April 25, 2024

'We cannot be underdogs anymore': Latvia aims to get more kids from esports to gyms after magical FIBA World Cup

FIBA

Just three days before the start of the FIBA World Cup, Lithuania trounced Baltic neighbor Latvia in a final tune-up game in Chinese Taipei, 96-69.

On Saturday, September 9, debutant Latvia made sure to pay them back with a 98-63 victory to take fifth place in the tournament.

 

"They kicked our asses, literally. It was a good preparation for the tournament," coach Luca Banchi said in the postgame press conference.

"It was nice to give payback," 30-year-old forward Andrejs Grazulis told One Sports after the game. He made 12 points against Lithuania after a 28-point explosion against Italy.

"We're friends outside the court. But whenever we're on the court, we always fight like crazy," captain Dairis Bertans added in a separate interview.

Before the game, Lithuania star Jonas Valanciunas already spoke of the respect he had for Latvia and for having a Baltic clash for fifth place. 

Banchi explained even Lithuanians were the first to celebrate with them with the Latvian squad arrived in Manila for the quarterfinals. They are only the second debutant team to play for fifth after the Czech Republic, which ended up sixth, did so in 2019.

"You felt the way we were playing, how important it was to perform well when we play against them," Banchi said. "We like to earn their respect. We like to show them we're in a certain direction."

Latvia has now announced to the world that it can ball with the best squads in the world.

"We never back down. We come ready for the next game, we're ready to compete whoever we play against. This was another proof of that," Dairis Bertans added.

"It feels amazing, especially now knowing that two big American teams are playing third to fourth, and we finished fifth," Arturs Kurucs added. He exploded for 20 points, along with 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal.

  

Germany eliminated USA in the semis, but Latvia almost beat those same Germans in the quarterfinals. They were just one 3-point shot away. Banchi was especially driven after that close loss.  

He said that night will occupy his nights for weeks, months, maybe even years.

"I hope this small, bitter taste will keep everybody humble, hungry. Because what we need, if we really want to aspire to excellence, we have to compete with the best," he said.

"Here at fifth place in the World Cup... wow, it's a nice view," Banchi remarked. "But staying at that level will be tough."

Just like how he has helped Latvia improve in basketball, so will the rest of the world and how they see the country and its squad.

"We cannot be underdogs anymore," Banchi declared. "So happy and so proud because I feed myself with the pressure. I like it when people believe that we are the best. So funny, I like it when they treat you like nothing. Now it's time to continue to share such emotions, invest on such emotions."

"We proved basketball is high level in Latvia," Kurucs declared. "It's gonna give us motivation for the next tournament."

Their mission now is to let more children in Latvia embrace the sport. In the win against Italy, Banchi recounted how schools paused lessons for three hours and allowed children to watch the game. Davis Bertans and the rest of the squad have become role models. Now it's time to grow the base.

"After COVID, basketball lost a lot of kids. They became phenomenal in PlayStation and in virtual sports. But sports is different," he said.

"As a federation, our mission is to fill the gym and make more people play basketball, more kids in basketball, more people in arenas," Banchi added. "Go on the court and play and play and play."

As for the rest of the world, take note.

"Don't count us out," Grazulis declared. "We're still here."

(GM)