If Siim-Sander Vene, 25, a hoopster of Estonia’s national squad and versatile forward of Lithuanian basketball powerhouse Kaunas Žalgiris were to meet Santa Claus, or Jõuluvana, he would, unhesitating, ask him for a trauma-free new year and a sound sleep, perhaps. “Frankly, I sometimes need to grab a pill after the most nerve-racking games or before an early morning flight,” the basketballer admits. He insists he is over the moon with his life in Lithuania, his second home.
Siim, have you already decorated your Christmas tree?
Frankly, not yet. My wife and I need still to decide whether we will remain in Kaunas for the holidays, or go back to Estonia.
If you stumbled upon Jõuluvana, Estonian Santa Claus, is there anything special that you’d ask him for?
I’d definitely ask him to keep me healthy and trauma-free in the new year. A good health is what matters most when you are a professional sportsman. What else could I want? A year-round happiness and wins for the club. Frankly, I cannot come up with anything else off the top of my head now.
How is Christmas different in Lithuania and Estonia?
To tell the truth, over the nine years with Kaunas Žalgiris, I have never spent a Christmas here in Lithuania. I’d always go back to Estonia for it. This year may be an exception, though.
From what I hear from my teammates, the traditions are not much different. Unlike Lithuanians, in Estonia, we do not have the solemn Christmas Eve (Kūčios).
Can you remind all how you ended up in Lithuania?
Perhaps I had done well on the court that, at 15, Žalgiris offered me a long-term contract back in 2006. I obviously could not turn it down. I packed up quickly and turned up in the old Žalgiris arena. I spent a week in Kaunas before signing the contract with the club, which I am very proud of.
You can be deservedly called the elite Lithuanian club’s veteran now. What a baller needs to get a contract with it?
A lot is needed, frankly. Talent, stamina and brains, too. The psychological facet is important also among the other things.
Do you believe any Estonian pro basketball club come close to Žalgiris in terms of the depth of the organization?
I doubt it. Not currently. The Lithuanian club is known for its superb organization that is hard to match in the region.
Do you think Estonia’s national basketball team can beat Žalgiris, the best Lithuanian basketball club?
It’s hard to tell. But, remember, in the last European Basketball Championship we played point-to-point against each other [Lithuania edged out Estonia in qualifications in Riga only 74-72 - ed.].
What is the biggest difference between Lithuanian and Estonian basketball schools?
Again, it’s hard to tell. Both schools are good. Basketball is No1 sport in both Lithuania and Estonia. That tells a lot.
Because of the bigger population, Lithuania perhaps has more young talents available to choose from. Second, the buzz about the game is bigger in Lithuania. Definitely so. I am not surprised therefore that so many Lithuanian youngsters dream of becoming basketball players someday.
When will Estonia nab a European hoops champion’s title?
I think we all need to wait quite some time to see it happening, although the training conditions are quite similar both in Lithuania and Estonia.
How different is the best basketballers’ pay in Lithuania and Estonia?
Not that much different when it comes to the best players on internationally known roosters, to be honest. But compared to Lithuania, it is on a smaller end in Estonia.
Would you remorselessly depart with 20,000 euros from your pocket for a world cruise on a luxurious liner?
(Grins). It sounds to me like a lot of money, frankly. I am certainly not planning such a voyage next year. If it comes to planning a vacation, I think it will not be a world cruise. Honestly, I do not see myself idling at sea for so long. I do not have time for such an escape.
What would make perfect holidays for you?
A rush-free opportunity to spend some quality time with my friends and my family, of course. Any activity having to do with water would be a bonus on the wish vacation list.
You speak Lithuanian amazingly well. I cannot tell it is not your mother tongue. How did you manage to excel in the language?
Well, I credit my fellow Lithuanian teammates who, since my arrival here, started taking care of me and my Lithuanian. As I was 15 when I came here, I enrolled to a local school where the subjects were taught in Lithuanian. Besides, I have taken extra Lithuanian classes. So at the end, the language must have gotten pretty decent, I guess.
So good that you pass for a Lithuanian?
(Grins) Perhaps, as I don’t hear any more questions whether Lithuanian in my native tongue or not. Some folks get really surprised to hear that I am not Lithuanian.
Which language do you believe is harder- Estonian or Lithuanian?
Grammatically, neither language is easy. Still, I find Estonian a little bit more complicated. Who thinks otherwise is right, too.
Are there any Lithuanian words that you find funny?
Frankly, I still come upon new Lithuanian words which to me, an Estonian speaker, sound funny. Like the word kepyklėlė (meaning a small bakery in Lithuanian - L.J), which sounds very similarly to an Estonian word, which is kind of sexual and derogatory.
Is there anything you are missing from the Estonian lifestyle in Lithuania?
Sometimes I wish I was able to more frequently visit my family and friends back in Estonia. The longer I live in Lithuania, the rarer the visits are. Still, my heart is in Estonia, although Kaunas has become my second home.
Is there anything else besides good health you want to achieve in 2016?
I definitely want the club to win as many games as possible. What else a professional basketballer could wish for? When we win, it's the most uplifting experience. Wins do not come with a finger snap, however. There are many good teams out there in Lithuania.
Outside the court, the oars are in my hands and I have no complaints about how the boat sails. If it keeps the same track in the new year, I will be happy with it. Shake-ups, both on the court and off it, are what all the basketball players try to avoid. It doesn’t always depend on the will, though.
Can you tell us a bit about your wife, please?
She’s Estonian. And she plays basketball, too. This year, she’s with a team in Jonava.
Are you planning on adding a new Vene family member in 2016? A wrinklie, I mean?
I am not sure it is in our plans next year. We have a lot of time for that, I guess.
Are Lithuanian or Estonian girls easier to chat up?
(Pause) This is a hard one… There is not a big difference, I believe.
Do you overall find Estonia to be more liberal than Lithuania?
I reckon it depends on the people I find myself mingling with. Various people can be found in both countries.
Have you ever given a thought on what you would like to do after you hang up your sneakers?
Frankly, I’ve thought quite a lot about it, but I haven’t decided anything concrete in that regard. I hope this is something I will need to know for sure in 10 years. That is how long I plan to stay on the court.
If you were to choose between politics and business, what would you go for?
Definitely business, albeit not sure yet what it would be. Over the years, I’ve come up with a dozen business ideas, but none has gotten any flesh yet. As I said, I want to be 100 percent focused on what goes on now on the basketball court.
Do you see yourself coaching in the future?
I don’t think so. Really, no.
Was it basketball that you dreamt of when a kid?
Yes, definitely. I’ve never dreamt of becoming a policeman of a businessman in my childhood. I know that many kids tend to think about that. Not me. I am grateful to my school teachers who were not too hard on me. I mean scolding for missed classes because of the endless tournaments and trainings camps I had to be at.
Is there any rite you are following before a game?
I always do some stretches that the other teammates don’t. I believe they work well for me. Mentally, I am trying to never think too much of the coming competition or game. Otherwise I’d risk screwing up my game. Other guys tend to read books or listen to music before stepping out on the court, which I don’t do.
Can you always fall asleep easily after the game is over?
Not always. Most of the time, the adrenaline from the court is still rushing through your body before hitting the sack. It is part of a basketballer’s reality.
What do you do rolling awake in the bed?
If there’s an early morning flight, I sometimes grab a pill before the bedtime, or read a book.
Are you aware that Lithuanians tend to poke fun at Estonians as slowpoke folks? Does it upset you?
No, not at all. Let others judge about Estonians from our works, not the words.