Rimas Kurtinaitis was a legend when he dressed to play on the court and now he's on the way to becoming another on the sidelines for Khimki Moscow Region. As a player, Kurtinaitis played on a few teams during his 20-year career, but he always gravitated towards Zalgiris Kaunas, where he spent nine seasons.
It has been 18 years since Kurtinaitis started his coaching career, and eight of those have been at the helm of Khimki Moscow Region, a young club that was born in 1997 and strived for greatness since opening day.
"You should ask the club owners why I have been here such a long time!" Kurtinaitis laughs. "I am just doing my job, we have some titles, we play sometimes good, sometimes not so good..."
"Sometimes not just the talent wins you games, but the hunger."
Just a couple of years after its founding, Khimki had already earned a spot in the Korac Cup, putting its name on the European basketball map. A few years later, the club started playing in the EuroCup and was always ambitious about going as far as possible. In 2009, Khimki club went to the title game against Rytas Vilnius of Lithuania, coached by Kurtinaitis. What happened next was not expected by many.
"At that time we were talking about club budgets, and nobody thought Rytas was favorite because of that," Kurtinaitis remembers. "Khimki had names like [Jorge]Garbajosa, [Carlos] Delfino, [Timofey] Mozgov, [Maciej] Lampe... Some of the best players in the world were in that super-team. Maybe they did not respect us, I don't know what happened, but we played at 150 percent. Sometimes not just the talent wins you games, but the hunger. And that day, we at Rytas were hungrier than Khimki, and it was my first big title."
As fate would have it, Khimki did not waste any time in hiring Kurtinaitis for the following season.
"I think that game got me close to coaching Khimki, because the directors saw how I worked and that was a big step for me towards big basketball," he says.
Since then, Kurtinaitis has managed to take Khimki to two EuroCup titles and has made of the club a staple in the EuroLeague, the top competition on the continent. He has coached there for a total of eight seasons now, making theirs a match that definitely works.
"All of us - — coaches, players - — have goals in life. And when you reach one, you then have another purpose. And this club gives you a good chance, because sometimes you may have many ideas but no possibility to realize them," Kurtinaitis says. "You need special players in order to build the team you want, and sometimes clubs cannot provide that. Khimki is great for me because we are strong enough to sign solid players who allow us to win some titles."
During the 2015-16 Top 16, Kurtinaitis was even let go when the season was not looking as good for Khimki as both the club and the coach had imagined.
"The results were not bad, I think, but definitely not what we wanted," he says now. "We missed the playoffs by just one win."
Just a few years later, Kurtinaitis was called back to the team to help reverse a situation similar to the one in which he found himself in 2016.
"The coach is just a soldier, he comes and goes," Kurtinaitis says. "So this time it was my turn to arrive in the middle of the battle."
Kurtinaitis is convinced that his many years playing with Soviet teams in the 1980s have helped him all these years when coaching Khimki.
"The coach is just a soldier, he comes and goes."
"I am not Russian, I am Lithuanian, but most of my youth I spent in the Soviet Union and I know their mentality, their systems and I have better contacts with the Russian players," he said. "Mentally, I was closer to them, so I think that was the biggest reason that they called me back."
Since his return during the 2018-19 season, Kurtinaitis has found a stable place on the Khimki bench. He is one of the longest-serving coaches on a EuroLeague bench and he trusts that his relationship with the club will go on for even longer.
"I think that the club trusts me," he said. "They believe in my work, so that's why I stayed here for so long."