Senior Spring: Featuring Gabas Maldunas ’15

by Ray Lu | 4/8/15 6:02pm

04.09.2015.sports_Courtesy-of-Gabas-Maldunas
04.09.2015.sports_Courtesy of Gabas Maldunas

A boy from Panevezys, Lithuania, has taken over Dartmouth basketball. No doubt you’ve seen the SportsCenter Top 10 highlight by now — a Yale University player swats a full court in-bounds pass from Miles Wright ’18 out of bounds with 1.9 seconds to play. Down by one, Dartmouth is given one last chance.

The play unfolds quickly. John Golden ’15 in-bounds from under the hoop. Wings Wright and Connor Boehm ’16 clear out of the paint, taking their defenders with them. Maldunas starts near the corner of the court. Alex Mitola ’16 fakes out his defender and sets a screen on Maldunas’ man. Maldunas curls around the left elbow. Golden’s pass is perfect. The soft lay-in with the right hand. And-one.

“[Golden] made the pass to me, [Mitola] set a great screen and the rest is history,” Maldunas said after the game.

The next day, national media buzzed about the ensuing Yale-Harvard Ivy League playoff. Dartmouth, maybe rightfully so, was relegated to an afterthought.

“This really hurts Yale more than it helps Dartmouth, right?” one ESPN commentator joked.

There is little talk about the game-winner itself, and even less about the player that shot it. But that’s just fine by Maldunas. All that mattered to him was his family in the stands.

Maldunas’ parents still live in the same town in which he was born. Panevezys is one of the largest cities in Lithuania ­— in other words, it’s about the size of Hartford, Connecticut.

“It’s just a neat town,” Maldunas said. “Pretty casual. I really like it there. It’s quiet, nothing crazy.”

His final regular season game marked the first time in seven years that both his brother and his father were able to see him play.

Growing up, Maldunas was the youngest of three children. His older brother, Aurimas, is 10 years older, and his sister, Rugile, has seven years on him as well. Naturally, everyone took care of the baby of the family.

Maldunas’ basketball career wasn’t love at first sight. Recruiters began scouting him as early as the second grade, but his first season was nearly his last. He didn’t like basketball at first and wanted to quit, but his parents and older brother made him continue playing.

“I’ve got to thank them for that now,” Maldunas said.

There’s no doubt that Maldunas has an athletic family background. His brother used to play basketball, and his parents were both rowers in college and captains of their respective boats, which is how they met and got married.

His life in his hometown was relatively normal. Basketball and studying took up most of his time. When he did have free time, Maldunas would often hang out with his twin cousins, but in Lithuania that often meant basketball as well.

“[Basketball] is huge [in Lithuania] — everyone talks about basketball,” Maldunas said. “Everyone knows lots of stuff about the [National Basketball Association], every Lithuanian player.”

In Lithuania, basketball teams aren’t typically associated with schools, Maldunas said. Talented kids go to school during the day and then practice with their teams after school. Both the government and private organizations sponsor basketball programs.

Maldunas’s favorite team growing up was BC Lietuvos rytas, a professional squad based out of Lithuania’s capital city, Vilnius. The seven-hour time difference made it difficult for him to watch NBA games, and he hadn’t even heard of March Madness or the popularity of college basketball until he arrived in the states.

When Maldunas was 15, he attended a basketball camp with a couple of his friends. While the camp wasn’t intended for recruiting, he was noticed anyways. Stepas Kairys, a famous former-coach-turned-agent in Lithuania, approached Maldunas and pitched him the idea of playing in an American prep school to try to earn a college scholarship. Kairys had facilitated a Lithuania-to-United States pipeline for years and produced many college players across the U.S.

Even if it meant sending their youngest halfway across the globe, the Maldunas family made the decision. They wanted the best for their son. After his freshman year of high school in Lithuania, Maldunas packed his bags for Holderness School in Plymouth, New Hampshire.

He said his first year wasn’t easy, but Maldunas quickly learned to adjust. Communication and cultural barriers were initially problematic for Maldunas, despite his English training back home. The easiest language was basketball.

Playing in the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council, a breeding ground for college athletes, Maldunas quickly picked up on the NCAA system. After his first season, he knew that he wanted to go to an Ivy League college. At the time, however, he wasn’t sure which one.

His big breakout came the summer after his junior year season on the AAU circuit, and soon after the offers started coming in, he committed to Brown University in August.

Maldunas had a falling out with the coaches later that year and de-committed from Brown, but found himself with limited options after having previously told other interested schools that he was already taken.

At nearby Dartmouth, however, head coach Paul Cormier had just returned for his second stint and reached out to Maldunas for his first recruiting class.

“In December of my senior year, Dartmouth came,” Maldunas said. ”And then I really liked it... And even though Dartmouth was not that good in the past, it was just exciting to come here and try to change the culture. I knew that good things were coming.”

At the end of his senior year of high school, Maldunas earned Honorable Mention honors in Class AA NEPSAC, a division that included current NBA players such as Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and Nikolas Stauskas.

To enter the second phase of his basketball journey, Maldunas didn’t have to move nearly as far. Hanover was recognizable to Maldunas, if only because of the familiar New England weather and the private-school vibe.

When Cormier returned to the College in April 2010, the team was in disarray, but no one expected much else. That following season, the Big Green finished 5-23 and 1-13 in the Ivy League, the exact same record from the year before.

The next year marked the first wave of Cormier’s recruits, including one fresh-faced Lithuanian.

“Seeing how close he is with his family showed me how sincere he is,” Cormier told The Dartmouth in February. “I knew he would work hard for the team.”

In 2011, Dartmouth finished 5-25 and won just one game in the Ivy League again, marking three consecutive last-place finishes in the conference. Lesson learned — rebuilding takes time.

It was clear, however, that the Class of 2015 was going to make an impact. Three of the top four scorers on the team were freshmen, including Maldunas and Golden.

“Coming in we thought we could climb mountains and beat everyone. We weren’t scared of anyone,” Maldunas said. “We didn’t really know how hard it [was] to win at a Division I level.”

The next season, Cormier brought in more help. Mitola, a point guard, started every game his freshman year, and Boehm also played in every game. The two finished second and third in scoring, respectively, behind Maldunas.

The team improved to 9-19 that year and went 5-9 in the Ivy League. There were promising whispers coming out of Hanover after the Big Green swept their final weekend against Cornell and Columbia.

Maldunas’ junior year, however, would prove much more challenging than expected.

The fickle nature of Ivy League sports, and college sports in general, means that player retention is never a guarantee. At the more competitive levels, schools like the University of Kentucky and Duke University produce waves and waves of one-and-done student-athletes who leave school early for the professional game.

In the Ivy League, however, there are different factors at play. Combine competitive nationwide recruiting and elite academics and you end up with few athletes who stay in their sport for all four years. Furthermore, prospects of playing at the next level are generally bleak.

The squad from the previous year already lacked experience, with captain Matt Labove ’13 and Tyler Melville ’14 as the only senior and junior, respectively. Fellow Class of 2015 recruit Jvonte Brooks, who led the Big Green in scoring as a rookie, switched sports to football after his sophomore season, which ended early due to an injury. Entering the 2013-2014 season, Maldunas and Golden joined Melville as the only upperclassmen on the team.

The year opened up well. The team rattled off a four-game win streak and hovered at 0.500 entering Ivy League play. Then, in practice before a rematch against Harvard, Maldunas blew out his knee. Without Maldunas’ inside presence, the Big Green was handed a 30-point loss and allowed Harvard to shoot 66 percent from the field.

The team scraped through the rest of the season, finishing 12-16. Though the team improved, thoughts of what could have been persisted. Maldunas took his time off as an opportunity to learn more about himself.

“I feel like things happen for a reason, so that was a reason for me to think about other things rather than just basketball,” Maldunas said. “[I was] focusing on being better in other ways. Being a better teammate on and off the court and helping the guys get together and win games.”

The injury never kept Maldunas down. Easy-going yet determined, he refused to let his knee devastate him. Having overcome so much already, including being apart from his family for over seven years, Maldunas worked tirelessly toward his rehabilitation. When he entered his senior season, the entire town looked forward to his return.

And that leads us to that fateful night in Leede Arena. Maldunas was playing in what he thought to be his last game. Dartmouth had the opportunity to finish at or above 0.500 for the first time since the 1998-1999 season. This win would also make them postseason eligible.

When I spoke to Maldunas on campus after the game, he hinted that his season was not over. On March 18, The Big Green took on Canisius College in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament in their first postseason game in 56 years. While they lost 87-72, they had already won their season in more ways than one.

“I could see a big difference in how other people looked at us,” Maldunas said. “Before we were just a basketball team. Not that good or anything, just another team on campus.”

Afterwards, Maldunas said he realized how much people wanted them to succeed. Beginning after the upset win against Harvard, he said people began coming up to him on the street, congratulating him on a big win. By the end of the season, kids lined up around players after the game asking for autographs. The players looked like they had just as much fun signing posters and T-shirts as the little ones did receiving them.

Maldunas is still working out with the team, as he is searching for an agency with plans to play professionally in Europe.

“I’m telling them I want to play somewhere in Germany or Italy or Spain, maybe in Lithuania,” Maldunas said.

Maldunas knows that he has a long journey ahead of him. He will have to make a name for himself in the lower leagues before making his way up the ranks.

“[I’m] not really nervous, just excited for the next step,” Maldunas said. “I’ve been here for four years, and as much as I like it here, it still comes a time when I have to leave. So, I’m just excited to make that next step.”

As for the basketball team, the loss of Maldunas will unquestionably hurt, but his impact and legacy will survive long after he graduates.

On Feb. 14, Maldunas became the 26th Dartmouth basketball player to score 1,000 points. In an interview after the game, he told me it was an honor to be included in the ranks of players such as Rudy LaRusso ’59 and Alex Barnett ’09.

I’m looking forward to when the next generation talks about their Dartmouth basketball heroes, including one Gabas Maldunas, from the small, quiet city of Panevezys, Lithuania.