The American Who Made Lithuania a Basketball Powerhouse
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because even classic sports sometimes have the strangest beginnings.
Lithuania’s opponents in the 1939 European Basketball Championship must have wondered where the Baltic squad got its new-look game. For those seven days in May, freshly acquired individual skills were on display in Kaunas Sports Hall, as players dribbled and juked around opponents. Then there was the choreographed team play that really set the host Lithuanians apart.
The world was just a few short months away from cataclysm. But in Lithuania a different kind of defining moment was taking place. For the second time in a row, the tiny nation of 3 million won the biannual EuroBasket tournament, an achievement that proved its athletic prowess was no fluke. And the back-to-back championships planted the seeds for what would later grow into an intense basketball culture that played a key role in Lithuania’s national identity during the 20th century as it struggled to free itself from the Soviet Union.
The keystone moment came when Lubin joined Lithuania’s national team as a player-coach in time for the 1939 EuroBasket tournament.
That legacy lives on: Today, most dedicated followers of the sport can probably tell you that Lithuanians are really, really good at basketball. Few, however, might realize the nation’s rich roundball heritage boils down to one very tall American, albeit of Lithuanian origin: Frank Lubin — better known to his adopted countrymen as Pranas Lubinas, their secret weapon during the 1939 tournament and, ultimately, an outsize influence on their country.
Before Lubin’s arrival in Lithuania in 1936, the country had been independent, first from the Russian and then the German empires, for less than 20 years, and it struggled to field competitors — let alone winners — at the Olympic Games. Basketball, first imported by a prominent Lithuanian-American pilot named Steponas Darius, was little more than a loosely organized sport. “There was no concept of what basketball was,” says Rytis Vyšniauskas, a sports commentator in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. “The only idea was that you have the ball, you throw it into the hoop and that’s it — without all the dribbling, passing, setting screens or anything like that.”
Things began to change in 1935, when a group of Lithuanian-American basketball players traveled by invitation to their ancestral homeland to bring an element of finesse and organization to the sport. While the country still couldn’t muster an athletic squad for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, it did send a nonathletic delegation, which spotted something that made the trip worthwhile: Frank Lubin, a 6-foot-7 former UCLA center, who led the U.S. team to a gold medal.
Officials invited him to Lithuania; for the next three years, Lubin traveled between the United States and Lithuania, imparting his athletic acumen to Lithuanian players. During that time, he taught them the finer details of competitive basketball, setting them up for their first European championship title in 1937. “I made them toe the line with my style,” Lubin told an interviewer from the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “I taught them fast break, passing and defense.” For the experienced American, it was less about cultivating star players than about building a cohesive unit. “I didn’t teach them to be a one-man team,” Lubin explained, “I taught them to pass it to the man who had the best open shot.”
The keystone moment, however, came when Lubin joined Lithuania’s national team as a player-coach in time for the 1939 EuroBasket tourney, along with several other Lithuanian-Americans. Officials even provided a birth certificate claiming Lubin was born in Lithuania in 1911 to satisfy the citizenship requirements of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). With Lubin at the helm, the team squeezed past regional rival Latvia and then trounced every other opponent to handily defeat Italy for the title.
FIBA officials were skeptical about Lithuania’s leg up, and an inquiry they sent to the U.S. revealed, weeks later, Lubin had actually been born in Los Angeles. But by that time, World War II had broken out — with Lithuania and its neighboring Baltic republics, Latvia and Estonia, soon occupied by the Soviet Union — and the issue was never revisited.
The rest, as they say, is basketball history. “From that point,” says Vyšniauskas, the sports commentator, “it became a sport for the masses.” Through the players Lubin coached, the American’s legacy traveled down several generations to the Lithuanian national heroes, such as center Arvydas Sabonis, who led the Soviet national team to a jaw-dropping victory over the U.S. in the 1988 Olympics. Then, in the 1992 Olympics, came an even more euphoric moment: Newly independent Lithuania defeated the former Soviet squad, known at the time as the “Unified Team,” in a victory brimming with symbolism.
As for Lubin, he returned to the U.S. before the war started full-bore and played for the Twentieth Century Fox company team until knee problems sidelined him in 1955. He died at age 89 in Glendale, California. In Lithuania, memories of those heady days in the late 1930s live on. “Ever since,” wrote veteran Sport Illustrated reporter Alexander Wolff in his 2002 history of basketball, “Lithuanians have used the word ‘Lubinas’ the way others refer to a Goliath or a Leviathan.”