For Dartmouth College senior Gabas Maldunas, sophomore year of high school was one of the biggest challenges of his life and the defining moment of his career.
After spending the first 15 years of his life in his native Lithuania, Maldunas was heading to the United States to pursue his dreams of playing college basketball. His destination: snowy Plymouth, New Hampshire, where he would spend the next three years at the Holderness School.
“It was really weird because I was 15 years old and didn’t really know much English and I was just thrown into the Prep school life, which is something that doesn’t exist back in Europe,” says Maldunas.
“At first I was really struggling at school and basketball, but as time passed my English got better, my school work got easier, and basketball season started. It’s great that it was really hard, but my teammates and coaches and teachers helped me out to start.”
One of the tougher obstacles Maldunas had to overcome during this time was knowing that his parents Rimantas and Audrone were still in Lithuania in his hometown of Panevezys.
“It was pretty tough, obviously,” says Maldunas. “I have a brother and sister and they’re both older than I am, so my mother and father thought they would still have me for three more years at home. But all of a sudden I had to leave, so it was kind of a shock to them as well.
“Living without my parents was weird at first, but I was in the prep school, so everything was there. I lived in the dorm and food was made for me, so it wasn’t that tough.”
Following his first few months of adapting to the American lifestyle, Gabas says he was “ready to go and ready to hoop.”
When it became time to start looking at potential colleges, Maldunas was heavily recruited by Dartmouth and head coach Paul Cormier. The promise of getting playing time and the ability to play basketball while getting an Ivy League education made it a no-brainer for the Lithuanian.
“They were the ones that pursued me the most, and coach (Paul) Cormier was starting his second stint at Dartmouth so he really recruited me a lot,” Maldunas says.
“It was a school in New Hampshire close to my high school so that made it easy to visit any time I wanted to. Coach Cormier was really great while recruiting me and the other guys from my class.”
Cormier, who returned to the Big Green as head coach back in 2010, was unable to get a good look at Maldunas because he had gone back to Lithuania for the summer.
“I got the job late, the year before he came, so he was actually one of the first recruits that we started after,” says Cormier. “In the summer, we didn’t have a chance to see him until he came back to Holderness the fall of his senior year, so that’s when we really started recruiting him.
“We obviously fell in love with him right away because he had a huge upside and he had a passion for playing. He also had grades and was just a wonderful kid.”
When asked about Maldunas’ strengths as a player, Cormier believes his big man can do a little bit of everything.
“Out on the court, I think his mobility and his ability to have a complete game, as far as being able to put it down is great,” Cormier says. “He has to improve in everything but he has the passion to do that. I believe his best years are ahead of him and I say that because he had a horrific knee injury last year, and he missed over half of his junior year.
“He still hasn’t fully recovered but he is playing and starting to play better and better. It’s one of those injuries that normally take a year-and-a-half to two years to get totally healed physically and mentally. I think he’s healed physically, but mentally it’s still on his mind, as he’s still reluctant to try and do some things he did prior to the injury.”
The injury Cormier is referring to is the torn ACL Maldunas suffered just 15 games into the 2013-14 season. As the first serious setback Maldunas has ever endured in his career, he didn’t know what to expect.
“As soon as it happened and the doctors told me it was a torn ACL and I was out for the season, I think I took it pretty well,” he says. “It was obviously tough not to play and not to help out the team, but I had to find other ways to help the team. I had to be come more of an off the court leader in the locker room.
“It was a different challenge that was kind of interesting, but it made me a better person having to fight through adversity.”
While it is normal for players who suffer injuries like this to redshirt and spend an entire year rehabbing, due to the Ivy League’s unique rules – where players can not be enrolled as students for more than four years – in order to spend an entire year recovering, Maldunas would have had to un-enroll from school for a year. According to Cormier, leaving school was never an option for Maldunas.
“There’s no question he was down and upset, but his dedication to his rehab and his physical therapy after his operation, I’ve never had an athlete whose been injured that has shown more dedication to get himself ready,” says Cormier. “Never was there a thought of redshirting, interfering with his academic life here at Dartmouth or not being able to graduate with his class, which has always been important to him.
“He made that goal. He’s not back to where he was, but he’s starting for us and certainly one of our better players, there’s no question.”
Now in his senior year, Maldunas is averaging 27.8 minutes per game, third most on the team behind juniors Alex Mitola and Connor Boehm. He recently scored his 1000th career point in a 61-49 win over Columbia University, becoming the 26th player in program history to achieve the milestone.
Even with his family so far away, Maldunas says his parents still try and tune in to watch their son play. He says it’s very important to him knowing that they care that much about his basketball career, even if it means staying up late.
“The time difference is seven hours, and the Ivy League games here are at 7 p.m. usually so that’s 2 a.m. at home,” he says. “But my dad buys the Ivy League digital network account and watches every game. For them to still wake up for every game and watch regardless of the result or how we’ve been playing and how I’ve been playing, they still wake up and watch, so it’s awesome to know.”
Without a family here in the states, Cormier thinks the team, as well as the entire Dartmouth community, has taken on the role of being there for Maldunas.
“We have great kids in our program,” Cormier says. “He’s actually gone to some of the kids’ homes over the holidays. I think he feels very comfortable here with the teammates being like brothers to him.
“I also think the school lends itself to him. It’s a small school and does a great job in making people from different backgrounds and international kids feel very welcome. I think the whole student body and everybody here is somewhat of his family.”