Rimas Kurtinaitis has accomplished big things in basketball.
One of the Lithuanian basketball greats, a three-time Olympic medallist as a player and a European national champion back in the 1980s and 1990s, Kurtinaitis has also had a great coaching career. Now in his fifth EuroLeague season, the current head coach of the Russian powerhouse Khimki Moscow Region is also the only coach to win the 7DAYS EuroCup title three times.
There have been hundreds of games he played more than 20 years as a player, and almost as many during nearly two decades at the bench, but Kurtinaitis remembers well the first time he coached at the EuroLeague level.
It was in the opener of the 2009-10 season, with Kurtinaitis at the bench of Lietuvos Rytas against Efes Pilsen. Rytas and Kurtinaitis earned the EuroLeague ticket by winning the EuroCup the previous season, which was club's second crown in that competition, and the first of Kurtinaitis's career.
"EuroCup is EuroCup, but EuroLeague is EuroLeague. It is something special."
"The EuroLeague was new for our team," Kurtinaitis recalls more than a decade later. "We won the EuroCup the previous season, beating Khimki in the final, but we were not sure what to expect."
It was the third season for Rytas in the EuroLeague, but the very first for Kurtinaitis, who knew it would be a special feeling that night, not just another game.
"I respect this job, and playing and coaching in the EuroLeague because it is the highest level of the competition. I know I was thinking that EuroCup is EuroCup, but EuroLeague is EuroLeague. It is something special," he says. "Then we started to win. We had three wins in the first four games." Including the one in Kurtinaitis debut, which turned into quite an upset, a 77-70 win over visiting Efes Pilsen on October 22, 2009.
"I remember we were leading by 20 points," he recalls.
Indeed, the Lithuanian champs had 60-38 lead in the third quarter that night. They were up 71-55 with 5 minutes to play before Efes cut down the deficit to 7 points at the end.
"It was in Siemens Arena, which was sold out. It was a great atmosphere. I remember that the fans were really good that game, and that season. They were really helping us."
It was some EuroLeague debut for Kurtinaitis, to win against an Efes team that had Igor Rakocevic, Kerem Tunceri and Charles Smith in the backcourt, Bostjan Nachbar and Preston Shumpert at the wings, Ermal Kuqo, Mario Kasun, Kaya Peker and Daniel Santiago under the basket, with Ergin Ataman on the bench.
With all those stars on the floor, Rytas playmaker Bojan Popovic outplayed them all that night.
"Popovic played 40 minutes in the game, I liked him very much", Kurtinaitis says. "He was a really good player and had a really good season."
Popovic finished the game with 11 points and what turned out to be a career-high 10 assists. He was the motor that took Rytas to the win. And not just that one.
"I remember, before the season I was talking to the late Serbian coach Aco Petrovic, and he told me good things about Bojan. That he always had court vision from any part of the floor, he understood what the coach wanted. Bojan was like a team soldier. He was exactly what we needed, disciplined, knew when to attack. And he showed it that season, and in that game."
Led by Popovic, the sharpshooting of Martynas Gecevicius, and play of big man Milko Bjelica inside, and all under the guidance of Kurtinaitis, Rytas was making noise among the European elite. Indeed, Popovic would go on to become the EuroLeague's first MVP of the Month that season, for October.
"That was a good Efes team, but it is not only that we beat them. We later beat Partizan Belgrade by 20-something points, and that was the season when they were led by Dusko Vujosevic and they made the Final Four," Kurtinaitis remembers. "Those were big teams back then. We were a good surprise and we had a really good strong start. But it was not enough to get through to the next round in the old system." Rytas eventually finished the regular season as fifth among six teams in the group, with 4-6 record, the same as Efes. But Rytas lost the tiebreaker because of a 15-point loss in Istanbul in Round 6.
"I started to think, 'Ok, maybe I am good enough of a coach to do this job at this level.'"
"The problem in that first game against Efes was that the players were playing just for the victory, not for the result and margin," Kurtinaitis says, looking back at his EuroLeague debut. "Later, when we went to play against Efes in Istanbul, we lost by more and we finished with the same number of wins. So, that eventually cost us going through to the next phase, to the Top 16.
"We were not experienced for the EuroLeague, for the competition system, but I was happy how we played that season."
Kurtinaitis left a big mark with Rytas, and later with Khimki. And he also wonders if all of that would have been possible if not for that opener and the type of a debut season he had with Rytas. "That season was a positive surprise for me, and actually I started to think, 'Ok, maybe I am good enough of a coach to do this job at this level.'"