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Basketball brings Lithuanian families to homeland

LEMONT – A team from the Lituanica Basketball Academy in Lemont for children age 14 and younger visited Lithuania this summer to participate in the World Lithuanian Sports Games.

Lituanica, which practices at the Lithuanian World Center in Lemont, is mostly made up of local Lithuanian-American children and teens.

Coach Stepas Zilys organized the two-week trip, which he said he tries to do every second year with the players.

“Our goal is not just strictly basketball,” he said. “Some of the kids, they’ve never seen it before, Lithuania, and even the parents who were born here, they haven’t seen it.”

According to the Lithuanian Union of Sports Federations website, the games included about 2,600 athletes from 21 countries participating in a variety of sports.

The event lasts four days, but Zilys scheduled several other friendly games through connections he has with coaches in Lithuania.

Eleven Lituanica players and 10 families made the trip and only one family – the Paulius family – hadn’t been to Lithuania before, Zilys said.

“It’s fun going overseas,” said Chris Paulius, a Lemont High School freshman. “[Lithuania’s] actually a lot like Michigan.”

Alex Paulius, an eighth-grader at Old Quarry Middle School, said traveling with teammates who had been to the Baltic Sea nation before enhanced the experience.

“They know the area,” he said. “So, it’s better than a tourist’s perspective.”

One Lituanica player who is very familiar with Lithuania is Martynas Matevicius, a sophomore at Hinsdale South High School who moved to the U.S. from Lithuania at age 11.

He was able to visit friends and family and even play against his old basketball team during the trip.

He said it was different playing on a team representing the U.S.

“It was weird,” he said. “I didn’t feel like it was the American team. Most of the kids were Lithuanian. But [opponents] looked at us different.”

Zilys said Lituanica tries to use basketball as a way to preserve Lithuanian culture in the U.S.

“We try to run our practice in Lithuanian strictly,” he said. “It’s not all the time possible because we have some non-Lithuanian kids and Lithuanian kids who don’t speak Lithuanian.”

Zilys said his players take pride in wearing the Lituanica uniform and representing their common heritage. It’s the same feeling for the coaches and parents who remember living in Lithuania.

“It’s huge when you are from the foreign country and you’re missing it all the time, your parents and your friends,” he said.

Note to Readers: A version of this story containing an error previously ran in print and online. Coach Stepas Zilys' first name was misspelled. The article has been corrected to reflect this information.

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