LTU to aid Gilas’ Olympic bid?

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star
LTU to aid Gilas� Olympic bid?
President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and Gilas Pilipinas pose for a photo during their debut match at the #FIBAWorldCup held at the Philippine Arena on August 25, 2023
STAR / Jun Mendoza

One of the top basketball countries in the world has offered to help Gilas Pilipinas in its quest to qualify for the basketball tournament of the Paris Olympics. In an exclusive interview with The Star, Dr. Mindaugas Balciunas, secretary-general of the Lithuanian Basketball Federation (Lietuvos Krepsinio Federacija), revealed that they have invited the Philippine men’s national team to a series of tune-up games in Lithuania prior to the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) which is in Latvi, just  across their border. Lithuania is ranked 10th in the world by FIBA in men’s basketball and has already qualified for Paris.

In the original letter sent to the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) and addressed to Chairman Emeritus Manny Pangilinan and president Al Panlilio, Balciunas extended the invitation to Gilas Pilipinas to play one or two friendlies with Lithuania (excluding NBA and Euroleague players) between June 5 to 20. Lithuania would answer for meals and accommodations for the Philippine delegation within their country for six days. The FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) is slated for July 2 to 7. The Philippines is in Group A with Georgia and host Latvia.

“We would like to help the Philippines reach its Olympic dream,” said Balciunas whose doctorate is in Basketball Science. “We had a very good experience in the FIBA World Cup, and we saw how much Filipinos oove basketball.”

You will recall that, in the FIBA World Cup held in the Philippines last year, Lithuania defeated Team USA, 110-104. It was an impressive showcase of passing, shooting and defense which befuddled the American NBA stars. In their last match, the world’s 10th-ranked team then surprisingly lost to Latvia in what they called a battle of brothers. Both countries were annexed by Russia and incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1940. In 1988, four Lithuanians led the USSR to a gold medal in the Seoul Olympics, clobbering a US team made up of college players along the way. Lithuania, a nation of only 2.5 million people, bravely declared its independence from Russia in 1990. The free nation then won the bronze medal in men’s basketball in the 1992 Barcelona Games, ironically losing to the American Dream Team.

The SBP, however, noted that the dates of the tune-ups would not be close enough to the date of the actual FIBA OQT, leaving too much time in between. In response, Balciunas, who also runs the International Basketball University (IBU), offered to sweeten the pot by generously inviting other countries to play against Gilas Pilipinas between June 20 and the tournament in Latvia. Belgium and Brazil are among the countries invited, Brazil is in Group B of the Latvia joust with Montenegro and Cameroon. This will take place while Lithuania’s team will be traveling to the US and other countries for their own Olympic preparations. The Paris Olympic basketball tournament runs from July 27 to Aug. 11. The Philippines has not qualified in basketball since 1972.

“This is a tremendous opportunity and a great gesture on the part of the Lithuanian Federation,” adds Glenmarc Antonio, a Filipino country representative of the IBU who has been coordinating the invitation for Lithuania. “As a Filipino and as a basketball fan, this is very exciting. It could help get us over the hump and back into the Olympics.”

It is alo an unprecedented act of kindness and goodwill on the part of the Lithuanian federation, and shows how deep the brotherhood of basketball is, even across continents.

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