By Neil Beldock
He stood 7 feet 3 inches tall. He weighed 290 pounds. He could pass, he could shoot, he could handle the ball and he could defend. Arvydas Sabonis, if not trapped by politics, if not ravished by injury, if not hidden from the western world, very well might have been recognized and accepted as one of the greatest basketball players to ever play the game.
Said Bill Walton reflecting back upon the first time he saw Sabonis play as a 19 year-old in the European Championships in 1983: “He could do everything. He had the skills of Larry Bird and Pete Maravich. He had the athleticism of Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), and he could shoot the 3-point shot. He could pass and run the floor, and dribble. We looked at each other and our jaws just dropped”.
Walton added this about Sabonis’s late arrival to the NBA: “We should have carried out a plan in the early 1980’s to kidnap him and bring him back (to America) right then. He had everything”.
Like most Europeans, Sabonis learned to play the game facing the basket with a focus upon overall and complete skill development, unlike his American counter-parts who, if 6 foot 10 or taller, were generally relegated to the low post.
In many ways, and in retrospect, he was way ahead of his time with a style of play which foreshadowed the way big men play the game in today’s NBA.
Those who saw him play were left in awe. At 7 foot 3 inches tall he did things never before seen from someone with and of that height.
Unfortunately, those who saw him play in his prime is limited, for the most part, to those within European boundaries. And even more limited when you consider those who saw him play before he suffered a number of debilitating injuries.
But those who did see him play didn’t question his greatness, and had no doubt that his greatness could translate to the NBA.
Said George Karl, who saw Sabonis play while coaching in Spain: “The best player in Europe was Sabonis. The most difficult player to play against was Sabonis. I had told all the NBA scouts who had come to Europe to see Toni Kukoc and Sabonis at the same time the same thing. I told them Kukoc is good. He’s an NBA player, but the best guy if you want to win is Sabonis”.
And Karl wasn’t the only one who was of that opinion.
Said former NBA player and coach Mike Dunleavy: “There’s no question that before he came over (to America) he was one of the top three centers in the world, right there with (Kareem) Abdul-Jabbar and (Bill) Walton. He could run like a deer, shoot, pass. He would have been incredible”.
The accolades would continue.
Current and longtime NBA coach Nate McMillan, who was also a teammate of Sabonis’s with the Trail Blazers, marveled at his passing ability and basketball intelligence and was left to wonder what might have been if Sabonis was permitted to play in the NBA in his prime: “I didn’t see him when he was young, but I heard about when he was a young guy and could take off from the free throw line and do all these things”.
Bob Whittsett, who as General Manager of the Portland Trail Blazers would sign and bring Sabonis to the NBA late in his career and after numerous injuries, had scouted him for many years prior. He had this to say about what might have been had Sabonis been allowed to come to America to play in his prime, and before injuries ravaged him physically: “If Sabonis arrived in Portland unscathed, he could have had a Michael Jordan type impact on the game”.
High praise…….Very high praise indeed.
The story of Arvydas Sabonis is a story of Cold War politics, corruption, abuse and entrapment. But before we delve into that which limited Sabonis, let’s summarize what he accomplished as a player in Europe from 1981 to 1995.
Over his 15 year career in Europe, Sabonis was a 6-time European Player-of-the-Year, a 3-time USSR League champion, a 2-time ACB-Spanish League champion, a 2-time ACB-Spanish League Finals MVP, a Euro-League Final Four MVP, a Euro-League regular season MVP, a 4-time Lithuanian Sportsman-of-the-Year, and named one of FIBA’s 50 Greatest Players of All-Time.
Being named the European Player-of-the-Year is the equivalent, from an awards standpoint, of winning the NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award. So how impressive is 6 European Player-of-the-Year awards in 15 years?
To create a perspective, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won 6 NBA-MVP awards in 20 years (most in NBA history), Michael Jordan won 5 MVP awards over 15 years, Bill Russell won 5 MVP awards over 13 years, Wilt Chamberlain (15 years) and LaBron James (13 years) each have won the MVP award 4 times. And both Larry Bird and Magic Johnson have won the award 3 times.
Although the point can be made that basketball in Europe was not on the level of NBA basketball (which is true), at the same time, winning the MVP award 6 times in 15 years does accentuate a certain level of dominance and superiority which cannot be and should not be in question.
Sabonis also led the Soviet Union to the Gold Medal in the 1988 Olympics by defeating the USA Olympic team in the semi-finals, outplaying David Robinson. He would also lead the Lithuanian team to the Bronze Medal in the 1992 Olympics, losing only to the USA Dream-Team in the semi-finals.
It’s sad and unfortunate to think what might have been had Sabonis not been born at a time which rendered him a victim of the Cold War, Cold War politics and Cold War corruption.
Arvydas Sabonis was born on December 19, 1964 in Kaunas, Lithuanian SSR, a part of the USSR-Russian Empire. He started playing basketball at the age of 13, and at 15 years old was a member of the Soviet National Junior Team.
In 1981, as a 17 years old, Sabonis started his professional career playing for one of the oldest basketball teams in Lithuania, the BC Zalgiris team. He led the team to 3-consecutive Soviet League titles, and the 1986 FIBA World Cup Championship.
(Sabonis in green, playing for BC Zalgiris)
With the Cold War beginning to thaw, and the NBA beginning to have interest in European players, the Atlanta Hawks selected Sabonis with the 77th pick of the 1985 NBA Draft. But Cold War politics would step in.
Not wanting to lose Sabonis to the NBA and America, the Soviet Union would not allow him to leave the Eastern Bloc. They voided his selection by the Hawks by passing a law disallowing any player under the age of 21 (when drafted) from leaving the country to play in the NBA. Sabonis would remain a hidden gem.
And worse even, his first major injury would occur in the Spring of 1985; a torn achilles tendon. This marked the first blow to the world never being able to see this elite player unblemished by injury. But it would not be the last.
In 1986, now 21 years old and being able to clear the age restriction placed upon him by the Soviet Union, the Portland Trail Blazers drafted Sabonis with the 24th pick of the NBA Draft.
Although the Trail Blazers now held the rights to Sabonis, USSR / Eastern Bloc players were still not cleared to leave their countries and play in the United States and the NBA. The general consensus however, was that in the not-to-distant future, these players would be allowed to come to the Western World to apply their craft(s).
But here is where Sabonis once again fell victim to Cold War politics boarding on, if not outright Cold War abuse and entrapment.
After rehabbing his torn achilles tendon, Sabonis was rushed back into action by the Soviet Union. The Soviets could see that before long they would lose their ability to control players who wanted to migrate West. As a result, they wanted to get every last bit of effectiveness out of their players with little regard for and of the physical impact and ramifications they may be causing and inflicting upon them.
From 1985-1988, Sabonis was used and abused by the USSR to the extent that he would suffer a second torn achilles tendon, not be given sufficient time to rehab, and as a result suffer a myriad of knee, foot and ankle injuries which would never completely heal. His mobility would forever be impacted and he would never again be the same player.
Sabonis himself has expressed a belief that he was over-used by the Soviet Union during that stretch from 1985-1988, not given proper time to heal from injuries he suffered, ultimately leading to the second achilles tendon tear in 1988.
By 1989, with the Soviet Union collapsing, the first group of Eastern Bloc players made their way to the United States and the NBA. These players included Vlade Divac to the Lakers, Sarunas Marciulionis to the Golden State Warriors, Drazen Petrovic to the Portland Trail Blazers and Alexander Volkov to the Atlanta Hawks.
Arvydas Sabonis would not be included in this first wave, once again falling victim to the Cold War and Soviet Union politics.
Alexander Gomelsky, the nearly 3-decade coach of the Russian National Team, and Sabonis’s long term coach through his years playing for and within the Soviet Union, held great sway and influence over Sabonis.
It is reported that Gomelsky received financial rewards and incentives as well as a piece of Sabonis’s contracts, to insure that Sabonis would not leave the Soviet Union to play in the NBA.
It is further reported that Gomelsky told Sabonis that if he left the Soviet Union to play in the NBA, he would be putting his family in harms way.
Sabonis seemed to confirm this report when he said; “I don’t think I was available to play at that level (the NBA). It was a little dangerous, I thought”.
As other elite players migrated west to and for freedom, and the chance to play in the NBA, Arvydas Sabonis remained trapped behind the iron curtain.
In many ways, it could be said that Sabonis was a prisoner of war. A prisoner of the Cold War, as those close to him, those with influence over him, reaped financial rewards to keep him entrapped in a world driven by politics and quickly collapsing.
By 1992, with the Soviet Union officially having collapsed, the path was clear for Sabonis to move on. He chose to sign with Real Madrid of the Spanish ACB league and, although not the player he once was before injury, he was still able to lead his team to 2-consecutive league championships. Along the way he would win 2-consecutive Spanish League MVP awards, and 2-consecutive Spanish League Finals MVP awards as well.
Even with his mobility greatly reduced, his superior skills and intelligence still allowed him to be a dominant force. And the NBA was watching.
After the 1994-95 season, Sabonis and the Trail Blazers spoke about his coming to Portland, and both were interested.
Before he would be cleared to join the Trail Blazers, given the number of injuries he had incurred to that point in time, the Trail Blazers had their team doctor, Dr. Don Roberts, examine x-rays of Sabonis’s knees, feet and ankles.
In a 2011 interview, Bob Whitsett, Portland’s General Manager, revealed what the doctor reported back to him: “He (Dr. Roberts) said that Arvydas could qualify for a handicapped parking space based on the x-ray alone”.
Dr. Roberts also reported to Whitsett: “His foot was so bad it just didn’t look like he’d be able to run, to say nothing about playing basketball”.
Still, based upon his unique talents and abilities, the Trail Blazers signed Sabonis to play for them commencing with the 1995-96 season. Sabonis made an immediate impact.
During his first season with the Trail Blazers, at 31 years old with a body ravaged by injury, he proved to still be an incredibly skilled, all-around and effective player.
Statistically, Sabonis contributed in all areas averaging 14.5 points per game, 8.1 rebounds per game, 1.8 assists per game, 1.1 blocks per game, and .9 steals per game while coming off the bench.
With 21 games remaining in the season, the Trail Blazers placed Sabonis in the starting line-up. With Sabonis starting, the Trail Blazers posted an 18-3 record. During those 21 games Sabonis averaged 17.6 points and 10.7 rebounds per game.
His prowess would continue into the 1996 playoffs when he would average 23.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, although the Trail Blazers would lose in 5 games of a 5-game series to Utah.
After one year in the NBA, people were amazed by his myriad of skills. He proved to be a gifted shooter with great court-sense and court vision. At 7 foot 3, his trademark became his behind-the-back, wrap-around pass. Sabonis became an instant fan favorite.
But the overriding sentiment after one year in the NBA was most definitely, “What If”. What if this guy could have played in his prime and have been healthy enough where he wouldn’t qualify for a handicapped parking space.
What did emerge aside from his skill level, was his toughness and ability to play through pain, which is best described within an occurrence during the 2000 playoffs.
Minutes before a game against Utah, Sabonis limped into the locker room; his ankle had completed locked.
The Trail Blazers trainer Jay Jensen reflects upon the incident, and what occurred as he was manipulating Sabonis’s ankle: “The guy couldn’t move at all. All of a sudden there was a clunk from his ankle. He grunted and then said ‘Ok, I’m fine’. Whatever was out of place got back into place and he went out and played”.
Jensen was stunned and could not believe what had just happened. And just for good measure, Sabonis would score 22 points, grab 8 rebounds and lead the Trail Blazers to victory and a 3-0 series lead.
Said Jensen: “He played in pain every day, it was just varying degrees of how much pain. But he was a warrior. An incredible competitor. And he was amazing – both in how big he was and how good he was”.
Sabonis would play seven season for the Trail Blazers, until he was 38 years old. But what will always remain is the question of “What If”…….
“What If” was a topic Sabonis himself shunned and never wanted to discuss. Said trainer Jay Jensen: “I would talk to him on the training table about his past and his foot. He would get extremely angry. He didn’t like talking about it. He knew he could have been so much better, and he was irritated about that”.
In 2011, Arvydas Sabonis was enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall-of-Fame in Springfield, Massachussetts. Bill Walton was his presenter.
“What If” indeed………………..
Bill Walton presenting Arvydas Sabonis for HOF Enshrinement