Fourth time could be the charm for Jonas Maciulis

Photo : tokyo2020.org
tokyo2020.org|13-Sep-2020 17:59

From European Championships to World Cups, the Lithuanian has won it all but there is one achievement left to unlock. 
 
Jonas Maciulis is Lithuania's most decorated active basketball player.
 
The three-time Olympian has enjoyed tremendous success with the national team over the past 13 years, including two European Championship silvers and a bronze, plus a World Championship bronze. However, there is one accolade that has eluded him: an Olympic medal.
 
Maciulis came close to medalling at Beijing 2008, where Lithuania lost to Argentina in the bronze medal match. Two years later, they had their revenge by winning bronze at the 2010 World Cup – but it hasn’t stopped Maciulis from dreaming about standing on the podium at an Olympic Games.
 
“Another dream, after qualifying to the Olympic Games is to win a medal,” he told Tokyo 2020. “I have a medal from the World Cup, I have three medals from EuroBasket, and this would be my dream [to win an Olympic medal]. I would probably be the happiest guy in Lithuania.”
 
The makings of an Olympian
The 2015 Lithuanian Player of the Year's journey to becoming an Olympian was full of coincidences, but it’s those small details that have made Maciulis who he is.
 
It was in 2001 when Ramunas Butautas, now a former Lithuanian national team coach, called Maciulis into a training camp. After a player broke his hand and another had been taken ill, Maciulis was invited to join Lithuania's team for the U16 European Championships.
 
As one of the top 12 players of his age group, he continued through the youth system, where he was part of the gold medal-winning side at the 2005 U21 World Cup. He joined the second Lithuanian national team in 2007, and Maciulis once again found himself in what he calls a “lucky position”.
 
After performing well and winning the Summer Universiade, Maciulis ended up making his senior debut at the 2007 European Championships where Lithuania won bronze.
 
Less than a year later, he was on the biggest sporting stage: the Olympic Games Beijing 2008.
 
“It was an amazing experience and I thought ‘okay, I had a once in a lifetime chance, I don't know if there’s going be a next one’ but now I have three and I'm looking forward to a fourth Games. It's really amazing,” he recalled.
 
“In the beginning, it was just somewhere to put my energy, to play the game. Nobody had these expectations. Nobody had the dream to participate in the Olympic Games. Even beginning to play for the national team, not me, not my parents - it was just playing basketball.”
 
Since then, Maciulis has participated at both London 2012 and Rio 2016, where Lithuania finished eighth and seventh, respectively. And a ninth place finish at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, saw Lithuania qualify for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
 
However, with the postponement of Tokyo 2020, the tournament was moved to 2021. For Maciulis, the postponement wasn’t easy to come to terms with.
 
“I was really upset. I was like ‘okay, one more year, I’m going to be 36, I was in great shape this season, to keep it for another year might be a bit harder’.”
 
“You know, it's like everybody has a dream, doesn't matter how old are you, the dream was to play in a fourth Olympic Games, and I was really sad that it was postponed to 2021.”
 
Now re-starting preparations in a bid for his fourth Olympics, the 35-year-old has re-signed for Athens-based AEK B.C for a third season – a decision Maciulis believed would be important for his Tokyo 2020 preparations.
 
With Maciulis at the helm, his club unexpectedly won the Greek Cup, were ranked second in the country’s championships and reached the FIBA Champions League quarter-finals.
 
But that wasn’t the only step in the Kaunas-native plans. He also wants to be healthy for an entire season and stay in the best shape possible, especially when it comes to the qualification tournament now being held between 29 June and 4 July 2021.
 
“I need to show some results, to play as a player and team as good as possible, but many things can happen… but the main goal was to sign a contract and be healthy all season – not even to have small injuries and this is how I’ll have a chance,” Maciulis said.
 
Lending a helping hand
As the COVID-19 pandemic gripped Europe, Maciulis and his family returned to Lithuania from their home in Greece.
 
Looking for a way to help, he came across an old acquaintance, commentator Linas Kunigėlis, who had been assisting a local NGO called "Stiprūs kartu" (Strong together).
 
“Because of this shutdown, we were looking at what to do, how to help the people. They are our fans, and this was a time where we can help them,” Maciulis explained.
 
The organisation has been helping in many ways, from delivering groceries to families to working on the help centre phone lines, where they connect quarantined people - especially seniors - with volunteers who can help with tasks including buying food and medicines and taking out the rubbish.
 
Maciulis joined the ranks to work alongside other volunteers. The basketball star also transported food to families with children in Kaunas.
 
“It was a time to do something good for Lithuanians who have supported us during the games for the national team. So this was great to give something back,” he said.
 
Debuting in a new discipline
When the General Secretary of the Lithuanian Basketball Federation, Mindaugas Spokas contacted Maciulis about playing 3x3 basketball, it was an unexpected opportunity.
 
When he was asked to join in practice sessions, he didn’t hesitate to try it out and it wasn’t long until Maciulis was approached about playing in a local 3x3 tournament, where he would represent his hometown.
 
“Like why not, I’m not doing anything anyway?” he said, “I wanted to represent my region, my hometown – well it’s really a small village, and again, it was just having fun.”
 
Making his professional 3x3 debut, Maciulis not only led his side Tauras to a fifth-place finish at the 3x3 Hoptrans but he also finished as one of the top scorers and was named in the Team of the Tournament.
 
“I really enjoyed my decision to try this kind of basketball,” he said.
 
“It was a new experience… I needed to adapt to this little bit different style. There is not much thinking, it's a very fast, high-paced game where you don't have set places, it’s just running, shooting and so on.
 
“Even during our practices, we had some coaches in the beginning say, ‘if it's possible to go outside or something to give 3x3 10 minutes at a high pace. It's a good conditioning exercise'.
 
“It's not like 5x5, where you can bring the ball in a low walk. It’s 10 minutes sprinting. That's why there are so many substitutions to keep the tempo.”
 
With 3x3 basketball set to make its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020, Maciulis now has the possibility to represent his nation in a new sport, but his heart still lies with the traditional game.
 
“5x5 is my favourite,” he laughed, “This is the game I played all my life.”