PORTLAND — Zach Kersten knew something that his employer did not: Thursday was a Portland holiday.
City commissioner Randy Leonard confirmed as much when he declared to the crowd gathered at Pioneer Courthouse Square that August 18, 2011 was indeed Arvydas Sabonis Day.
So instead of punching a clock, Kersten held up a “Sabas” sign and asserted that “there is one reason I’m not at work today, and that’s because Arvydas Sabonis is in town. We’re here to celebrate.”
And celebrate the people did.
Eight years after playing his final game as a Trail Blazer, and five days after his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Arvydas “Sabas” Sabonis returned to Rip City to be honored in front of his still-rabid fans.
They chanted “Sa-bas!” They donned his jersey. One devotee pithily captured the atmosphere when he bellowed “Sabasfaction!”
True, Sabonis is by no means the greatest Blazer of all time. However, given his international resume before he trekked over the NBA, he may be the greatest player to wear a Blazers jersey.
Injuries deprived of him of the athleticism that facilitated his Hall of Fame career, but fans in one of the world’s sharpest basketball cities still marveled at the skill set that made Sabas a legend.
“The way he could pass the ball with one hand was amazing,” Vancouver resident Michael Sater said. “He was always my favorite player.”
Perhaps that is why child-like grins dominated the scene when the Blazers introduced the former center.
A drum line officially signaled the ceremony’s commencement, but when a 7-foot-3 Lithuanian is descending down the steps of the square, percussion is hardly required to draw the crowd’s attention.
Blazers television play-by-play announcer Mike Barrett introduced Sabonis to thunderous cheers, then proceeded with a Q&A. Sabonis’ Hall of Fame Speech was only 49 seconds, so it was unlikely he was going to be given the stage to himself.
When asked what is it like to see all of these fans, Sabonis said: “Very surprised. I appreciate you remember me. Thank you for remember me.”
Sabonis’ default setting since being elected to the Hall of Fame has been humility. When a reporter asked him Wednesday what he felt upon being voted in, he replied “Why me?”
But as Sabas refused to tout his own abilities, former teammates such as Antonio Harvey, Chris Dudley and Brian Grant were all on hand Thursday to do it for him.
Harvey said how it was far easier being an opponent of Sabonis than it was a teammate — as sharing a locker room with him meant he had to go up against him every day in practice.
Dudley reminded fans that there was a point when Sabonis was considered to be the best basketball player in the world. He added that in a private conversation, Sabonis said he would have been in the Hall of Fame five years earlier had he come to the NBA in the 1980s.
Grant, meanwhile, recalled how Sabonis wouldn’t talk to him because he claimed he couldn’t speak English. This continued for three months, until Grant began throwing down dunks off of Sabonis’ passes, prompting the big man to finally say “You’re OK.”
The ceremony concluded with the Blazers unveiling a banner featuring Sabonis’ name grouped in with other Hall of Famers who played in Portland. Then, the 46-year-old met briefly with the media.
He reiterated his surprise at the fan support, said that he would be happy if one of his three sons were to make the NBA, and denied that he thinks about what would have happened had he come to the U.S. before all of his injuries.
He also confirmed that he owns part of the Lithuanian professional basketball team Zalgiris Kauanas, but did not appear aware that the club had recently signed Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson.
As for the popular opinion that his performance in the 1988 Olympics was the impetus for the Dream Team?
“Yes,” Sabonis said. “Charles Barkley said to me ‘You took away my vacation. I have to play in the summer now.’”
Speaking of summer, Sabonis mentioned Thursday that this was the first time he had been in Portland in August, then pointed to the oft reclusive Northwest sun. You get the feeling those in attendance would have called it a bright day regardless.
Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or firstname.lastname@example.org