The international sports capital of London was tinted green on Friday night as the pride of Lithuanian basketball, Zalgiris Kaunas, drew almost 6,000 fans to The Copper Box for a preseason friendly game, the Titans Trophy, with Polish side Polski Cukier Torun.
It marked the first time ever that a Turkish Airlines EuroLeague team played a preseason game in London, and the many Lithuanian fans in the city could not have been more responsive. Less than a month before the start of the EuroLeague season, the Zalgiris fans made London echo with the basketball passions of Kaunas for one special night.
The festivities drew the attendance of the Lithuanian and British basketball officials, the Mayor of Kaunas, Visvaldas Matijosaitis, and Euroleague Basketball President and CEO Jordi Bertomeu, who applauded the initiative of Zalgiris in bringing high level basketball to its foreign fan base in such an important city for sports.
"You can see from being here how that special Zalgiris spirit fits London well, as the fans here are just as passionate and dressed in their team colors as at home," Mr. Bertomeu said. "It shows that even in cities where the EuroLeague doesn't have teams and cannot play games regularly, there is a market for our unique brand of basketball."
The fans got what they came for, too, as Torun led early before Zalgiris got big plays from longtime fan favorites and newcomers alike. Team captain Paulius Jankunas steadied his troops when they were down. High flying new arrival Axel Toupane got them out of their seats with big plays. Sharpshooter Arturas Milaknis did what he does best from downtown. Big man Brandon Davies showed some fine open-court defense. Point guard Dee Bost put his heart on the floor, the way Zalgiirs fans love. And emerging star Edgaras Ulanovas was the glue whenever Zalgiris needed it. Even teenager Gytis Masiulis showed the fans in London flashes of the future as he contributed to his team's takeover and dominance.
It all added up to an impressive 87-61 win as Zalgiris got stronger and stronger as the game went along. Axel Toupane led the winners with 17 points. Arturas Milaknis added 14, Paulius Jankunas had 11 while Edgaras Ulanovas got 10 for the Lithuanian powerhouse. Zalgiris trailed 16-17 after 10 minutes but soon took full control of the game. A three-pointer by Milaknis soon made it a double-digit game, 38-28, near halftime and Zalgiris never looked back after that, getting a 64-47 margin after 30 minutes and cruising to a well-deserved win.
"The party atmosphere showed once again how much Lithuanians love basketball, and how much they miss their country," Zalgiris head coach Sarunas Jasikevicius said after the game. "It was just an amazing atmosphere and I wish we can do this more often because you can really see you are making people happy. It is very nice. I hope they enjoyed it! The new guys will understand what kind of team they came to. I hope they enjoyed this type of support, which has always been famous for Zalgiris. It was a great evening."
Best of all, it ended in a solid win for Zalgiris against the second-place team last season in the Polish League. And the fans, of which expatriate Lithuanians and local British fans were most prominent, provided the kind of atmosphere that rang true – even in a place not known for basketball – for a EuroLeague team getting ready for the exciting season ahead.