‘A second religion’: Lithuanian senior Lukas Kisunas on basketball, camaraderie

Jan. 24, 2022, 10:30 p.m.

This article is part of a running series The Daily’s Sports staff will be publishing on seniors.

Senior Lukas Kisunas is a six-foot-ten forward from Lithuania. The Vilnius native was rated as the fifth-best overall prospect in 2018 coming out of Lithuania. He represented his home country in the 2017 FIBA Under-18 Division A European Championships, where he helped Lithuania finish third overall. Off the court, Kisunas is a two-time Pac-12 Academic Honor Roll student (2020 and 2021) and an NABC Honors Court honoree (2021). The Daily’s Noah Maltzman spoke with him about his basketball journey from Lithuania to Palo Alto, his special bond with Stanford and his future plans at Stanford and beyond.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you start out with basketball? Was there any specific story? Was there anything that happened in your childhood that really drew you to basketball? Or just describe that first interaction and how you fell in love with it.

Lukas Kisunas (LK): Basketball is pretty big in Lithuania, and people will refer to it as a “second religion.” So obviously it has a big tradition, a big following for basketball. But I didn’t really get into basketball until fourth grade, when my best friend at the time was playing at one of the basketball academies. Obviously, I was way taller for my age compared to other kids. So they invited me, and I started going — and I have been playing basketball ever since.

TSD: You’ve mentioned how it’s like a second religion when it comes to basketball. Were there any cultural or societal differences in terms of basketball there versus the U.S.?

LK: The thing was that I felt like the players in the U.S. were on average, a little bit more skilled individually and that basketball focused more on one-on-one. That wasn’t focused on in Lithuania and throughout Europe. I feel like growing up for most of your life, it’s fundamental to play as a team. So that was kind of like a little bit of a shock, but I’ve been fortunate to be on the team that actually cared about each other — there was not too much hero-ball going on.

TSD: How did this tug-of-war between the individual and team in basketball translate to when you first came to Brewster Academy in New Hampshire?

LK: It reminded me of my time on the Lithuanian national team, because I played for a couple of youth teams growing up, and it seemed to me like a bunch of talent was thrown into the same team to see what was going to come out of it — so it was really fun. I really enjoyed all the guys there; they were amazing people and even better basketball players.

TSD: You played for Lithuania in the 2017 FIBA 18-years division and helped them to get third place. How is that leadership of being on the national team similar or different to the role that you’re currently playing at Stanford, especially as a senior and as a leader of this team after four years?

LK: I think one of the main goals that both teams — Stanford and Lithuania — have is a very direct message: “The team comes first, no matter what happens.” My coach back when I was playing for the Lithuanian national team said to us, “You only care about what’s on the front of the jersey. All the accolades, promotions and everything else will come for what is written on the back.” This motto is similar at Stanford. Everybody tries to put the team ahead of themselves. That’s the thing that matters. And for leadership, I think it is just keeping ourselves accountable. You know, everybody knows what we’re working toward. Everybody has the same goal in mind, keeping each other accountable, working hard every day and putting your best foot forward.

TSD: When you were going to commit to different colleges, you had offers from UConn, Purdue and Illinois, who have now produced some really great front-court players. What drew you to head coach Jerod Haase at Stanford? Was there anything that the recruiters or coach Haase did that made you especially interested in Stanford?

LK: It was a new experience for me, and Stanford really wasn’t big on my radar in the beginning. UConn was one of the bigger names for me, and I originally committed to them. However, they had coaching and staff changes, so it basically reopened my recruiting. Stanford was still there for me. I got to build a better relationship with the coaches — with [associate head coach] Adam [Cohen] and coach Haase. And the thing that really kind of put it above all the other teams was a sense of family and camaraderie. They reminded me of the national team, where everybody was on the same page. Now, all the coaches are there for me. You know, people always say that Stanford is a lifelong decision. So that was one of the things, and coach Haase has been everywhere as a player: he’s been to the NCAA tournament, winning it as an assistant coach, and he’s obviously trying to do that as a head coach now. The whole supporting staff of coaches were amazing, too. They are great at developing talent, as you can see from the number of NBA players that Stanford has produced in the last couple of years, so it was more of getting to know them better than I did before. So I think if I would have known about Stanford more in the beginning I probably would have committed to them from the beginning.

TSD: We kind of talked about your early days, but as you’re coming through your senior year, potentially your last year unless you use the COVID exception rule — has Stanford been what you expected?

LK: It’s been way more than I expected. Honestly, I didn’t know what I was going to get myself into coming into college, and especially playing basketball. Stanford has exceeded my expectations more than I could have ever dreamed or thought about. From the people I met, the places we’ve been, the relationships that we’ve built with players, donors, former players, just the things we’ve been through together I guess on the court, it’s it. It’s been way more than I could ever have dreamed up or thought about it. 

TSD: And last question: if this is your last year, what are the plans for the future? And after graduation, what will be going on in the Kisunas life?

LK: The plan right now is probably trying to get a master’s — so potentially come back. But if not, I’ll definitely try to play basketball somewhere. I am still young, so I have a couple of years ahead of me. I’d love to play basketball professionally, whether it be in the States or somewhere in Europe. And then after that, I hope to use my Stanford connections to get something going after basketball.

This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Noah Maltzman is a staff writer for the sports section. He is originally from Philadelphia but has lived in the Bay Area since 2015. Noah is a sophomore who plans on majoring within the STEM field. He is a Michigan and Detroit sports fan, despite never living in the state of Michigan. In fact, he initially brought more Michigan paraphernalia to college than Stanford apparel. Contact him at sports 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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