One long trip, one busted backboard, one foot-long sandwich and one gold medal later, Notre Dame power forward Martinas Geben recently returned to campus one happy basketball dude.
Offered the opportunity to represent his native Lithuania last month at the World University Games in Taiwan, the 22-year-old Geben jumped at the chance. Attending team tryouts would sharpen his game heading into his senior season. It would be the next step toward a goal he first stated in July – play the best basketball of his life this year and have absolutely zero regrets when it all ends next spring.
Somewhere along the way, everything about Geben and his game all changed overseas. Maybe it was having to travel halfway across the world – first to Lithuania for training camp, then on to China for more auditions and pre-tournament games. Maybe it was just the chance to look at his place in the game a different way. Maybe it’s just his time.
Whatever it was, just auditioning for a roster spot wasn’t good enough. He wanted to make the team. He wanted to make a difference.
Then he did.
In his first three seasons at Notre Dame, including last year in his first as a starter, Geben averaged 2.3 points and 2.2 rebounds in 9.2 minutes over 72 games. In eight games over 10 days at the World University Games, Geben averaged 10.3 points and 7.5 rebounds in 22.2 minutes. He shot 53 percent from the floor and 71 percent from the foul line. He finished third on the team in scoring, second in minutes and first in rebounding.
“It’s a big step,” Geben said last week, days after returning from his month-long basketball odyssey. “It’s an example of me taking advantage of a big opportunity. It definitely gives me more confidence in my game.”
That confidence hit another level in China. It was there during a practice where he executed a low-post move during drills, felt his defender fall to the floor and delivered a two-handed dunk. Geben then turned to run back up the floor and play defense.
A whistle stopped everything.
Geben turned around and saw his teammate still laying on the court. Instead of getting up, he was picking off shards of glass from the backboard.
“A disclaimer – I did not try to break a backboard,” Geben said. “Every time I try to break one, they never break. The one time I don’t try to break it, it snaps.”
Geben earned a roster spot, then elevated his game even further during the 24-team tournament in Taipei. It wasn’t enough just to be a name and a number on the roster of Lithuania. He wanted to be a player. A main player.
“I went into camp not necessarily having expectations but just trying to prove something and work my butt off,” he said. “The expectations came after the first couple of warm-up games where I felt I had the confidence of the coach when he played me more minutes than I had initially expected.
“He trusted me to lead the team as far as playing time and performance.”
It was a different style of game for Geben. Almost foreign. At Notre Dame, coach Mike Brey allows his guys to move and cut and pass and occasionally drain most of the 35-second shot clock. There’s plenty of freedom and time to read and react.
That wasn’t the case for Lithuania. The head coach called nearly every offensive set. All had to be executed within the 24-second shot clock.
The structured style suited Geben. He could get into a quick post move without worrying about bypassing a good look for a great one. There wasn’t enough time.
“I got confident,” he said. “It makes you feel good when you can play for long stretches on the court and see the ball go through the hoop.”
The more confidence Geben cornered, the better he played. Getting reports from him back in Indiana, the Irish coaching staff was encouraged.
“That,” said assistant Ryan Humphrey, “was huge for him.”
Playing basketball was easy for Geben. Finding enough food to keep his 6-foot-10, 255-pound frame from running out of fuel was the challenge.
Sweet and sour chicken – everything over there was sweet and/or sour – or duck prepared seemingly every way imaginable wasn’t going to do it.
“The food was definitely different,” Geben said. “It was all fun and exotic for the first few days and then after that, you can’t find anything normal to eat.
“That becomes a struggle.”
A small sampling of Western food was offered in the Athletes’ Village, but nothing really appealing. There were French fries and chicken nuggets and pizza, or, as Geben described it, “their version of pizza.”
“Those weren’t the best options for you,” he said.
Days before his departure, Geben started dreaming of the day he would land back in America and get something good to eat. Maybe not the healthiest, but something that he really had to have. Like a big burger with all the fixings from Five Guys. Or a loaded burrito from Chipotle.
So what did he do after traveling from Taiwan to Los Angeles and then on to Washington on a red-eye flight?
He ate fresh.
“I just wanted a Subway sub for some reason,” he said.
Walking in the front door of his parents’ home in Maryland – his mother and father and younger sister emigrated from Vilnius, Lithuania when Geben, who is not an American citizen, was a freshman at Notre Dame – all they wanted to do was talk about and see his gold medal and listen to stories of his experience.
Prior to driving back to Notre Dame two days later, Geben just wanted to sleep.
“It was a neat moment presenting the medal to them,” he said. “But at that point, I was just really tired.”
Geben will long remember the gold medal game. Not just because of what it meant to his country, but what it meant to him. It wouldn’t have meant nearly as much if Lithuania had beaten Latvia or Serbia. But the opponent the night of Aug. 29 was the United States, which was represented by the current Purdue University basketball team.
The same Purdue team that Geben scored nine points with six rebounds in 22 minutes in an 86-81 Irish loss in December at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Geben again worked against Isaac Haas and was arguably the better big. He scored 12 points with seven rebounds and two assists in 24 minutes. He also connected on a critical mid-range jumper to give Lithuania some breathing room in an 85-74 victory.
“It wasn’t just about me representing Lithuania and playing with them for a gold medal,” he said. “It was also about me enacting some revenge for Notre Dame.”
Having missed the first nine days of the fall semester, Geben continues to play catch-up with his class work while still shaking lingering effects of jet-lag and the 12-hour time difference between Indiana and Taiwan. He’s also taking it slowly on the court.
During last week’s team conditioning day in The Pit, he was relegated to riding a stationary bike while teammates ran sprints. He’s been instructed to save his legs. A big season – his most important one – is closing quickly.
Thanks to last month’s experience, Geben cannot wait for it to arrive. He didn’t know two months ago if spending so much time on the other side of the world would be good.
Turns out it was great.
“I’m amazingly glad,” he said. “It was a once-in a lifetime opportunity that you just couldn’t pass up. The whole thing was really special.
“It exceeded expectations.”