Latvia flying home to grateful nation after ‘unbelievable’ Fiba World Cup run
MANILA, Philippines—On the afternoon of September 9, somewhere in the middle of Latvia, a small part of the country’s 1.8 million population—probably students in a classroom—sat in front of a television to watch their national team battle Lithuania to become the fifth-best team in the world today.
The pause in daily routine just for one game isn’t something that followers of the Fiba World Cup tournament based half a world away know about Latvia. Perhaps people here know that Latvia keeps alive one of two surviving Baltic languages. Or that it owns buildings that would give the Sistine Chapel a run for its money. Or a quick Google search will reveal two often discussed sports among Latvians: Football and ice hockey.
Basketball? There’s Kristaps Porzingis, who wasn’t even in the game that was holding Latvians’ attention. The Boston Celtics acquisition skipped the tournament entirely.
For one afternoon, however, basketball was all the rage. Davis Bertans was the star. Rodions Kurucs was the guy in the middle of reporters thrusting smartphones toward him and recording his every word.
Latvia made quick and easy work of Lithuania, 98-63, at Mall of Asia Arena in Manila, Philippines, a hemisphere away from where people were cheering in the afternoon for a team that seemingly came out of nowhere, slayed giants and came to within a made three-pointer of breaching the Final Four.
When Bertans and company left the playing court after a pretty lopsided affair, he recalled a video he saw during their Cinderella run in the global tilt.
“I hope it [win] has a big impact. We saw a whole bunch of videos of kids in school that instead of attending classes they were watching our games,” he said after ending his 2023 World Cup run with five points and six rebounds.
“I hope we showed them that this is us caring for our country, playing together, being a great team. Whether at school or anywhere else, whatever they’re doing, it just shows that you can achieve big things despite being considered an underdog.”
The Latvians—as team members have said repeatedly to the point of banality—were never supposed to be here. The kids in that same classroom that Bertans watched probably knew it all too well.
Outside of that classroom, Latvia heard the doubts like a broken record, playing in its ears over and over again; “this team won’t make it.”
TOP FIVE ‘SOUNDS GOOD’
Yet, lo and behold, 15 World Cup days later, they are now among the best national teams in the world.
“Top five in the world sounds really good right now. Of course, we wanted more. We were close but finishing top five is a good feeling to go home with,” Bertans said, smiling all the while, like he hadn’t wrestled with Lithuanian bruiser Jonas Valanciunas minutes earlier.
Before the quadrennial event even started, Latvia was already proclaimed done with the cards they were dealt with.
They were put in Group H, which Fiba experts considered as the “bracket of death,” which also featured France, Canada and Lebanon.
Latvia then found out that Porzingis, along with regular standouts Rihards Lomasz and Janiks Strelnieks, would be unable to compete in the international showcase due to injuries.
They still kept at it, though. They did one unthinkable after another, starting with an upset win over France, a tournament favorite, to notch Latvia’s biggest win in history. As if they weren’t underdogs already, the Latvians lost Dairis Bertans in that inspiring victory due to a torn hamstring.
“That must be it, right?” the kids in that classroom, probably thought. That was certainly on top of most naysayers’ minds.
Not yet. Latvia eventually keyed the downfall of erstwhile reigning champion Spain.
That famous win would propel the Latvians to the quarterfinals, where their Cinderella run ended.
But after losing to Germany in the Last 8, 81-79, and only after a missed triple by Davis Bertans in the final play, Latvia decided there was something left to play for in the tournament.
And while the team recovered from the shock end of its title hopes and comforted Bertans amid celebrations by the Germans, Latvia decided to chase for the best finish it could squeeze out of the tournament.
They trounced Italy and Lithuania in the consolations rounds, cementing their journey from unheralded to undeniable.
“We still don’t understand. We still can’t realize what we’ve achieved. We need some time for our emotions to calm down. [We need to] go home, take some time off and understand what we did,” said an exhausted Rodions Kurucs who was wearing just a compression shirt after tossing his jersey to the fans watching inside the arena.
If someone had said before the World Cup started that arena fans would be reaching out for a tossed Rodians Kurucs jersey, he would have been greeted with a puzzled look.
“It’s an amazing and unbelievable feeling. On the court, we didn’t really celebrate because it’s top five. We were expecting to go much higher. We had one last shot against Germany, but of course, it’s still an amazing achievement for us,” Kurucs said.
The 6-foot-9 Kurucs was given the task of shouldering the rebounding chores by coach Luca Banchi in the absence of Porzingis.
Critics doubted Kurucs was up to the task. The former Brooklyn Net, however, did what Latvia had been doing the whole tournament: Proving critics wrong. Kurucs, as underrated as he is, averaged a team-high 6.4 rebounds after eight games, proving to be a reliable piece of the puzzle for the Latvians.
When the buzzer sounded, the kids inside the classroom that Davis spoke of must have had the same reaction with Kurucs.
“We won?” they must have wondered. Yes. Their heroes are the tournament’s fifth-best squad. And the students might even be part of those who will wait for the team step off the plane in an airport in Latvia.
Once Davis, Kurucs, coach Banchi and the others reach the runway to meet their fellow Latvians, they all will fully realize the enormity of their accomplishment.
“When we go home and people are waiting for us, we’re probably going to understand it,” said Kurucs, still wearing an unwavering smile that the whole nation of Latvia is wearing as well.