was the Kazickas Family Foundation, which organized the game-day opportunity on Sunday. Its focus is sports, arts, culture, medicine, technology and social welfare education for children in Lithuania and the states. And the previous day at the NBPA’s offices in midtown Manhattan, which features a basketball court, the foundation’s “Basketball Power” initiative hosted a hoops clinic for 63 kids, ages 3-15. They came from the same Lithuanian Saturday day schools. Later in the day, the parents took part in basketball drills and shooting competitions.
The purpose of the day’s program was to celebrate Lithuanian heritage and raise funds for “Basketball Power,” which uses basketball—the most popular sport in Lithuania—to assist and teach life skills to children in need in the country.
The initiative, which started in the summer of 2015, now reaches 16 communities and 260 kids throughout Lithuania. It targets very small villages of 300 to 500 people that are neglected and have issues with child and human trafficking, while helping those who are orphans, juvenile delinquents, suffering from addictions to alcohol or cigarettes, and mentally or physically disabled. Leading the cause are volunteer basketball coaches and psychologists, who wrote a life skills book for “Basketball Power.”
Founder Peter Kazickas, whose grandmother, Alexandra, established the Lithuanian Saturday school in Riverhead, N.Y., had the idea after participating in the Hoops 4 Hope (H4H) organization’s outreach in Zimbabwe for a few summers during his college days at Hamilton. He played there for basketball, after teaming up in high school at St. Mark’s School (Massachusetts) with Sixers guard Nik Stauskas, whose family is of Lithuanian heritage. During his opening speech on Saturday, Kazickas recognized his mentor who was in attendance, H4H founder Mark Crandall.
“What Hoops 4 Hope does with two basketballs, 200 barefoot kids, potholes on the court, rims falling off, you see the amount of joy that comes from these kids. And it’s incredible,” Kazickas said. “That really affected me in a profound way and it’s the reason why I went back again, and thought, Let’s just use [H4H’s] model, but attack different social issues. Lithuania has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and there’s still a bit of a stigma against how to deal with suicide, alcoholism and orphanages. So it’s empowering these kids.”
The idea for Saturday’s hoops clinic was initiated by former nine-year NBA veteran and NYC native Marty Conlon, who’s been consulting with ‘Basketball Power” since its inception. He got connected after he was living on Long Island and some family members taught at the Kazvickas school in Riverhead. Conlon, who worked in NBA International’s Basketball Operations for eight years after retiring, traveled to 22 different countries over eight years coaching at different camps and events. From first visiting Lithuania as a player on the Irish national team in 2005 to traveling there for grassroots business, he also recognized the care that certain kids needed.
“Alcoholism in Lithuania unfortunately is a big problem, so through ‘Basketball Power’ we can reach those kids, as opposed to another country where basketball isn’t as an important sport,” said Conlon, who now mostly works as a basketball trainer. “‘Basketball Power’ is not necessarily looking for an NBA player, but through basketball, it’s how they can communicate life skills, how they can communicate to the smaller cities of Lithuania. And then hopefully the next step would be possibly to contact the U.S. Embassy and see if they can partner to get ‘Basketball Power’s’ message out.”
The other section of Saturday’s program consisted of a coding class using a computer service called Scratch, a free visual programming language. With children being interested in technology and Kazickas teaching robotics in an after-school program at The Coding Space in NYC, he’s added those elements to “Basketball Power.” In fact, at the FIRST LEGO League’s Lithuanian national tournament in January in the capital of Vilnius, a group with “Basketball Power” won an award.
In addition to special guest Julius Pranevicius, the Consul General of the Consulate General of the Republic of Lithuania in New York, Kuzminskas and Valanciunas were on hand to take group pictures, announce raffle prizes (such as their NBA jerseys) and sign individual game-action cards for the kids. The players also handed out gold medals with a basketball hoop on them to each kid. Being that he’s a rookie, it was Kuzminskas’ first time being involved with “Basketball Power.”
“I think that it’s a really good job they’re doing,” he said. “I think that all the charity organizations are good for the kids and I’m just supporting as much as possible.”
As for Valanciunas, a five-year NBA veteran, it marked his third event—the first time at the inauguration in 2015, when he attended the opening of a new basketball court in Vilnius, where he’s previously hosted his summer camp. His second appearance was last April in Riverhead for a basketball clinic. 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.
“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.”
Kazickas shared some other heartwarming stories as a result of “Basketball Power.”
“We have another boy who’s an orphan and he’s kind of our role model,” he said. “He went through trade school on the behalf of ‘Basketball Power’ and now he has a job as a chef. He’s bridged the gap a lot because he’s brought his team over to the juvenile detention center. He actually went to the [Lithuanian] president’s office with us and met with her staff.
“I also love hearing from the coach that, ‘I have a 10-year-old that told me I’m not going to drink or smoke today, I’m not going to drink today because you’re here.’ It’s crazy to think. And just hearing from the coaches how, ‘I thought this was about basketball; it’s so much more. I want to keep doing this, it makes me feel good.’ 90 percent of our coaches said that they would continue on even if they weren’t getting paid.”
“Basketball Power’s” next event will be on June 10 in Kaunas—its third annual year-end celebration, where kids and families from all of the 16 communities will come together. NATO troops, the U.S. Embassy and Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaiteare plan to attend. Kazickas said the ultimate goal is developing a basketball and life skills curriculum that would reach all of Lithuania.
Valanciunas and Kuzminskas’ summer plans back home will feature their camps for the fourth and third year in a row, respectively. Both focus on the top amateur players in the country to deliver them individual instruction and best prepare them for the professional clubs. While basketball is that celebrated in Lithuania, where there are even 2-on-2 tournaments for kindergarteners, the NBA duo wants to see more of their own in the league. Currently there are only two others: forwards Domantas Sabonis (Thunder) and Donatas Motiejunas (Pelicans), who also hosts an elite summer camp.
“I think that it’s good that we’re making different camps because then more kids can be involved,” said Kuzminskas, who will be running three weeks of programming with his older brother, Saulius, a former Lithuanian pro player. “When I came here, I saw that the difference is individual skills. In Europe, everybody is paying more attention to team basketball—sharing the ball, and that’s really important. But without individual skills, it’s hard to play. We don’t want to have all the kids in the camp because then they don’t get attention.”
The other main commitment of Valanciunas and Kuzminskas’ offseason representing Lithuania could be competing in the biannual EuroBasket, which begins in late August. That’s why Mindaugas Spokas, Secretary General of the Lithuanian Basketball Federation, and Ramunas Siskauskas, assistant coach for the men’s national team, were in NYC this past week—to mostly discuss the players’ participation. It was their third stop this month after seeing Sabonis in Oklahoma City and Motiejunas in New Orleans.
“We’re just talking [with them about] how they’re playing,” Siskauskas said. “For sure we want them to be on the team, so we talk [about] are they healthy, how they feel. We also talk to their GMs [including Phil Jackson]—what they think, because you cannot just take them and say nothing. So it’s interesting [to hear] their opinion about them, especially the rookies [Sabonis and Kuzminskas]. They have some extra work in the summer, so we’re just trying to work together.”
“We’re really close with the Federation in case if I needed something. They’re all the time ready to help,” Kuzminskas added. “And I think it’s really nice, it’s really a professional step from their side that they’re visiting all the Lithuanians in the league, talking with the clubs that I can have some benefits during the summer with [my] club [and] the national team. I can work on my game and play at the same time for the national team. I would love to.”
Reflecting on his rookie season, Kuzminskas had his first taste of the Lithuanian fandom through interactions in these NBA cities: NYC, Chicago, Orlando, Philadelphia and Toronto for Lithuanian Heritage Night in January. He’s seen flags in the stands and more of his Knicks jersey. “I saw some of them bought my jersey today, so that’s real fun,” he said on Sunday. He also has a unique distinction from the MSG crowd who says “Kuuuz” (in a deep tone) when he shoots the ball.
“The first times I thought that the fans were booing me,” he said, laughing. “And I thought, like, Wow, I’m doing something wrong, but then I realized it was ‘Kuz.’ So I like the chant. Right now, it’s kind of a little pressure in a good way for me to try to score, but I’m just happy that I have a good relationship with the fans.”
And he knows there’s a much greater impact from that connection.
“Basketball unites us as a nation and we can make a lot of good things happen,” he said.