By Ellie Lieberman
In recent years, players sprinkled all throughout Europe, from Greece to Croatia, Giannis to Luka, and beyond, have starred in the NBA. But starting with our coach and Director of Operations, Ruta Savickaite, Lithuania breeds generational basketball talent.
Ruta calls basketball a “second religion” in Lithuania, a country that has produced current and former NBA stars such as Arvydas Sabonis, father of current on-the-rise guard Domantas Sabonis, as well as Jonas Valanciunas. For Ruta, the game has always been in her blood, with her younger sisters still heavily involved in the game, as well as constant support from her number one fans, her family.
It was in Lithuania where Ruta first developed a love for the game of basketball.
“I knew basketball was something I wanted to pursue my career in one way or another from the very first competitive game I played in 4th grade,” Ruta tells me. “The atmosphere of the game, being apart of the team, the adrenaline that rushed through your body after wins and losses, all of the ups and downs of the workouts, practices, games, injuries and successes, I knew I wanted to be a part of that for the rest of my life either through playing or coaching.”
Ruta’s drive to succeed in the game of basketball, and learn the intricacies of the game, were evident from the moment she came to the United States in 2012 to play high school basketball for Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee. But, as many international players of the game will realize, adapting to a new country while trying to become the best player possible is quite an uphill battle.
“Because I barely knew English, the style of basketball I used to play was much different,” Ruta said. “The language barrier was something that I struggled with for about 5-6 months, so I would run out on the court and not understand what the plays were or what was my coach saying the whole season of my junior year.”
Despite coming to the United States in high school, and not being able to play in front of her family, Ruta made the most of her opportunities, picked up on basketball slang, play-calling, and honed her skills in Tennessee. Nevertheless, as a senior, she averaged 7.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 2.1 steals per game, and played collegiately at both Western Kentucky and Southern Indiana. She was honored as an Academic All-Conference at Southern Indiana.
Ruta’s grind to make the best of whatever situation she’s in made her a perfect fit in teaching up-and-coming players at our gym. Her energy at the gym is contagious, regardless of who she’s teaching.
“My favorite part about coaching is building relationships and making sure that the athletes that I work with enjoy the game as much as I do,” Ruta said. “Working hard is just as important as enjoying the workout and having fun on the court.”
In a short amount of time at UPB, Ruta already has impacted many. She’ll always think fondly of her clinics with the Cal Stars, her first private session with Armando, and training Jordan Poole at the Chase Center. Ruta’s passion for coaching the game and related operations in general is bound to make her a staple in the game of basketball for years to come.
Behind the creation of UPBYCF lies years of activism for both Turners and a sustained interest in bettering communities in The Bay Area. They know the statistics that six times as many low-income students drop youth sports when compared to those from high-income families because of access (Aspen Institute Project Play Initiative). They also know firsthand the power sports has to build character because “a survey of 400 female corporate executives found 94% played a sport and that 61% say sports contributed to their career success (EY Women Athletes Business Network/espnW, 2014). The launch of UPBYCF is bounded in these statistics and in past experiences both Turners have had with nonprofits such as The Boys and Girls Club, Big Homie Project, and Play MakeHers. Yearly clinics at UPB have focused on women’s empowerment, and tackled issues like access to sports, and hunger.