Gabas Maldunas: The long journey from Lithuania to Dartmouth

Dartmouth senior Gabas Maldunas. Photo Credit: Mark Washburn / Dartmouth Athletics
Dartmouth senior Gabas Maldunas. Photo Credit: Mark Washburn / Dartmouth Athletics

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.”

Gabas Maldunas. Photo Credit: Sam Wasson / Dartmouth Athletics
Gabas Maldunas. Photo Credit: Sam Wasson / Dartmouth Athletics

Alex Mitola: The culture changer

Alex Mitola. Photo credit: Mark Washburn / Dartmouth Athletics
Alex Mitola. Photo credit: Mark Washburn / Dartmouth Athletics

Junior Alex Mitola of the Dartmouth men’s basketball squad has blossomed into one of the most prolific guards in the Ivy League – surprising many coaches and longtime fans of the Ancient Eight.

But Dartmouth Head Coach Paul Cormier saw this coming when he recruited Mitola three years ago. In fact, Cormier credits Mitola for being the “one” to change the culture in the Big Green program.

Changing the Culture

From the moment Mitola set foot on campus in Hanover, New Hampshire, it was apparent that he was going to play, and play a lot. Mitola heard his name called in the starting lineup in the first game of his career, and he’s heard it called in all 71 games the Big Green have played since.

His numbers over those three years speak for themselves.

In Mitola’s freshman season, he averaged 11.3 points per game, shooting 39.2-percent from behind the arc. Mitola numbers have only grown since then, as he averaged 11.8 points per game in his second year while shooting 41.8-percent from downtown, and as a junior currently averages 14.3 points per game.

Far larger than his numbers, however, has been the co-captain’s presence around his teammates. According to Cormier, ever since Mitola became a part of the team, his leadership and dedication to improve has become “infectious”.

“He pulls players in when he is in the gym,” Cormier said. “He sets examples. He works hard, and has been more vocal. Everyone is on board with him.”

Mitola does all the great things that coaches salivate over, and everything it takes to win – whether it’s handling the ball against tough defensive pressure, taking the big shot, or finding the open man and playing tough defense — according to Cormier.

“He just keeps his head on and off the court,” Cormier said. “He sees the game well and has a very high basketball IQ.”

But the most important thing that Mitola has accomplished at Dartmouth, according to his coach, isn’t a big shot, clutch assist or big steal: it’s about how he carries himself and prepares himself for success on and off the court

“We had to get a good player,” Cormier said, reflecting on the 2012-13 recruiting class. “Not only were we looking for a good player, but a player who could change the culture here. Alex, was a bulls-eye for us.”

Basketball Wisdom

“You have to be able to play the game with a chip on your shoulder,” said Mergen Sina, a former high school basketball coach of Mitola at Gill St. Bernard’s School.

Those words have stuck with Mitola since high school, fueling the 5’11 guard to test even the tallest opponents he has come across, overcoming his size disadvantage with effort and energy.

Mitola grew up playing basketball at a very young age, competing with his older brother Andrew, who happened to be on many of his basketball teams as a kid. It was when Mitola went from youth basketball to AAU that his career in basketball began to elevate.

“My dad taught me a lot and was a big factor when he allowed me to play AAU in fifth grade,” Mitola said.

The environment of playing AAU basketball was huge for Mitola, who not only saw his skills flourish, but the experiences of making great friends like former AAU teammates Jaren Sina (son of Mergen Sina) who is now a starting point guard as a sophomore at Seton Hall and Dom Hoffman, a junior starting power forward for Bucknell.

Mitola credits these two friends as people who not only improved him as a player, but as a person.

Finding Experience Early

One of the key reasons why Mitola chose Dartmouth was that he was going to play.

“It was a good opportunity to get on the floor early,” Mitola said. “I was a little nervous at first as a freshmen but it got easier.”

Mitola is thankful for all the experience he has gained as a player by starting early. At this point in his career, there is nothing that he has not seen as far as basketball goes. Mitola still saw challenges along the way.

“I didn’t realize how difficult the challenges are,” Mitola said. “I just learned to fight through adversity.”

From youth basketball through high school, Mitola had experienced success at every step of his career until he set foot on campus at Dartmouth, a young struggling to find its identity.

In his first year, the Big Green finished 9-19. However in his second season, Dartmouth saw a three win increase when it finished the 2013-14 season at 12-16. With 16 games in this season, Dartmouth is at an even 8-8 record with 10 games left to play.

“All the experience has made my job easier,” Mitola said.

Goals

When it comes to what Mitola wants to accomplish in his college career, it is to win the conference nd make the NCAA tournament. But, Mitola doesn’t want to think too far ahead.

“You just have to come in and approach every day the same,” Mitola said. “We know the league is competitive. It’s going to take a tremendous amount of effort. We have to take it one game at a time.”

As far as what Mitola would like to improve as a player and has already been working on is developing a “floater.”

“I’ve really been working on a floater,” Mitola said. “It gives the defense another look. I believe I took five floaters against Harvard, but only made one. It’s something I still have to work at.”

Mitola was already an established 3-point shooter when he entered the league, but has continued to significantly improve upon his biggest strength since joining the Big Green.

“I’ve really improved my shooting from the three,” Mitola said. “Most of my 3-point shots came off catch and shoot, so I’ve really gotten better with shooting it off the dribble.”

A Lasting Impression

When asked how he would most like to be remembered when his college career is over, Mitola doesn’t talk about scoring numbers or star billing: he simply wants to be known as someone who gave it his all.

“I do whatever it takes to win,” Mitola said. “It’s really that. I strive to be the best all-around player I’m going to be.”

“He doesn’t break down no matter the size,” Cormier said. “He is a special young man, very privileged to coach him.”

Cormier even thinks that if Mitola decides not to pursue playing basketball overseas after his college career is all said and done, he could be a great coach.

“I wouldn’t put it past him when Mitola has a chip on his shoulder.”