Antanas Kavaliauskas never imagined last summer when coach Kestutis Kemzura was putting Lithuania’s preliminary squad through its paces in the build-up to the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT)that he’d end up playing in the team’s biggest game of 2012.
Kavaliauskas didn’t make the side that played at the OQT, yet an injury to veteran center Robertas Javtokas led to Kemzura calling up a player that most people in international basketball had never heard of.
In eight minutes against the USA, the 2.08m center made all three of his shots and finished with six points and three rebounds.
“Guarding LeBron James, I had so much fun in that game,” Kavaliauskas said to FIBA.com.
“It was just an unbelievable experience.
“It was a dream come true.”
The day was almost sweeter for Kavaliauskas because Lithuania threw a major scare into the Americans.
A three-point play by Martynas Pocius triggered a 14-2 run that gave Lithuania an 84-82 lead with 5:50 remaining.
However, Chris Paul next drilled a three-ball that put the USA in front to stay.
They ended up winning, 99-94.
A twist of fate
No player knows exactly how his career will unfold.
Kavaliauskas took the important decision a decade ago to do as many of his compatriots had done and play basketball in America.
He competed for Barton Community College and then for Texas A&M.
Kavaliauskas has no regrets.
“Definitely,” he said.
“Every decision I have made basketball-wise in my life, I’m not disappointed.”
Kavaliauskas hasn’t played for the biggest clubs as a professional, but he has experiences different leagues and styles of play.
He’s turned out for outfits in Greece, Italy and now Latvia.
Kavaliauskas had a solid season with VEF Riga in Latvia in 2011-12 and caught the eye of Kemzura, yet wasn’t in the squad that travelled to Caracas, Venezuela, that ended up claiming one of three spots for the London Games.
An injury forced Javtokas out of the London Games and Kavaliauskas was the beneficiary.
“Unfortunately, Robertas Javtokas got hurt,” Kavaliauskas said.
“He was unlucky.
“But I guess it was my good luck.
“It was a great experience, something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
“I was very fortunate.”
The Olympics was a career-changing moment for him.
“It has given me a little bit more confidence,” he said.
“Playing against the best players in the world definitely gives you more confidence, knowing that you can play against them, that you are good enough.
“It lets you know you can go up against anybody.”
Now in his second season at VEF Riga, Kavaliauskas is playing for former Lithuania national team coach Ramunas Butautas.
The 28-year-old doesn’t know if he’ll be back in the national squad for this year’s EuroBasket in Slovenia, a qualifying tournament for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup.
“It depends on how this season goes,” he said.
In the VTB League, he is averaging 9.7 points and 5.6 rebounds, while in the Eurocupthe numbers are 8.1 and 3.8.
He believes he needs to do more.
“So far, it hasn’t gone too well,” he said, “but I’m glad the team is winning and advancing.”
There is also the issue of Kemzura no longer being in charge of the national team, but Jonas Kazlauskas.
“We’ve got a new coach,” he said, “and what he’s trying to do is put the young players in.
“He’ll be trying to get us ready for the (2016) Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
“It will be interesting to see what he tries to do, and what the final roster will be.”
Lithuania will have to be at their best in Slovenia to reach the FIBA Basketball World Cup because they are in Group B with Serbia, Montenegro, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (MKD), Bosnia and Herzegovina and Latvia.