Paulius Motiejūnas

VMU provided opportunities and helped save my dreams

Paulius Motiejūnas is executive director of the Lithuanian Basketball Federation, former CEO of Žalgiris Kaunas basketball team and VMU alum (BA in Public Administration, MA in Diplomacy and International Relations). Paulius spoke to us about basketball, politics and the influence of the university in his life.

What does the executive director of the Lithuanian Basketball Federation actually do?
For now, he is learning a lot. Winning a basketball championship is not an easy challenge for the federation, the city and all of Lithuania. I’m used to being active in basketball organization, but now I have to organize all of it and be prepared to get everyone where they need to be, make sure all of the orders are in place. Right now, my main responsibility is to make everything like clockwork, so that everything’s on time, everyone would get fed and feel safe inside the arena. It’s a tremendously interesting experience.
You acquired your Master’s degree in International Relations. Graduates of this field often work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or in diplomatic service. Is there any connection between your studies and what you’re doing now?
Of course there is. I often collaborate with the municipality and other state institutions, and that is especially related to my Public Administration Bachelor’s studies. Since I know the theory, I have a better understanding of it all in practice. I know why it happens the way it does, and why people act a certain way. The International Relations studies are useful when I have to communicate with people from foreign countries, or with international organizations. So the knowledge I acquired during my studies is applicable in practice, curiously enough, through basketball.
There is a term “sports diplomacy”. Do you have any experience with this?
While this area is still largely undeveloped, it has always interested me. I am doing my best to explore sports diplomacy during my Doctorate studies. But it’s also relevant in my daily life and work: I understand the unwritten rules and I’m trying to grasp them fully, apply them in life.
Does the authority of the state and its policies make it easier to collaborate with certain partners?
Of course. A lot has to do with the political system of the state. I notice this in international leagues, like FIBA. When teams from all over the world come together, you already know why certain players act the way they do. So you need to act accordingly, you need to know what they want and what they expect.
You mentioned before that you hail from Kaunas, which is the disputed “basketball capital” of Lithuania. Did you dream about working in basketball while growing up?
I never thought that I’d end up working in basketball administration. I always figured that I would be a player myself. This was the hope, and playing for Žalgiris was a dream that seemed reachable. VMU was the first step towards what I’m doing now. We were the first generation of players that studied, and we knew that we could always come back to playing sports professionally. But many of us never went back…The team was superb, but almost all of us wanted to study. VMU provided lots of opportunities to me. It kept alive my dream of becoming a basketball player and completing a higher education degree at the same time. I have VMU to thank for my career options.
You had some success playing for the VMU basketball team. Did you have enough time for school, basketball and all other activities?
Yes, I did. Sure, it wasn’t easy to keep re-adjusting: to go to lectures after work, and then to find the energy to play sports afterwards. But basketball was a part of my life, and I found my studies interesting. So that helped me find strength and arrange all of my activites. You just have to want something a lot and get used to the rhythm: then, everything is possible.
Was it hard to choose between playing professional basketball and continuing your studies?
Yes. We all thought we would be the next Kalnietis, Jankūnas or Mačiulis. But I was influenced by my parents, who always told me that I should finish the university for security in life. So it was hard to deal with all of these pressures, but I’ve never regretted my decision to study.
Why did you choose VMU? Surely, the choice of university wasn’t limited at the time.
For me as a Kaunas native, it always seemed that VMU is the place to be. I never really considered any other options.
What’s the best thing you took away from your studies at VMU?
The most valuable thing I took away was the learned ability to adapt to a different environment. The life of a basketball player is fairly simple: play, sleep, eat, play again. But as a student, you end up in a completely different atmosphere. You find yourself surrounded by people who read books and have a curiosity for learning and life. And these people approach life from a different perspective than basketball players. If you’re a player who can “jump” from your usual atmosphere to an academic one, that’s an ability of the highest value. It’s how you extend your horizons and find many new opportunities. I had great professors and colleagues at VMU that I still keep in contact with. It’s still a part of my life.
Mantas Kalnietis, Paulius Jankūnas and many other professional athletes have graduated from VMU and played for the university’s basketball team. What do you think, is the dual-track of sports plus studies primarily influenced by parents or is it more a result of simply thinking ahead?
That depends on the environment in which you were raised. It used to be really popular to leave for America, where the conditions to both work and play basketball were well-established. These conditions weren’t in place in Lithuania, and not everyone was brave enough to leave for America. So when we created the university team here, our goal was to offer the conditions that allow athletes to both play and study at the same time.
So you not only played the first year, but were also one of the team’s founders?
Well, this idea was presented to all of us, and it was an indirect attempt to lure us away from career in professional basketball. We were the guinea pigs, the first to blaze the trail.
Did any of these “guinea pigs” end up as a professional athlete?
Most of us decided to continue our studies, but there were some who chose to become professional athletes. After finishing my studies, I also tried to play in the Lithuanian Basketball League, but I found myself gravitating to a different way of life. When you realize that a basketball player’s career is very short and your ability is not even close to that of Mačiulis, Kalnietis or Jankūnas, you pick something else.
Why do basketball players study at VMU?
First of all, playing for the VMU basketball team is already somewhat of a legendary accomplishment. You go down in history for each time you win the league championship, the European championship, etc. Second, all of the players talk among themselves about where to enroll. And if you hear someone say, “I’m going where Mačiulis, Kalnietis and Jankūnas studied”, the matter is practically decided right then and there.
How do the professors at VMU regard a basketball player?
With the professional athletes, especially Žalgiris players, sure, the professors would help them out quite a bit. They’d adapt to their schedules, because the players are physically unable to be at games and lectures at the same time due to travelling. In my case, it was a little different: I attended all of my lectures just like a regular student and studied just like everyone else. Personally, I only felt like I was being treated differently only once during my six years at VMU: my grade was teetering between an 8 and a 9, and the professor was about to mark it an 8, but when I told him I played for the VMU basketball team, he decided to bump it up to a 9. But that’s really the only time basketball had an influence on my studies.
It must have been difficult during final exams.
Definitely. The hardest part is reorienting yourself from the upbeat rhythm of basketball to the calm concentration that’s necessary for studying and exam preparation.
But still, basketball and academia are two completely different fields. While playing sports, you exhaust yourself physically, and while studying, you tire psychologically. Is there some harmony in that regard?
If it was sports on an amateur level, then yes. But in my case, it was semi-professional. I had to prepare for games, practice twice a day, attend training camps that lasted two or three weeks… I played so much that the only thing I wanted to do was sleep, eat and sleep again. The load was fairly heavy.
The life of a student is often associated with parties and nights out on the town… but you didn’t have time for these kinds of things, right?
Definitely not. All of the celebrations were with the team, and only after a victory. I don’t remember participating in any of the usual parties that students usually attend. We simply didn’t have the time.
Can you recall any particular happy memory from your time with the VMU basketball team?
I could tell you plenty of those. There are so many that they wouldn’t fit on your memory card. Maybe that’s why we were the champions: we had great chemistry. Actually, we still get together every year in September to play some hoops, remember our time at VMU and go to the legendary sauna.
So when did basketball become not just a sport, but a source of income for you?
In 2006, when I started playing for Žalgiris. Until then, it seemed like I had what it took to make it on the team and play in the Euroleague. But when I came and saw them practicing, I realized that it was all out of my league. At that point you have to ask yourself, will basketball now become merely an extracurricular activity, or will I still make it work as a bigger part of my life?
What was it like, balancing your career at Žalgiris with your studies at VMU? I imagine that life as a basketball player would require long hours and work on the weekends.
At that point I was studying my Doctorate, so it was fun to head over to various seminars after work and meet with students. It was normal to go straight from practice to lecture, then after lecture right back to practice. And I’ve continued this way of life, really. I forget everything about basketball when I’m at VMU, spending time with students, teaching them while learning from them at the same time. It’s not always easy, but it can be quite fun.
What did you do at Žalgiris? What part of your studies applied to your work the most? Working for the Lithuanian Basketball Federation, you obviously see things a little differently now.
Of course, it was different. But in essence, you just have to know what you want to accomplish and what actions will lead you there, just like at university. In school, you get a list of readings, and then an exam follows. It’s the same here. When you need to organize a team, you get a list of players, agents, contacts, sponsors, and then you arrange everything until it works. It’s very similar, except you don’t have a professor here.
Thanks for your time!