Autukaitė spoke exclusively to the Lithuania Tribune about her career and the Lithuanian women‘s national team.
How does it all start?
I started to play basketball in Vilnius, Lithuania at the city basketball school. I started at a very young age and at that time they didn’t have my age group and I started to play with older girls and when I was 15 I was invited to play for the national team. I played in the under 16, under 18 and under 20 national teams. That was actually how I started to play.
Why did you decide to go play for an American college instead of playing in strong European clubs?
The most important reason was school and academics. I think that the United States has the best program for students who are athletes. It is very balanced here. You are going to classes but they will never clash with any practice or home game. Sometimes we have to travel to away matches, however the professors are informed about it and they are working with us. As I said, the most important thing to me was to get an education since I won‘t play basketball for the rest of my life, so my decision to come to the US based on the fact that it is the best place to combine education and basketball.
How did you manage to combine your studies with the practices and the travel for away matches?
It’s called time management. I think that it is important to learn how to manage your time, and it is important how you’ve been raised. When I was in Lithuania and played for local teams, and went to school, I still had good grades and studied well. It depends on personality. If you really want everything it is possible. But coming to the US and doing it is not the easiest thing, but I am getting a lot of assistance from the university.
After being on several youth national teams, why, in your opinion, are you not a part of a national team today? Does the fact that you are playing in the US play a role in that you are not playing for Lithuania?
I would say yes, because I think that the national coach doesn‘t follow us in the colleges in the US, because there are many of us (Lithuanian basketball players who are playing for US colleges). They have a theory that the players who are playing for colleges don‘t improve and don‘t get better. I don’t want to say that, but no one saw me playing for the Lithuanian team. Each coach as his own vision and you need to build a team of players that you can see. If you can’t see a player you don‘t know what he can do. When I came to the US I knew that it will be much harder to show myself rather than if I stayed in Europe.
After six years in an American college, can you point to a main difference between college basketball and European basketball?
The main difference is that here the basketball is a more physical, and it is faster. A lot of people think that American basketball players are selfish, but that’s not the case. I learned that coaches are working here more on defense and on a team basketball game. So it is becoming similar to European basketball.
After you finish college what are your plans?
I am graduating in May. I think I will continue on to a master’s degree. But according to the local laws, you can only play four years for a college team, so I don‘t have a chance to play for them. Therefore, my idea is going for coaching, to learn more about coaching. I would like to be a coach’s assistant during the two years of my master’s degree, and to see if I like it or not. Also, maybe I will come back to Europe to play there for a couple of years but I haven’t decided anything yet.
The WNBA is an option for you?
I don‘t think so. It is a lot of competition to get there and you have to be realistic about your abilities to play basketball. It is a different level and ability there.
In your opinion, in Lithuania how is women‘s basketball popularity compared to men‘s basketball?
Talking to friends in Lithuania and in European basketball I can see that people that attend the games are increasing and it is becoming more and more popular.
What is the level of the women‘s Lithuanian league compared to the other European leagues?
It is not a secret that the Lithuanian league level is not high as is Spain, Italy or France. There are not enough players. In Lithuania there are two or three teams that are really good, but the rest are not. They have good young players, but they are not experienced enough. Compared to Europe, the Lithuanian league is a little bit behind so far.
What skills did you bring to college basketball from European basketball?
I think that it was being a team. I think that it is a key fact when I look at basketball. There is a reason why you have five people running on the court and that is your team. I think that a lot of coaches are looking for that. They are looking for European players because they know that we work hard and play team basketball.
While the men‘s national team is taking the fourth place in the world, the women‘s team is taking 25th place. Why is that?
We are now in a period in which the generation is changing. I truly believe that the team that they have right now, the players who were born between 1988 and 1992, are really talented players. I played with several of them in youth national teams and it will take several years but we will move up. It looks very promising. We will gain more experience and we will be a very good team.
In your opinion, what is lacking in the national team in order to be a top 10 European team?
The most important is competition. The majority of the players are still playing in Lithuania where the competition is not tough. They have two good teams that know that they are going to win in any case. And when you are playing for the national teams then all the teams in the competition are good and a lack of competition in the league is due to lack of experience. Because if you are playing more than once a week and you have a few good teams, it is the best way to get experience.
Does the basketball federation financially support women‘s basketball or does all the money go to men‘s basketball?
It’s always been like that and it is everywhere. Men‘s basketball compared to women‘s basketball always gets more money. NBA players are getting much more than WNBA players. Here in collage, the men’s basketball budget is bigger. I think that it is unfair and the country has to fix it and the federation as well. Maybe sending the women‘s national team to more competitions and tournaments will bring more experience for the girls. And in the end it will bring results, but if you don‘t have money you can‘t afford that.
Why is it popular that Lithuanian sportsmen are living Lithuania and traveling to play for US colleges? Why is that happening?
I think that the most important reason is the opportunity to see and to learn another culture and of course to get a good education. It is the best place to combine studies and professional sports. The young people who want to travel, to see the world and to learn the language and the competition here are really good; you have competitive teams and very professional coaches. You have everything here for getting better: you have facilities, you have coaches, you have trainers and very good conditions. The coaches here take care of you not only as a basketball player but as a person as well.
In your crazy schedule, do you have free time? What are your hobbies?
I don‘t actually have free time. We do a lot of traveling, so I think that traveling is one of the things that I love to do. I like movies, I am watching a lot of movies when I have free time, but I don‘t really have much free time.
What is the toughest thing for you being aboard so far away from home?
I guess the toughest thing is being away from family, from my parents and my sister. The entire family is still there in Lithuania. Not to see them and to be part of their daily life, it is probably the toughest thing. It was a family decision and they know that it is the best thing for me. Being away from family and friends it is very hard and of course I miss the food.
Do you see yourself ten years from now still in basketball or doing something else?
I can‘t really tell what I will do. I started coaching kids one year ago when I was injured, and I liked it and enjoyed it. I am thinking about coaching. I would like to be around basketball in using my business degree or in coaching, but I see myself doing something that connects to sports, not necessarily basketball.
Do you feel disappointed that you are not a part of the national team today?
I don‘t think that I am disappointed, but I think that here in college there a lot of good and talented players and they don‘t get a chance and that’s what hurts. I think that we can bring something different to the table. I have been here for six years and getting another experience that can bring something different to the national team. It was my decision to leave to the United States and who knows, maybe if I was staying in Europe the story would be different. And of course I wish them the best.
If you could convince the head coach of the national team to take you, what would you say to him?
I think that the most important thing is that I can bring something different to the team from my experience here playing under different coaches and in different levels and learned a little bit different basketball. I would like to get a chance to prove myself to him. I am dedicated and self-disciplined to prove myself to people. Changes are always good.
After six years in the United States, where do you feel more at home? In the US or in Lithuania?
Home is home. It doesn’t matter how many years you are away, getting to Lithuania feels like home. There is no need for any adaptation because you know the people and the country; it is the place where you have grown up. Whether I am living in Lithuania or in the US, for studies and basketball I am feeling at home here. I am feeling more at home in Lithuania.
Tell the readers something that no one knows about you.
There are few things, related to sports. I had 58 injuries during my college career. The other thing, that I was the president of the student body during the last year.
Try to answer the first thing that you think about to the next ten terms:
1. Basketball – love
2. Retiring – soon
3. Home – family
4. Your dream – big
5. Best feeling – reaching the goals
6. Turnover (basketball term) – get better next time
7. Relationship – strong
8. Your inspiration – family
9. National team – promising
10. Cepelinai – skanus (Tasty in Lithuanian)
The Lithuanian college basketball players are away from home and from the eyes of the coaches, but it looks like it’s worthwhile to start to follow them, and not only in basketball. They are talented enough, they have gained experience, and they can bring new features to Lithuanian basketball. As to Radvilė Autukaitė, she is ready and waiting for her call.
Edited by Paul Moriarty