Tal Burstein
Tal Burstein. Photo by Getty Images
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In Latvia, the level of interest in a particular sport often depends on the ethno-linguistic group of the spectator in question. Latvia's large Russian-speaking community - nearly 30 percent of the country's 2 million people - goes for ice hockey and soccer, in that order. (Soccer jumped to the top of the list only once, when the national team advanced to the group stage of Euro 2004. ) Most Latvian speakers, however, divide their affection between hockey and basketball. Latvia's roster for next year's biennial European Basketball Championships - or EuroBasket - in neighboring Lithuania contains not even a single Russian last name.

Lest anyone forget, Latvia was Europe's first basketball champion back in 1935, and won silver four years later before being subsumed within the Soviet Union and losing its independence. Since regaining independence in 1991, Latvia has failed to advance past EuroBasket qualification only twice out of nine tries.

Unfortunately, this year the country has found itself in the "group of death" with Israel, Italy, Finland and Montenegro - possibly the strongest group ever drawn for European qualifying competition. "Almost the entire Latvia squad has been replaced," said a commentator at the newspaper Chas, "you won't find a single player left from the starting five of the 2009 tournament. Biedrins decided not to risk unnecessarily injuring himself, apparently with warm encouragement from Golden State."

The Latvians' 30-point defeat this week at the hands of still-smaller Montenegro, however, suggests that without star center Andris Biedrins of the NBA's Golden State Warriors, they may have little chance of advancing. On Sunday, Latvia visits Tel Aviv's Nokia Arena to take on Israel, currently second in the group behind Montenegro on point difference.

At EuroBasket 2009 in Poland, Latvia players were accused of alcohol-related disorderly conduct, severely tarnishing their reputation at home. Coach Ainars Bagatskis therefore decided to "clean up" the squad, replacing veteran starters with young, untested talent representing a number of European teams.

"We were surprised by Israel's game with Italy," said Latvia general manager Maris Jucmanis of Monday's 79-71 win. "Israel defended well and kept the Italians' numbers down from beyond the paint. We were particularly impressed with Tal Burstein. Israel has a lot of good players playing for Europe's leading teams. And that says a lot."