Lithuanian who played for past 3 European champs picks Pacers over other NBA suitors.
He's 'crazy' for basketball: Sarunas Jasikevicius bares his emotions when he plays and loves to celebrate titles, like he did last season with Maccabi Tel Aviv. He also played for the previous two European champs. -- Tatyana Makeyeva / Getty Images
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• Born: March 5, 1976, in Kaunas, Lithuania
• Ht./wt.: 6-4/190
• Nickname: Saras
• Number: Has worn No. 13 through most of his career, but David Harrison wears it for the Pacers.
• Family: Parents live in Lithuania. His younger brother, Vytenis, will play high school basketball at Pace Academy in Atlanta next season.
• Career notes: Originally came to U.S. to play high school basketball at Solanco High School in Quarryville, Pa. . . . Accepted scholarship to Maryland, where he played shooting guard. . . . Began professional career in Lithuania in 1998 after he went undrafted by the NBA. Played the following season in Slovenia. . . . Played following three seasons for FC Barcelona, leading team to 2003 Euroleague championship. Led Lithuania to European Championship the same year, earning MVP honors. . . . Played past two seasons for Maccabi Tel Aviv, winning Euroleague championship both seasons.
• Quote: "He's a tremendous open-court passer, a big-game player, and a big playmaker, the likes of which you don't find every day anywhere. When the money is on the line, Saras is going to step up and make plays."
-- David Blatt, former assistant coach for Maccabi, as told to the Washington Post
Pacers point guards
The addition of Sarunas Jasikevicius to the Indiana Pacers' roster could have ripple effects. How does it affect their other point guards?
Should be safe as the starter. Pacers will want to break in Jasikevicius slowly and they have no way of knowing yet if he'll be better than Tinsley. Besides, Tinsley is entering the first year of a contract extension, so his outgoing trade value would only be 50 percent of his $5.4 million contract. Bottom line: Pacers would be better with both Tinsley and Jasikevicius.
Has been the No. 2 point guard for two seasons and has started frequently in Tinsley's absence. Not likely to accept a demotion to No. 3 without a fuss, which logically makes him a trade candidate. His experience, maturity and reasonable salary ($2.4 million) would make him attractive to other teams, but the Pacers say they want to keep him. Bottom line: Pacers can't count on Tinsley to stay healthy and Johnson remains an important piece.
Will earn a minimum veteran's salary ($819,000) next season, the last of a two-year deal. Pacers could include him in a trade or simply release him and eat his contract. Jasikevicius can play shooting guard, though, which could leave a part-time spot for Gill as a No. 3 point guard. Bottom line: He's capable of contributing as he did last season, but he's the most expendable player on the roster.
-- Mark Montieth
By Mark Montieth
He's a reluctant gypsy, a native of Lithuania who owns a home in Spain and has worked the past two seasons in Israel. Now he has an uncertain role and an uncertain future with a new team in a place he has never visited. He has never met any of his new teammates and doesn't even know what jersey number he will wear.
It's a unique circumstance for Europe's most famous basketball player, but Sarunas Jasikevicius has this much going for him: He loves basketball like people from Indiana are supposed to love it, and it just so happens he's coming here to continue his nomadic career.
"I'm just in general a crazy person about basketball," he said.
"I've heard about Indiana basketball, and I've watched 'Hoosiers.' I don't know how close that is to the real situation, but you see people in the NBA talking about Pacers fans being one of the best. I guess I know as much about the situation as a person from Lithuania can know."
That's a good starting point for the 6-4 point guard who will sign a three-year, $12 million contract with the Indiana Pacers this week. A mega-celebrity among basketball fans in Europe, he'll begin a new life as an unproven backup, in essence starting his career again.
Jasikevicius knows a lot of what he is getting into, however. He began following the NBA when he was about 12 years old in Lithuania, idolizing Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls most of all. He followed the rest of the league, too, and paid particular attention to the Pacers in the early 1990s because of Detlef Schrempf, the German forward. European players were still rare in the NBA at the time, and those who excelled as Schrempf did were points of pride in all the European countries.
Jasikevicius got a closer look at the league when he attended high school in Quarryville, Pa., and then college at Maryland. But when he went undrafted in 1998 after averaging 12.6 points as a senior shooting guard -- out of position, it turned out -- he returned to Lithuania to begin his professional career.
Seven years later, at 29, he's widely regarded as the most NBA-ready international player since Manu Ginobili joined San Antonio in 2002. He is not as athletic as Ginobili, who averaged 16 points last season as the Spurs' starting shooting guard, but he is an outstanding shooter and passer who plays with passion and intelligence.
With all that going for him, his defensive shortcomings have been easier to ignore.
"I'm not the world's most athletic player," he said. "I know my limitations and my good points and try to work around them."
Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said he's not concerned. He compares Jasikevicius to former Pacers Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin and Derrick McKey, and believes whatever defensive liabilities Jasikevicius has can be covered by his team defensive concept.
Team CEO Donnie Walsh is more blunt. "I have the same kind of concern I had for Larry Bird's defense," he said.
That would be none.
Major recruiting effort
The Pacers, Cleveland, Utah, Portland and Seattle all made a run at Jasikevicius in July. Utah offered the most money, about $14 million over three years, but Jasikevicius wasn't giving up the career he had taken so long to build in Europe to play for a losing team.
His choice came down to the Pacers and Cleveland. It took a major recruiting effort and a bit of luck for the Pacers to win out.
Jasikevicius and Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas have been best friends since they met at a basketball camp when Jasikevicius was 6. Jasikevicius was the best man at Ilgauskas' wedding, and the two attended Wimbledon together this summer. He is also close friends with Cavs forward Anderson Varejao, a former teammate in Barcelona, Spain. Saying no to the Cavaliers still haunts him a little.
"That's why I was taking such a long time to decide," he said in a telephone interview from Tel Aviv, Israel, where he played the past two seasons. "It was a terrible time for me.
"One of our dreams was to play with one another, but ultimately I felt like the Pacers were the better fit for me. We were both disappointed. This is the biggest downfall to signing with Indiana. I'm not going to play with my childhood friend."
Jasikevicius chose the Pacers primarily because he believes they're closer to winning a championship than Cleveland. The Pacers also helped themselves, however, with a determined courtship. Team president Larry Bird and scouting director Joe Ash made trips to Europe to scout him, and met with him in Tel Aviv last winter. Carlisle called at least 20 times. Assistant coach Chuck Person called, too, often enough that he has Jasikevicius' cell phone number memorized. Pacers starters Jermaine O'Neal, Stephen Jackson and Ron Artest checked in as well.
The Pacers also made their devotion known by presenting an offer to his agent, Doug Neustadt, on July 1, the first day of the NBA's negotiating period. He clearly was their top priority, whereas Cleveland has dabbled in trade talks for Los Angeles Clippers point guard Marko Jaric and explored other options.
"They were there from day one," Jasikevicius said. "They did it in a very classy way."
The Pacers' financial situation was also more clearly defined. Cleveland didn't know what it could offer because of pending signings and completion of the collective bargaining agreement.
"I felt like the Pacers . . . they've already been there," Jasikevicius said. "They've been through a lot of wars. Cleveland, you can't deny they're making impressive moves. I don't know. I just felt like it was a great situation (in Indiana).
"Whether I'm right or wrong, we can talk in one or two years."
A 'rock star' in Europe
Jasikevicius has led teams to the European league championships the past three years -- Barcelona in 2003 and Tel Aviv the past two seasons. His only exposure to most Americans, however, has been in the Olympics, where he starred for Lithuania in 2000 and '04. He missed a desperate 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have defeated the U.S. team in '00, but still scored 27 points while hitting 5-of-11 3-pointers. He scored 28 points, hitting 7-of-12 3-pointers, in an upset of the Americans in Athens, Greece, last summer. Twelve of his points came in a 1-minute, 51-second stretch when he hit three consecutive 3-pointers. The U.S. won the rematch in the bronze medal game, when Jasikevicius scored 17 points and hit 5-of-9 3-pointers.
His popularity in Europe goes beyond game heroics, however. He has rock-star fame there, thanks to his chiseled features, emotional style of play, shooting touch and compelling personality. He dates models, gets mobbed in public by fans who shower him with gifts, is hounded by the media and has inspired one female fan to construct a Web site in his honor, www.jasikevicius.com. There, he's billed as "more than a player."
When he played his last game for Maccabi last season, the team played a video tribute on the overhead scoreboard, with teammates, scouts and a rabbi encouraging him not to flee to the NBA. A petition was presented, with 17,000 signatures from fans.
Jasikevicius said he's grateful for his time in Israel and appreciates all the love. He doesn't think he'll miss it, though. He crossed into the realm of celebrity that became more a burden than a thrill, and he's looking forward to a quieter life in Indianapolis.
"We get a huge following (in Tel Aviv)," he said. "This is the team of the country, basically. It's to the point where it's ridiculous, you know? When the team is doing good the following is out of control. You get no privacy.
"Israeli people are open people. It's not like other parts of the world where people leave you alone. They always want to talk. Your private life is closely monitored, to the point where it's really getting annoying."
Jasikevicius didn't attempt to hide his frustration with the fans and media in Israel.
"He is an extremely intelligent individual who can't stand stupid or banal questions from the press," said Yoav Borowitz, a journalist for the Ha'aretz Daily.
"Many people in Israel couldn't stand him because he was condescending, but then he would win them over with his brilliant game. I think that in the last six months people also started to appreciate him for his honesty and humor.
"He is truly one of kind."
Jasikevicius is likely to be popular with the fans in Indiana, too. But he'll arrive as a curiosity rather than a star, a backup rather than a starter.
He is fine with that, and ready for a fresh start.
"I'm not going there for personal stuff; I'm going to help the team," he said. "Personally, I'm fulfilling my dream. I'm excited.
"I just hope I can be a small piece of the puzzle and help the Pacers continue their success."
JO, Ron, and Jack checked in.....wonder why Tins didnt?