There's something simply magical about Lithuania basketball to American hoopheads of a certain age. I was young back when Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis and friends brought their Deadhead style and Eastern European power to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona -- only 11 years old. But watching tiny Lithuania (and Drazen Petrovic's Croatia) compete with the Dream Team was something like a geopolitical awakening. It was through Barcelona 1992 that I really learned about the Cold War and Tito and the Balkans and the Baltics, and it's what first led to my interest in international relations.
It wouldn't have been possible if the basketball weren't great. Outside of a blowout loss to Team USA, Lithuania was just fantastic -- every glimpse I remember seeing (usually in highlight packages; there are some things about 1992 I do not miss, and lack of live streaming is one of them) was a window into a hoop culture otherwise invisible in the NBA. Primarily, that was because Sabonis was still plying his trade in Europe, not in the world's greatest league. (He was drafted in 1986, but made his NBA debut in 1995.) It was no exaggeration that Sabonis looked like the greatest player ever who hadn't suited up in the NBA; he was the one international player (with all apologies to Petrovic) who looked like he could have been on the Dream Team and not stood out like a sore thumb. (It would be the only time that Arvydas wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb.)
Of course, Lithuania didn't stop with one Olympic medal: the nation repeated the feat of bronze in 1996 and 2000. The Atlanta team was similar to the Barcelona version, with an in-his-prime Sabonis leading the way. But the Sydney squad was completely different. Sabonis had retired from international play, and the Lithuanian charge was led by a young guard named Sarunas Jasikevicius.
A four-year player at Maryland, Jasikevicius used Sydney as his career launching point. He'd been underwhelming in the European pro circuit after going undrafted, but exploded after the Olympic bronze. He won championships with FC Barcelona and Maccabi Tel Aviv and eventually messed around in the NBA for a bit. All along, he led Lithuania to continued excellence in international competition, including fourth place finishes in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics (no metal, but still excellent), the bronze in the 2010 FIBA World Championship and most notably the 2003 EuroBasket championship, the first major championship for Lithuania since the 1930s.
Jasikevicius, now 36, is still around, leading the new era of Lithuania basketball into battle. That corps is led by Jonas Valanciunas, the No. 5 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft and a leading contender for 2012-13 NBA Rookie of the Year. Valanciunas, just 20, has performed really well at the youth levels and will take on extra importance as veteran Robertas Javtokas is injured and can't play.
Valanciunas is projected to start at center, and beyond Spain and Brazil, Lithuania could pose Team USA's biggest frontcourt challenge in the tournament, with all due respect to Boris Diaw and Luis Scola. Note that Rockets rookie Donatas Motiejunas will not play; he didn't make the national team last year.
Here's the rundown on Lithuania:
FIBA World Ranking: No. 5
Previous Olympic performance: Three Bronzes, two fourth-place finishes in last five Olympiads
How they got here: Beat Dominican Republic in the last-chance qualifying tournament semifinals this month
Most important group games: All of them, but particularly vs. Argentina (July 29) and France (August 2)
Players you've heard of: Sarunas Jasikevicius, Jonas Valanciunas, Linas Kleiza, Darius Songaila
Medal outlook: See "Previous Olympic performance." Never count out the Lithuanians in the Olympics.
Future: Really bright, and almost entirely dependent on how good Valanciunas becomes.