The news that Žydrūnas Ilgauskas (Big Z) has finished his career as a professional basketball player in the NBA again incited the dispute — who is the brightest star of Lithuanian basketball— Arvydas Sabonis or Big Z? This time, after counting their rebounds, scored points and income, basketball experts did not have any other choice but to admit what was already known: A. Sabonis is second.
However, by doing so, somehow the rebounds, scored points and medals won while playing for the Lithuanian national basketball team were forgotten. This act was not only dishonest, but also cunningly did not consider the part which, when comparing these two world-class sportsmen, might also be the most important, Vytautas Matulevičius wrote in alfa.lt on 20 October.
In considering their outlook to the national team and their duty to Lithuania, A. Sabonis and Ž. Ilgauskas are clear polar opposites.
During the best years of his career, A. Sabonis never questioned whether he should play for Lithuania or not. If, however, he had to ask, then he managed to forget all the injuries and fatigue, and finally put on his famous number 11 jersey, each time stoically becoming the leader of the team. It is not hard to guess that each year the decision to change the holiday into another hell on the basketball court, which would not add any money or fame (because everything was already achieved), became harder and harder to make. But A. Sabonis was playing for the national team until a substitution for him was found and when, due to his age and injuries, he started to think about the end of his career in the NBA.
On the other hand, Ž. Ilgauskas, although he had strong arguments (operation on his leg), always chose a different path — he did not risk his well-paid NBA player status and did not exhaust himself with an extra workload on the national team. Each time the World Championships and the Olympic Games were on the horizon, Lithuania waited breathlessly for his response. Nonetheless, the response, even when the leaders of the country were calling, was always the same: “no.” The injuries, the fatigue after the long NBA season, no one is willing to pay for the insurance, the NBA team will not let me go, etc. were the common excuses. Yet all of this did not prevent him from playing very successfully for more than a decade in the most well-known basketball league in the world.
Every citizen has the right to refuse to volunteer. You can refuse even when you know that you are the only one who can do what is awaited by the entire nation. Still, just as Ž. Ilgauskas had the right to choose, every Lithuanian today has the right to tell him openly that he shunned Lithuania. This is an undeniable fact, and its real meaning will become apparent only as time passes, and money will be of no comfort.
Albeit this good sportsman most probably did not understand that a man to whom God has given a gift is expected to give more back as well. Also, there is a different side of the coin, the one about which the legendary coach Vladas Garastas spoke many times: Ž. Ilgauskas was taught by Lithuania’s basketball school, and he developed his talents largely due to its help; thus, he is in debt to Lithuania. Now this debt is left unpaid.
If you know Ž. Ilgauskas’s point of view, you must be surprised by the loyal attention of Lithuanian journalists, who are following his every footstep. Each time he declined an offer to play in the national team and came back for holiday, he still was greeted as though he had brought back a medal for his homeland. When there is such a lack of self-respect and people are afraid to tell the truth, the day is not far away when in the eyes of the youth, the difference between which path you are choosing will totally disappear.
The aforementioned second place of A. Sabonis is an expression of such an outlook.
Nevertheless, despite the recurring attempts to dethrone him, A. Sabonis is and will be unsurpassed. He will be the best not only for the results he has achieved but also for his attitude towards the motherland. One can only wonder how he used his endurance and unique irony to cope with the fame. No arrogance, inappropriate actions or scandals which are so typical of celebrity life.
We have even seen him smiling in the hospital. Has anyone else seen someone joking like that after a heart attack? Think about all the people, sitting in front of their screens, whom he has inspired that evening not to give up due to the diseases, disasters, pessimism, and misfortune which are haunting each of us?
We have been lucky that we have such a fellow countryman. The number 1 Lithuanian, 220 centimetres. Just by looking at him, Lithuania stops looking small.