Before the Ball brothers, Robert Pack got a taste of life and hoops in Lithuania
Sure, it was cold and not many people looked like him, but Pack wouldn’t trade his championship experience
Lithuania was bitterly cold for New Orleans native Robert Pack. There was also a language barrier for the prized American import, who had played in 552 NBA games. And he usually was the only African-American to be found during his time off the court. But with all that came two championships that capped Pack’s 14-year professional basketball career.
Because of his job as a Portland Trail Blazers scout, Pack can’t speak about LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball, who are in Lithuania preparing to make their professional basketball debuts on Tuesday. But Pack would highly recommend the opportunity to play in basketball-crazed Lithuania.
“Basketball is No. 1, and coming from the NBA, the fans were crazy and knowledgeable about the game,” Pack said. “It was a great experience because they knew what they were seeing. The energy was in the building. You felt like you were playing in an NBA kind of environment. They were crazy about supporting their team. It was a really good experience with competitive basketball to play.”
Pack went undrafted out of the University of Southern California in 1991, but he beat out veteran Walter Davis to land the last roster spot on the Blazers’ 1991-92 team. The athletic 6-foot-2 guard was a member of the Blazers team that lost to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1992 NBA Finals. The injury-plagued Pack also played on the Denver Nuggets team that made NBA history by knocking off the top-ranked Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of the 1994 playoffs.
Pack suited up for Spain Valencia BC during the 2003-04 season after his NBA career ended. He played against his former Blazers teammate Arvydas Sabonis in a matchup with Lithuania’s Zalgiris Kaunas. Sabonis successfully recruited Pack to add a needed guard to Zalgiris’ roster during the 2004-05 season, but Sabonis was too injured to play.
“There was a push to get me out there, and some people reached out to me,” Pack said. “I chose to come thinking I would play with Sabonis in Lithuania, but unfortunately big fella got an injury and had surgery, so he didn’t end up playing.”
With a population of nearly 350,000 people, Kaunas (pronounced kow-nas) is Lithuania’s second-largest city. Nicknamed “Little Paris,” it is known for its artistic and educational museums, strong universities that have a sizable student population, and cool cafes.
Pack said he mostly enjoyed the seafood, including the best scallops he ever ate in his life.
“The taste and the size was perfect,” Pack said. “I am a seafood guy from New Orleans. The scallops were a surprise. I would eat there all the time, but I tried not to wear it out. Every time I had a chance, I went to this basement seafood restaurant. Even if I saw the name, I wouldn’t be able to say it.
“In Kaunas, there wasn’t a whole lot to do. There were a few places.”
Kaunas is also quite frigid in the winter, with a typical range in temperature of 18 to 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Pack thought he experienced cold during his days with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he had a new perspective after going to Lithuania. He recalls snow that “sat on the sidewalk like it was furniture for days” and wasn’t melting. The Ball brothers are from sunny California.
“It was obviously cold,” Pack said. “I had never experienced that type of cold. I’ve obviously lived in some cold places, and I thought at one time that Minnesota was the coldest place I had ever lived in. In Lithuania, man, I stayed cold. People told me my body and my bones would eventually adjust, and it did.”
Most of Kaunas’ population is of Lithuanian descent with a small Russian population. Lithuania has nearly 3 million people with a European-led diversity that also includes Polish, Belarusians and Ukrainians. Lithuanian is the official language. Pack spoke English, and outside of the basketball court he rarely saw anyone who looked like him. The Ball brothers are biracial and are joined in Lithuania by their outspoken and flamboyant African-American father, LaVar.
Pack said he felt the stares being black in Lithuania, but he didn’t feel racism.
“I never felt any prejudice,” he said. “I felt staring because it was rare, me being there. There were one or two black players at the most on the teams. But there wasn’t a black or African culture over there. They didn’t see us often.
“It was more of a curiosity thing as opposed to prejudice. As the year went on, our games were on TV, so if I randomly popped up somewhere, they probably recognized me from TV and newspapers. So they were probably recognizing me from that as well. I had no complaints.”
ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman has previously reported that the head coach at BC Vytautas Prienai, the team the Ball brothers are playing for, does not speak English, but several of the players do. On dealing with the language barrier, Pack said: “The younger generation spoke English. I would go to restaurants and I could order. But when you went to the city, you had people who were a little bit older who didn’t speak English.”
What Pack witnessed off the court in Kaunas will probably be similar to what the Ball brothers will experience in Prienai, which is about 25 miles south of Kaunas.
LiAngelo, 19, and LaMelo, 16, arrived to a warm media and fan welcome in Lithuania last week to begin their professional basketball careers with Vytautas after signing one-year contracts. After living in the major metropolitan Los Angeles area, the Ball brothers will have to adjust to living in a small town of about 10,000 people. According to the team website, Vytautas players live in the Royal SPA Residence, a four-star hotel with a restaurant and bar, spa, hot tubs and saunas, recreation center with a swimming pool, table tennis, a winter garden and cinema hall.
“That’s a really good deal for the players in Prienai,” Pack said. “I had a real nice two-bedroom apartment with hardwood floors.”
Zalgiris Kaunas has long been a power in the Lithuanian basketball league since being founded in 1944, while BC Vytautas Prienai has had its ups and downs since arriving in 1994.
Zalgiris is one of 11 basketball franchises that own a license in the Euroleague, which grandfathers the club into the regular-season phase of Euroleague action. Former NBA players who have played for Zalgiris include Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Kaunas has won one Euroleague title, 18 Lietuvos Krepsinio Lyga (LKL) titles, five Soviet Union gold medals, five Baltic Basketball League titles, one European Cup and one Intercontinental Cup. BC Vytautas Prienai has two Lithuanian championships.
“Kaunas has ruled the Lithuanian league,” Pack said. “Sabonis is from Kaunas. It’s the top dog. Kaunas had popularity in the country like the Los Angeles Lakers and success like the San Antonio Spurs. They roll. They have taken a deep history, they retool, and players in the country want to play for them.
“I never played against Prienai. I don’t remember them.”
Pack arrived in Lithuania in the fall of 2004 just months after Lithuania’s national team shockingly beat the United States in preliminary action in the 2004 Athens Olympics. USA ended up winning the bronze medal by redeeming itself against Lithuania. A young LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade, as well as fellow NBA stars Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson, were on that USA team.
Pack said his Lithuanian teammates regularly mentioned that USA lost an Olympic game to Lithuania.
“It was big for those guys,” Pack said. “They beat a basketball power with LeBron and Melo. For them to do that, it was something I heard about all year. They weren’t taunting me, but they were talking about it a lot. But I made a point in practice and every game to let them know that I’m an American player and our hoop game is real. They weren’t getting no wins in practice.”
With Pack, Kaunas struggled in Euroleague play but defeated Lietuvos Rytas to win both the 2005 LKL Finals and the inaugural 2005 Baltic Basketball League championship. Pack predicted to his coach and teammates before the LKL Finals that Kaunas would sweep Lietuvos Rytas in four games in the Finals, and it happened. Pack’s motivation to sweep was that it would allow him to get back to the U.S. in time to attend his niece’s high school graduation in Texas.
What made winning the 2005 LKL Finals most special for Pack was that his father, Robert Pack Sr., attended all four games. They smoked celebratory cigars together after Junior’s final professional game. Pack Sr. died in August 2010 of blood clots.
“It was great and amazing,” Pack said. “I always hoped to win a championship. My dad introduced me to the game, and I was his only son. It was great to have him there. At the beginning of Game 4 he was up high, but at the end of the game he was sitting on the floor near me and my teammates. It was memorable to share that with him.”
Those titles were the only ones for Pack during his pro career. Pack didn’t play against Prienai during his Lithuanian days because the franchise was competing on a lower level. Zalgiris currently owns an LKL-best 15-2 record, thanks to the league’s best defense allowing just 65.6 points per game. Vytautas Prienai has the LKL’s second-worst record at 4-13 in the 10-team league and, unlike Zalgaris, isn’t in the Euroleague.
Asked how the competition is in Lithuania, Pack said: “You have some Americans on every team. The actual league play has gotten better because they have more American players going over there. But at that time, my better competition was playing in Euroleague than in the Lithuanian or Baltic league.
“They had some players that could play. They had young talent and they worked at it.”