In the small town of Joniskis in northern Lithuania, Donatas Kupsas is a big deal. That’s where the Long Island Lutheran senior forward’s parents live, and that’s where they gather around a computer, log into an app and watch video of their son playing high school basketball in American gymnasiums more than 4,000 miles away.
“They love that I keep playing basketball. If I quit, they would be really, really sad,” said Kupsas (rhymes with hoops-as). “They love me and they support me.”
The love and support of Romas and Viktoria Kupsas has been severely tested since a close family friend with basketball connections in the United States reached out to Lutheran coach John Buck and told him he might have a player who would be a good fit for the Crusaders. “I talked to Donatas over Skype about his interest in our school, and it went from there,” Buck said.
Kupsas enrolled at Lutheran in the fall of 2015 for his sophomore year. Basketball was the easiest part of life’s transition game. “I learned a little English when I was younger and we lived in London, but it was a struggle the first three months,” Kupsas said. “It was a new experience to talk it all the time and understand what everybody was saying.”
Kupsas, who lives in Lynbrook with a host family, now is completely fluent in English, though he retains the accent and the memories of the home country he left behind. “Everything was strange at first. We don’t have anything like Manhattan in Lithuania,” he said with a smile. “It was a different feeling for me to leave my family, my friends, my teachers for a year until I would come back during the summer. It was a real ly hard decision, the biggest decision of my life. But I’m glad that I made that decision because I ended up at LuHi, a great place where they take care of the students and the athletes. I love it here.”
The feeling is mutual. Kupsas, on a team with five Division I college prospects, was elected one of the captains for his senior year. He is a vocal, positive-energy player who shouts directions and encouragement to teammates whether he is on the floor or on the bench with occasional foul problems.
“You’ve got to be a leader. I’m one of the captains and I have to keep my guys together as a team and not let them fall apart in this lovely game of basketball that we play,” Kupsas said. “I don’t want my team to lose. I’ve got to help them any way I can.”
For Kupsas, any way means many ways. He has been a starter since his sophomore year, when he arrived as a slender 6-8 small forward who was an active rebounder and defender with limited offensive range. Now he’s a muscular 6-9 power forward with multiple skills, including a soft touch from downtown.
“He’s always worked really hard on chasing rebounds and being aggressive under the boards,” Buck said, “but now he’s expanded his game to be able to shoot the ball well. He’s a really versatile player that we need for our success. It’s not all in the points column or on the stats sheet. He’s a guy that you have to account for at all different spaces on the floor and he’s great on the boards. When he’s out of the game, we feel it. He’s a perimeter-skilled 4 man.”
Kupsas can shoot the three, blow past defenders to finish strong at the rim, pass out of the low post, block shots, defend, rebound in traffic and set hard screens. “I call myself a stretch-4. A power forward has to do a lot of things if you want to be great,” he said.
He averaged nearly 10 points and 10 rebounds through the Crusaders’ first five games, sharing the scoring load in a stacked lineup.
Colleges have taken notice. Kupsas has made official visits to Hofstra, Weber State and Fordham. Those three have recruited him the hardest, though others remain interested. There have been several college coaches in the stands at LuHi home games.
His parents got to share the recruiting experience — firsthand. “I took a couple of official visits [in November] and they came over for the first time,” Kupsas said. “They were so impressed. They went to Utah and New York. They got to see something special and it was my biggest gift to them.”
Kupsas said his family is “too poor” to come to America often while he is in college. “My teammates and coaches will, hopefully, support me over here, but my family will have to support me from over there,” he said.
He has plans to show how much he appreciates that support by first succeeding in college and then playing professionally, either in the NBA or internationally. “They gave me the chance to live in America by myself at 16 years old. I want to pay back every cent and repay their love,” Kupsas said. “They understood that it was about basketball and they would have to let me go sometime; they just didn’t think it would be that early. But it was my decision; it’s my life.”
One that knows no boundaries or borders.