I know that the 2011 Eurobasket has been gone for almost a week, but I figured that it would be a waste not to write about my experience there, from the perspective of a Thunder fan. I'll do my best not to bore you.
You're about to step off of a train in Warsaw, Poland. You have just rolled through what seems like endless countryside in a carriage of people who don't speak your language. You have seen endless amounts of old Soviet-style apartments, along with a new renaissance of buildings built more recently. It's almost as if you've stepped into another world, millions of miles away from Oklahoma City.
But as you step off of the train, a sign of familiarity hits you. A group of 20 guys is standing on the platform. They look at you, you look at them. One man says, "You're going to the basketball championships in Lithuania!". Everyone then proceeds to high-five you as you connect onto the next train. Welcome to the 2011 Eurobasket.
It was hard explaining to anybody why I was going to Lithuania. I told several people that I came to cheer on players from my home team, but it didn't seem to resonate with anyone. Most people were traveling from their home nation to see their nation play. Yes, even far away countries with no hope of advancing, like Portugal and Israel, had fans coming to Lithuania.
Lithuanian national pride was pretty strong during the Eurobasket. The country is only as big as Chicago, and some games were held in towns smaller than Lawton. Nevertheless, games featuring Lithuania were always sold out, and there would be at least the same amount of people watching outside of the arena, and this was in the town of Panevezys, which only has around 100,000 residents. Inside of the arena, Lithuania had hardcore fan sections full of people dressed in absolutely ridiculous attire, holding up huge flags, and banging large drums. Even when Lithuania wasn't playing, Lithuania did a good job of filling up the arena, with many green-shirted fans choosing whichever team suited their fancy and cheering accordingly. As awesome as OKC fans are, they have nothing on Lithuanian fans.
Below: More Rambling!
Outside of the arena, basketball was very popular. It was hard to turn a corner and not find a basketball court. It rained a lot and the temperature was around 60, but kids still played through the elements. Football fans, eat your heart out. Sports stores were almost filled with basketball gear, with running and soccer as almost an afterthought.
But other nations also had ardent supporters. The most disappointing show (I'm sorry to say) had to be the fans of Spain. I understand that their country is one of the farthest away from Lithuania, but they didn't show up in big numbers until the semi-finals, and their chants were pretty uncreative. (You can only say E-SPAN-A and Yo soy Espanol so many times. Then again, the same thing goes for DE-FENSE.) In the chant department, the Greeks have to be, by far, the best fans. It might be that I don't speak any Greek, but I remember their fans standing and chanting during the entire game, and always switching up what they said. Additionally, the Greeks had many women, children, and old folks cheering for them that other nations just didn't have. Regardless, every nation had at least 100 supporters in the arena during every game, and those who were there came to cheer.
The worst moment of the entire experience, by far, had to be seeing Lithuania lose to Macedonia. I've seen home arenas shocked before (the worst of which was seeing the Thunder lose to the Lakers in 2010), but nothing was like this. Lithuania was hosting the Eurobasket for the first time since the 1930s, and likely wouldn't be hosting it for another 70 years. Some players, like Lavrinovic and Jasikevicus, had come back to the team just for this tournament. And for the team to get knocked out in the Quarter-Finals against Macedonia had to be absolutely heartbreaking. I saw people with their hands over their mouths for over a minute, and I saw some people cry.
At the same time, it was the best moment of the entire experience. Macedonian fans had shown up in good numbers to support their Cinderella team, and they were having the time of their lives.
The style of basketball was a sight to behold on its own. While some teams, like Spain and France, featured many NBA players and played a very American-like style, others stuck to their roots. Lithuania, Serbia, Croatia, and Greece all played a very European style. The ball is usually rotated around the perimeter a lot, with most players getting equal offensive consideration. Some teams exhibited different styles, such as the inside focus of Russia and Germany, the all scoring and no defense of Italy, and the break-neck pace of Latvia.
There's a lot more interesting things I can say about the country, like how Lithuanians cover everything in ketchup, how I stayed in a creepy old Soviet apartment, or how I witnessed a guy get arrested on a bus. But I'll spare you the details, and instead say that basketball in Europe is something that you have to see to believe. And believe it or not, if the lockout continues, you may be seeing it sooner than you think.