What’s the Matter With Lithuania?

John Hollinger has a good question:

Here’s a story somebody ought to cover: How Lithuania is at all competitive in basketball. Lithuania has only 3.6 million people, or slightly less than the population of Oregon. It’s about 1/80th the size of the U.S. and 1/11th as big as Spain or Argentina.

And though it didn’t win a medal in Beijing, it reached the semifinals once again — something it’s done in all five Olympic tournaments since independence. And before that, the country essentially won a gold medal in 1988 (all but one key player on the Soviet team was Lithuanian).

What’s more, not only did they make the semis this time around, they did so without the services of two (Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Darius Songaila) of their three NBA players and with European star Arvydas Macijauskas also out. As everyone knows, to succeed at basketball you need tall people. Not only do even your backcourt players need to be tall, but you need to be able to pull several freakishly tall big men together. It seems inconceivable that such a tiny country could manage to field so many quality basketball players consistently over an extended period of time no matter how basketball-mad the country may be. Is Vilnius just full of people 6’8″ and taller?