A beautiful home in Georgetown, Ont., on a snowy April day was the scene of an unexpected tutorial on world history, determination and a reminder of how sport can unite us across generations.
The instructor is a 93-year-old landed immigrant from Lithuania who is as concerned with the fourth quarter usage of Toronto Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas as she is with ensuring her offering of Lithuanian treats are consumed.
Her name is Genovaite Birute Kasperavicius. She was born in Raseiniai, Lithuania on April 30, 1925 to loving parents Anastazija Stonys and Juozas Miksys. On this day she insists on being referred to as “Mociute,” which translates loosely in English to “Grandma.”
Soon, we’ll come to understand why her love of basketball — and the Raptors young centre — is so closely linked to her history and that of her homeland.
Today, Lithuania is a small Eastern European nation of just under three million people. During the Second World War, the country was occupied by the then-Soviet Union and it remained behind the Iron Curtain until 1990 when it became the first Soviet republic to announce its secession from the USSR.
In 1939, just prior to the Soviet occupation, Lithuania enjoyed one of its proudest moments as an independent nation when it hosted and won the European Basketball Championship. Lithuania might be the only European nation where basketball, and not soccer, is the most popular sport.
But unfortunately for Kasperavicius, the highs of that European Championship win would soon give way to a much darker period in her country’s history.
When she was 15, Kasperavicius and her family hid on riverbanks as they watched the German and Red Armies fight on their family farmland for control of their country.
As this was taking place, Lithuanian Jews were being executed in the woods after digging their own graves.
“My friends died there,” Kasperavicius recalls. “They were in the high school. We went to look for them (but) everything had been bombed.”
Amidst the chaos of a war taking place in her backyard, Kasperavicius became separated from her parents when she left home to get treatment for a toothache but was then moved to another town when the fronts moved. For a year, Kasperavicius’ parents had no idea what had happened to her.
While most of her family was deported to Siberia, Kasperavicius was able to escape the country and find refuge, first in Frankfurt, Germany with Polish, Latvian, Estonian and fellow Lithuanian refugees. Eventually, Kasperavicius would find herself in the hillside of Schwandorf, where she hid with fellow Lithuanian refugees until May 7, 1945 when they were rescued by American soldiers.
Kasperavicius’ parents learned she was alive after receiving a letter from her, written and left with one of the American soldiers who had found her in Schwandorf. The soldier sent the letter to the U.S. to his own parents, who then took it to the Red Cross, who in turn were able to locate Kasperavicius’ parents.
Kasperavicius was now free, but unable to return to Lithuania as it had been fully annexed by the Soviet Union following the defeat of the Nazis at the end of the war. So she decided to start over in a new land and moved to Canada. After docking in Quebec, and following a stop in Prince George, B.C., she eventually found her way to Ontario where she settled in Wasaga Beach area.
She would marry a fellow Lithuanian, Feliksas Kasperavicius, whom she raised four children with. Feliksas died 25 years ago. Two years ago, Kasperavicius moved in with her daughter, Aldona. Today she is a grandmother of 13 and a great-grandmother of two.
“Oh my God, Canada is the best place,” she says of her decision to come here. “When I came, after 30 years I went home (to Lithuania] for the first time. I said, ‘Thank God I am here in Canada.’ The people are very nice. And you work, you get paid. You are equal.”
During the Soviet occupation, Lithuanians were robbed of many things, their independence chief among them. They were also deprived of the ability to field a basketball team with their country’s name across the players’ chests. During the Soviet era, Lithuania’s elite basketball players were forced to play for the USSR.
At the 1998 Seoul Olympics, the Soviets won gold in men’s basketball, defeating a U.S. squad featuring the likes of David Robinson, Danny Manning, Dan Majerle and Mitch Richmond. John Thompson was their head coach.
Four of the five starters for the USSR in that gold medal game were Lithuanian. In fact, the four were all from the same Lithuanian city: Kaunas. Among them were basketball Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis, former NBA player Sarunas Marciulionis and international greats Valdemaras Chomicius and Rimas Kurtinaitis.
Four years later at the Barcelona Games, following the fall of the Soviet Union a year earlier, a now-independent Lithuania found itself in the bronze medal men’s basketball game, where it would defeat “Team Unified,” a team comprised mostly of Russians.
According to Kasperavicius, the bronze medal win at the Barcelona Games is the proudest sporting moment in Lithuania’s history.
“Everybody celebrated,” she explains. “There were flags and flowers and everything.”
During her time in Canada, to help her feel connected to her homeland, Kasperavicius has made a point of watching Olympic basketball. When the Raptors came into existence in 1995, she developed a new pastime. And when a Lithuanian-born centre made his debut for the Raptors, her fandom went to the next level.
Today, Kasperavicius refers to Raptors coach Dwane Casey as her “boyfriend” and she worries about him during close games.
“He is so responsible for the team,” she says. “I can see how he walks. He is so tense. My poor friend. He suffers so much when they lose.”
As the 2017-18 regular season was drawing to a close, Kasperavicius had yet to see her beloved Raptors play in person. But that changed last month when she was presented with a pair of tickets to finally watch them play live.
During the pre-game warmup, she was treated to a surprise visit by Valanciunas, who was all too happy to share a brief conversation with her, in their native tongue.
“I wanted to kiss him but it would have been inappropriate if I did!” Kasperavicius tells her daughter after Valanciunas signs a jersey and poses for pictures. “This is the best night of my life,” she says following the encounter. “I feel dizzy, like I’m drunk. I’m so happy.”
The 25-year-old Valanciunas and the 93-year-old Kasperavicius arrived at the Air Canada Centre that night via the same part of the world, but after taking very different journeys to get there. They are united by a shared love of basketball and a homeland that arguably loves the game more than any other.
On this night they are both freely and proudly representing Lithuania, something Kasperavicius knows all too well history never guaranteed them.