Conversation with Lukas Lekavicius: Leaving home

Nov 22, 2017 by Print
Conversation with Lukas Lekavicius: Leaving home

The decision to leave home is especially monumental for young basketball players who are still trying to establish themselves, because the timing of such a move could influence the rest of their careers.

Such was the case last summer for Lukas Lekavicius when an opportunity came his way to join Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens, which would mean leaving his only Turkish Airlines EuroLeague team until then, Zalgiris Kaunas, along with his mentor, Sarunas Jasikevicius, and his country, Lithuania.

The interest from the most successful EuroLeague club of the century was deserved. Having turned 23 last spring, Lekavicius was coming off a solid season in which he averaged 8.5 points and 3.5 assists in just 18 minutes per game for Zalgiris. No EuroLeague player younger than him scored more points than Lekavicius last season, and that was despite the fact that he began all 30 games on the bench.

But now, with the Panathinaikos offer staring him down and a life decision to make, Lekavicius had more pressure than most 23-year-olds thinking about whether or not to leave home. He had to make his decision in 24 hours!

"I remember that day and I will remember that day all my life," Lekavicius says. "I had the worst day ever, because I had to make the decision in one day. I was talking all of that day with a lot of people: with my brother, with my family, with Saras I talked a lot. It was a very hard decision, but I think it's the right decision to do that next step. I mean, who knows, maybe the next year I will not have a good season in Zalgiris and I will not get some offers like that. So this was a good time to take the next step."

Lekavicius had already left home once, from the village of Silale, which is just 90 minutes from Kaunas, but a world away in terms of size.

"Silale is very small, only 6,000 people," he says. "It was even harder to go from Silale to Kaunas than to go from Kaunas to Athens. Now, I'm 23 years old. Then, when I went from Silale to Kaunas, I was 15 years old and had always lived with my parents. It was hard, but if you want to play basketball, you have to take these steps. You can't take them in a town of 6,000."

What Lekavicius certainly accomplished in Silale was to learn the work ethic that put him on the path to success. Basketball came to him not through a parent, neither of whom played the sport, but through his older brother Linus, who preceded Lekavicius in basketball. Linus went to university in the United States when Lukas was young. For a few years, they only saw each other in summers.

"I remember when I was 13, 14 years old, my brother came from America for the summer and he told me, 'Okay, look. Now you're going to start practicing more.' And I was crazy about that," Lukas says. "I started practicing every day, every morning. In the summertime when I was 13 or 14, my classmates were sleeping until 12 o'clock. I woke up at 7 in the morning all summer, every day, going to run, do sprints, shoot, everything. I was 13. I was not thinking about the NBA, the EuroLeague. I was just practicing. I just wanted to be a basketball player. I liked it."

His older brother, a taller point guard who has enjoyed a steady pro career in Russia and Ukraine, was Lukas's inspiration and is the main person he leaned on when trying to decide his future last summer.

"He's 10 years older, he's 33 now," Lukas says. "I always make decisions with my brother. I always talk with him. He's my idol. When I was young, I was watching his games all the time. It's not some EuroLeague or NBA player who is my idol. My idol is my brother."

Lekavicius has also had the good fortune to be mentored by one of the greatest point guards ever, Jasikevicius. Lekavicius was on the Zalgiris junior team when Jasikevicius was in the last season of his playing career for his hometown club, in 2013-14. When the EuroLeague Legend became an assistant coach for Zalgiris the next season, Lekavicius moved into Jasikevicius's spot on the main team. Midway through Lekavicius's three years on the Zalgiris senior squad, Jasikevicius became the head coach.

"Of course, I learned from him a lot of things about basketball, about things off the court," Lekavicius says. "I think I grew up as a person and as a player with Saras. I mean, he's one of the best coaches already, and he's a young coach."

But while Jasikevicius was among the most talkative leaders ever on the court and off, Lekavicius is the opposite: a non-vocal leader by example. The work ethic he learned in Silale did not go unnoticed in Kaunas, where he is remembered for spending as much or more time in the gym than any player in recent years.

"Saras and I are very different players," Lekavicius says. "He was always the boss on the court. Always. He can pass the ball and do everything. I'm a different player. I'm that guy who brings energy from the bench. I'm more a shooter than a passer. But our positions are the same, point guard. He was trying to teach me a lot of those things to be a boss on the court, to talk more.

"Saras was a leader off the court, too. I have to be the leader on the court. That's easier for me than to be a leader off the court, in the locker room or something like that. For sure, I'm not going to be that guy right now, but on the court, I think I can do things: be the boss, show players where they have to go, start the offenses. I mean that's also a coach's job, and Coach Pascual knows me. He knows that I am not that guy who can do those things now. But we talk and he's saying he wants to help me make that step to be a true point guard."

Jasikevicius, who had spent four seasons in two stints with Panathinaikos and won a EuroLeague title with the Greens in 2009, was also among the people with whom Lekavicius spoke on his day of decision last summer.

"He told me that Athens is a good place, a good organization, it's one of the biggest clubs. He told me that, but he told me also that I have to make this decision myself, to go or to stay in Zalgiris. He told me that both decisions are good, to stay in Zalgiris, to be with him, to be at home, to grow up as a person. He also told me it's a good decision to go here. It's one of the biggest clubs and it's my big chance, maybe."

Lekavicius decided to take that chance. And when it came time to choose a jersey number, he found one he could identify with as the second Lithuanian point guard for the Greens: Jasikevicius's old number 19. That was an easy decision after the big one to leave his comfort zone and take his chances far from home.

"I know it's a little bit risky," he said. "You know, maybe I'm too young. Some people said that maybe I'm not ready. But I was in Zalgiris for three years, Saras was in Zalgiris with me those three years, one-and-a-half as the main coach. So I think I learned a lot from him and three years is enough to be with a good coach and to take all that knowledge with me. So I took that risk to go to the next step."