Alex Massie

The Lithuanian Conundrum

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Matt Yglesias wants to know why Lithuania (population 3.8million) is so good at basketball:

As everyone knows, to succeed at basketball you need tall people. Not only do even your backcourt players need to be tall, but you need to be able to pull several freakishly tall big men together. It seems inconceivable that such a tiny country could manage to field so many quality basketball players consistently over an extended period of time no matter how basketball-mad the country may be. Is Vilnius just full of people 6′8″ and taller?

I don't know very much about basketball, let alone eastern european basketball, but I'd guess that these factors (some of which Matt alludes to) probably have something to do with it:

  1. Basketball is Lithuania's national sport and has been for a long time. As Matt notes, most of the best Soviet players were Lithuanian. Culture matters.
  2. They Soviet system identified promising athletes at a very young age and educated them in special sports schools. I'd guess this practice continues with respect to Lithuanian basketball. I suspect they probably excel at a) identifying talent and then b) coaching it rigorously, extracting maximum potential. Small countries cannot afford to waste resources.
  3. That means that a tall Lithuanian teenager is much more likely to be shepherded into playing basketball than a tall teenager in Britain who might, for example, be persuaded to play rugby. The Lithuanians may not divide their eggs between so many baskets. If every tall person plays basketball, you don't need as big a population base.
  4. A basketball tradition creates powerful incentives to maintain that tradition of excellence. Eventually, as one can see from other sports in which small countries punch above their weight, that creates a momentum all of its own. Success breeds success etc etc.
  5. Even allowing for other factors, small countries should find it easier to compete in basketball than in other sports: you only need five players! Soccer, by contrast, needs 11. 
  6. Lithuanians may also be unusually tall anyway.

But what do you chaps say? Are there any euro-basketball experts out there?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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