Feb. 4, 2011
Basketball brings Simanavicius to America
By David Boyce
Arunas Simanavicius will be fired up 3:30 p.m. Saturday when Northwest Missouri State takes on Pittsburg State at Bearcat Arena.
As far as the MIAA standings, the game won't have much impact. Despite pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the season a week ago with a win at No. 7 ranked Fort Hays State, the Bearcats are struggling for victories.
Of course, Simanavicius, a 6-foot-6 senior forward, wishes the team was more successful. But regardless if the Bearcats are going through a good stint or not, Simanavicius remains excited about playing basketball.
He grew up in Kaunas, Lithuania, where he says basketball is nearly considered a religion.
For Simanavicius, the sport has changed his life in ways that only International student-athletes in this country can truly understand and appreciate.
The little things mean a lot to Simanavicius, who is in his second year at Northwest after spending his first two collegiate years at Eastern Wyoming Community College.
The glee in Simanavicius' voice was pretty much the same when he talked about the International Flag Plaza at Northwest as when he talked about the 12 rebounds he pulled down in the win over Fort Hays State.
It's a Northwest tradition on the day before the homecoming football game International students are selected to raise flags of their country in the annual ceremony.
"It's fun to raise your flag in the fall. It's pretty cool," he said.
Simanavicius' skills on the basketball court have allowed him to experience different cultures in his young life.
Those abilities first took him to Charlotte, N.C., for his senior year in high school. A lot of International basketball players spend a season in high school in the United States to acclimate them to the language and culture before heading to college.
Even though Simanavicius had studied English since the sixth grade, it took him a while to adjust.
"It is different from learning in class and the way people speak," he said. "It was kind of hard when I came here. It took a month to get what people were saying. The first month was kind of hard to understand. But slowly I learned."
He adjusted well enough to land a scholarship to Eastern Wyoming Community College in Torrington, Wy. The population is 5,700 people.
The size of the town was another adjustment for Simanavicius, who was accustomed to city life.
"It was like cowboys and stuff," he said. "But it was really a good two years. My freshman year we won our region and went to nationals. It was great as far as basketball. It was one of my best basketball years in my life.
"I met some really nice people there. It was a different experience and one I will probably never experience again. I don't think I will live in a small town. But it was good to see."
While at Eastern Wyoming, Simanavicius averaged 11.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in his sophomore year. It was good enough to become one of Ben McCollum's first recruits.
"He brings a lot of toughness," McCollum said. "His number one objective is to win the game. He doesn't have much of an ego where he thinks about himself. He just wants to win the game. It doesn't matter how he wins it or what he has to do to win it, he just wants to do that. He brings that toughness and competitiveness."
Simanavicius played in all 27 games last season and started 13 of them for the Bearcats. He averaged 4.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
His numbers are pretty similar this season. He's averaging 4.7 points and 4.4 rebounds.
But sometimes his best work doesn't show up in the box score.
"He's one of our better rebounders even though statistically he's not," McCollum said. "He guards the other team's best player so a lot of times he's not under the hoop to grab the rebound. A lot of rebounding is one guy box out and the other guy gets all the glory. He's one of the guys who blocks out."
Simanavicius, though, is one of countless examples across the college landscape in the United States in which success is not really measured in wins or loses, placing first or second in an individual events or receiving plaques or medals.
Obviously, that's what every student-athlete and coach is striving for in hours and hours of practice. But the true measure is the personal growth of the individual during the college years.
"I hope they (International student-athletes) enjoy our culture," McCollum said. "I hope they grow from it and get better just like any college student who comes from the United States. You are trying to turn them into men. That's the most important thing."
Simanavicius has found plenty to enjoy during his time at Northwest.
"I really like these two years," he said. "I wish our seasons would have been better. But everything has been good. I like the players and the coaches. I really like the basketball in Division II. I'm happy I got to play both years and that's good."
There are many things Simanavicius likes about Kaunas, Lithuania. It's where his family lives. He went back home in each of his first four summers in the United States. He didn't go back last summer.
"The best thing about the city where I grew up is all my friends are there," he said. "I like the culture, but I can say the same thing about America."
As a student in Kaunas, Simanavicius heard all the stories about the many opportunities in the United States. He knew if he got the chance to come here that he was going to grab it.
You miss your family, he said.
"But this was an opportunity I really wanted," Simanavicius said. "I was excited. Back home we are a small country. Everybody knows about America. Having a chance to go to school there and play basketball is great. I was really excited. It made it easier to leave.
"It was really fun to learn all the American culture and understand how people think and see things. It's good. It's fun."
Simanavicius is majoring in financial services. When he earns his degree he hopes to stay in the United States. There are many reasons why.
"It seems like everybody is so nice here," he said. "Everybody is always smiling and asking how you are doing.
"The other thing about America is how much opportunity there is. There are so many schools you can choose from. You are really lucky to live here. You have everything here. That's the big difference from Lithuania."
David Boyce spent more than 20 years covering high school and small college athletics at the Kansas City Star newspaper in Missouri. He's covered six of Northwest Missouri State's seven national championship football games and recently served as a guest columnist for the MIAA.
Boyce was named KIAAA Sportswriter of the Year in 1994. He covered boxing at the Star from 1991-2004 including Tommy Morrison and worked both championship fights between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. His 1997 exclusive story on Morrison becoming HIV positive was named an Associated Press Sports Editor top 10 feature for papers serving more than 150,000.
Boyce was born in New York City and was raised in Kansas City, Kan. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1988 with a degree in journalism. He is currently one of three official scorers for the Kansas City Royals and is a contributing writer for the Royals Gameday magazine.
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