The Boomers and Lithuania: A rivalry forged over two decades

The intertwined histories of the Boomers and the Lithuanian national team in major tournaments is perhaps summed up with a nod and a smile.

Mark Bradtke, legendary Boomer (and now team manager), recalls sitting one row behind Lithuanian basketball royalty, the great Arvydas Sabonis, at the FIBA World Cup draw in Shenzhen, back on a Saturday evening in March.

Once it was confirmed that the Boomers would indeed be drawn with Lithuania in Group H, Sabonis would turn to Bradtke, and shake his head in tacit understanding: oh, we're back at it again.

"They understand the significance as well as us," says Bradtke. "It's just another chapter in the history of Australia versus Lithuania."

This rivalry, perhaps the Boomers' greatest in international basketball, has been largely forged through the Summer Games.

"Unfortunately, most of my memories of Lithuania on the court are bad," says Luc Longley.

In their first Olympics since regaining independence, in Barcelona 1992, Lithuania defeated the Australians in their final group encounter, relegating the Boomers to third in their group, and a dreaded crossover quarter-final matchup with eventual silver medallists, Croatia. Croatia would ultimately bundle out the Australians.

Mitch Creek was 3 months old when Lithuania would advance through to the bronze medal game in Barcelona and win an historic medal.

"I didn't get to see it when I was really young," he says of the seemingly inevitable clashes between these two sides in three straight Olympics. "For me, it was more like the archives, watching the VHS tapes, watching footage online, and watching those battles play out."

Four years later at Atlanta, a surging Boomers team would encounter Lithuania once again, this time in the bronze medal game. In a tense and torrid affair, the Baltic Giants would once again prevail, behind the dominance of their Hall of Fame centre, Sabonis, to win a second consequence medal, and deny the Boomers their first.

"I know the year that I didn't play, Atlanta, because I had an ankle clean-up, [Arvydas] Sabonis hurt them in the bronze game when they came fourth that year as well," recalls Longley.

"He was slowing down a bit there, but extremely talented, would shoot the three-ball back then," says Bradtke, who had the onerous task of playing against one of the greatest ever centres. "[He was] a really good passer, and they had awesome shooters around him as well. It was a tough cover for all teams. He was my biggest challenge in opponent and he got the better of me every single time."

Then in Sydney 2000, at their home Olympics, the Boomers would meet Lithuania yet again in the bronze medal game, and again lose. That marked three straight defeats in three consecutive Olympics, including twice denying the Boomers their first ever medal.

"They're our nemesis. They've even tried to steal our colours," says Longley, tongue firmly in cheek.

"Specifics, not so much because I was pretty young then," says Matthew Dellavedova, when asked if he recalled the historic rivalry. "But it seems like we always match up each other at some point in a tournament. They obviously have a rich basketball history."

Both teams met once again in Rio, this time with Dellavedova playing, with the Boomers finally prevailing, routing their opponents by 26 points in the quarter-final stage, before ultimately succumbing again in the bronze medal game (this time against Spain). It is a remarkable synergistic history.

"We're somewhat aligned as basketball countries," says Longley.

It's now come full circle over the course of two decades, with Arvydas Sabonis replaced by his son, Domantas Sabonis, of the Indiana Pacers, who will lead a confident Lithuanian outfit into battle against the Boomers.

"Oh, I'm looking forward to just seeing how he's going too," says Bradtke, who after defending against the elder Sabonis, can now sit back and observe the younger strut his stuff on the court. "I heard that he's really come along a lot since the last NBA season, he's really coming into his own body. They're an extremely talented, well-structured team. It's going to be an awesome challenge for us because I think we have a team to go and take them. But at the same time, we have to be at our best. It works for both teams - they probably think they get us, and we can get them."

"Sabonis has played a great tournament," says Creek, who will pick the brain of Bradtke for some pointers. "We have to keep him off the glass, match his energy and his physicality."

Both teams have qualified for phase two of group play, and the stakes may appear significantly lower on this feted occasion, but the format of the competition ensures that this will be highly contested coda to Group H play. There will be no dead rubbers.

All wins and losses, including point differential, will be carried over to the next group. Point differential looms as a major factor. Head-to-head potentially becomes a factor. The winner of this game will have a huge advantage when the next phase continues. Lose this game, and it's potentially must-win for the Boomers in the following round against both France and the Dominican Republic. First phase group rivals won't face each other in the next round. Only two of France, Dominican Republic, Lithuania and Australia will progress to the quarter-finals.

Not that the Boomers need the additional motivation to put together a more complete performance.

"Speaking to guys like Luc Longley, Shane Heal, Andrew Gaze, C.J. Bruton, those were the guys I watched, when I could, growing up on the old square wooden box in the room," says Creek. "To see some of the rivalries, to see the heritage, and what guys played for, and the blood, sweat and tears they put in, it actually makes it really easy for us to go out and compete and play that high, unselfish level."

Rivalry aside, Lithuania will pose the greatest of challenges for the Boomers to date. The challenge of Team USA in exhibition play was daunting - still, the team was new, learning and flawed. A hardened Lithuania unit will be a daunting contest in this competition, and gauge for where the Boomers currently sit in the pecking order.

When asked to gauge the strengths of Lithuania, Dellavedova said, "discipline. They get through their offence. Obviously have the bigs inside. [Mantas] Kalnietis obviously a really good player, [and] runs the team for them."

After playing two teams who play relatively loose, the Boomers will finally encounter an opponent that is patient, calculating, and treasures possession. This will be a grind-fest.

And so the Australia-Lithuania tome continues. The players have certainly changed, but the intertwined tournament histories for these two teams remains firmly connected.

"And the rivalry continues," says Bradtke. "I think it's a well-respected one. I believe both countries [have] played so many times and they're very familiar with each other. It's a massive challenge for us."