Big Man Back in Town

Arvydas Sabonis left lasting impression on Portland

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter

Published:

 

For anybody who ever wondered how Arvydas Sabonis became such a cerebral basketball player, they need not look farther than the size of his dome.

Trail Blazers play-by-play announcer Brian Wheeler remembers an incident nine years ago in which Warriors forward Chris Mills roadblocked Portland’s team bus with his SUV and reached into his pocket as though wielding a weapon.

Mills had already tried to infiltrate the Blazers’ locker room after jawing with Portland forward Bonzi Wells during a game, so as you might imagine, the tension in that Oakland parking lot was thicker than any Game 7 overtime.

Then, after a few seconds of silence, Portland athletic trainer Jay Jensen turned to Sabonis and yelled “Sabas, you better get that head of yours down, because if he starts shooting, that’s gonna be a huge target!”

Needless to say, the mood morphed from an anvil to a feather.

This was a unique instance in which the Lithuanian’s size actually led to the comforting of spirits. Most of the time, anybody forced to guard the 7-foot-3, 290 pound behemoth trembled at the task.

Despite Magic Johnson’s fast-breaking, Michael Jordan’s tongue-wagging, and Larry Bird’s 3-point stroking, there was a time in the late 1980s when some considered Sabonis to be the best player in the world. Of course, the 46-year-old never got to display his talents in the NBA during his prime, and with a legacy marred by Sam Bowies and Greg Odens, perhaps it is tragically appropriate that the Blazers were the primary casualty of his absence.

“I was convinced of this kid. Some of the things he could do were absolutely remarkable,” said Bucky Buckwalter, who drafted Sabonis in 1986 while serving as the Blazers’ vice president of basketball operations. “But we knew it was going to take a lot of work to get him out.”

In the mid 1980s, drafting foreign players was, well, a foreign concept — especially USSR citizens like Sabonis. According to Buckwalter, former Blazers owner Larry Weinberg attempted to pay off Soviet officials in hopes of obtaining the big man, but was never successful. And when the fall of the Berlin Wall seemingly opened up a line to the then 26-year-old, Buckwalter said Sabonis’ longtime coach Alexander Gomelsky closed it by convincing him he wasn’t ready for the NBA.

Not ready, huh?

David Robinson may have disputed such a claim after Sabonis dominated him in the 1988 Olympic semifinal in Seoul, tallying 13 points and 13 rebounds for the eventual gold-medal-winning Soviets. The entire world may have taken exception to that mindset when Sabonis averaged 23.8 points and 12.5 rebounds for Lithuania in the ‘92 Games.

And given how the Blazers took two trips to the NBA Finals and averaged 60 wins for three seasons beginning in 1989, those within the organization are convinced that one extra piece would have left all opponents puzzled.

“It was terribly frustrating,” Buckwalter said. “If we would have had him in the Finals, a center like him? He’s such a great passer. Could you imagine him with the ball throwing it to Jerome (Kersey) or Clyde (Drexler) in the lane?”

Seems a lot of sentences involving Sabonis end in question marks. The eight-time European Player of the Year didn’t join Portland until he was 31 — and it was hardly a young 31. A surgically repaired Achilles tendon and crippling foot problems robbed him of his once awesome athleticism.

As Blazers team orthopedist Don Roberts told the Oregonian last spring, “the X-ray alone would get you a handicap parking permit.”

And yet, Sabonis played on.

He averaged 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds in his first NBA season despite logging fewer than 24 minutes per game. He averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds his third year,once opting to pop his ankle back into place by himself before tip-off.

Sure, there were flashes of his former legendary self, such as the 23.6 points and 10.2 points he averaged in a playoff series vs. the Jazz in 1996. But mainly, with his mobility darn near extinct, he produced by utilizing every millimeter of his planet-sized cranium.

“The first time I had a game with him, he hit me in the head with a pass. When he threw the pass, I just wasn’t looking,” said former Blazers point guard Damon Stoudamire. “I just wasn’t used to playing with someone on that level. The first thing I think about when I think about Sabas is how much I wish I could have seen him play healthy.”

Sabonis’ figurative head never grew to the size of his literal one, although it certainly could have. For one, the man married a former Miss Lithuania. And while Sabonis was speeding in his home country one night in 2000, Jensen asked, “aren’t you worried you’re going to get a ticket?”

Sabonis laughed, and soon after, a massive Lithuanian naval ship came into view. Its name? SABAS.

Still, boasts and brags never seemed to slide out of the giant’s mouth — but part of that is because he didn’t like to speak.

Wheeler said he once spent an entire season trying to lure the bashful Sabonis into doing a post-game interview. Arvydas finally conceded one evening before a game, but following the Blazers’ victory, still had to be dragged out of the locker room.

After the Q&A, he looked Wheeler in the eye and muttered “never again.”

Thursday, five days after watching him be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the Blazers will honor Sabonis at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland. Considering his induction speech was less than a minute long, attendees shouldn’t expect much of an oration.

That’s fitting for Sabas, though. He spent his career leaving fans wanting more.

Matt Calkins can be contacted 360-735-4528 or email matt.calkins@columbian.com

IF YOU GO

Who: Former Portland Trail Blazer Arvydas Sabonis.

What: Public celebration for the new Hall of Famer.

When: 1 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland.

Also: VIP reception on the Club Level at the Rose Garden with Sabonis and other Trail Blazers alumni, 6 p.m. Thursday. Cost is $50 and includes heavy appetizers, two drinks and a Q&A session with Sabonis and Blazers personalities. Proceeds benefit the Make It Better Foundation. For tickets, log on to trailblazers.com/sabonis.