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by Phil Taylor | Sports Illustrated, Vol. 84 Issue 16, p32, 4p, 3c | April 22nd, 1996
Abstract: Profiles Portland Trail Blazers rookie center Arvydas Sabonis and looks at the important role he has played in the Blazers late 1995-1996 season success. Sabonis, the National Basketball Association player of the week in March; Sabonis' basketball background in his native Lithuania; His history of injuries;
Speculation as to what the 31-year-old could have accomplished if he had entered the league during his prime.
WITH A BIG ASSIST FROM AGED ROOKIE ARVYDAS SABONIS, THE BLAZERS ARE SUDDENLY RED-HOT
Even in Lithuanian it sounded like a fish story. Through his interpreter Arvydas Sabonis, the Portland Trail Blazers' 31-year-old rookie center, was telling about the one that got away. For 45 minutes on the Columbia River he had gone one-on-one with a stubborn sturgeon, Sabonis was saying, but after winning the battle he had to throw the seven-foot fish back because, at close to 300 pounds, it exceeded the legal weight limit.
Sabonis's estimate of the size of his catch carried some credibility because he is of roughly the same dimensions himself. But he must have felt the need to verify his story, because he disappeared for a moment into another room of his cavernous home in the Portland suburbs and returned with a photograph of the sturgeon in question, which looked every bit as massive and menacing as Sabonis had described it. He loosed a brief thunderclap of a laugh and then used his first English words of the conversation: "Like shark, no?"
The same might be said of Sabonis himself. He is huge, cunning and capable of great devastation. Like shark, yes. At 7'3" and 279 pounds, he is a scoring threat from three-point range and a master passer.
"He's an oversized Globetrotter from overseas," says Blazers backup
point guard Rumeal Robinson. Sabas, as he is known to his teammates,
is a sleight-of-hand artist with his behind-the-back, touch, wraparound and no-look passes. "When he has the ball," says Portland forward Harvey Grant, "cut to the basket and, whatever you do, keep your hands up, or he'll make you look bad."
Lately Sabonis has been one of the main reasons Portland has looked so
good. After the Blazers' 81-79 win over the Vancouver Grizzlies on Sunday, they were an NBA-best 16-2 since March 8, which, not coincidentally, was the date that coach P.J. Carlesimo inserted Sabonis into the starting lineup. It has been a remarkable resurgence for a team that only six weeks ago was on the brink of collapse under the weight of its internal problems, including locker room scuffles
between teammates and a personality clash between point guard Rod Strickland and Carlesimo. After demanding to be traded, Strickland left the Blazers without permission on Feb. 22 and missed six games
When Strickland returned on March 4, he met with Carlesimo and agreed
to put aside his differences with the coach, at least for the rest of this season. A team meeting followed at which Carlesimo challenged his players not to become the first Trail Blazers to miss the playoffs in 14 years. "We didn't want to wind up in the draft lottery," says Portland president and general manager Bob Whitsitt. "That's like the Bermuda Triangle. Teams get in it and never get out."
Instead the Blazers, 42-36 at week's end and assured of a spot in the playoffs (had the season ended on Sunday, they would have been the Western Conference's sixth seed), not only prolonged the NBA's longest current streak of postseason appearances but also became the fashionable choice to pull a first-round upset. "I like the way we're playing, and I wish the playoffs started today," Carlesimo said last week, "but as far as this talk about our being the team no one wants to play, I don't think San Antonio or Utah [the Blazers' possible first-round opponents] are losing any sleep over us."
Perhaps they should be. Sabonis, who was named the NBA's Player of the
Week for March 25-31, averaged 17.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in only 24.8 minutes per contest during Portland's 18-game run.
His 21 points and 15 rebounds in 23 minutes against the Dallas Mavericks in the Blazers' 114-99 victory on April 11 was a typically efficient performance. But he wasn't the only reason Portland turned it around. "Could we have done it without Sabas? No," says Carlesimo.
"Could we have done it without Strick coming back? No. Could we have
done it without improving our free throw shooting or our defense? No." In that 18-game stretch the Blazers allowed opponents a miserly 90.4 points per game. "It's been a combination of things all coming together at the right time," concludes Carlesimo, "a little improvement in a lot of areas."
Strickland performed at close to his usual high standards, playing through the pain of a groin injury that has nagged him since before the All-Star break in February. "People don't really appreciate the sacrifice Rod's making," says Carlesimo. "There have been a lot of nights when a half hour before the game we've been asking, 'Rod, can you go?'" Strickland's answer was always affirmative, although there were games during which it was a struggle for him just to run up and down the court. Against the Mavericks, Strickland was in such pain that he had to take a midgame whirlpool treatment to loosen the muscle, but he returned to finish with 17 points and eight assists.
Nevertheless, the Trail Blazers' recent success had no effect on Strickland's desire to be traded after this season. When the subject was brought up last week, he slowly and resolutely shook his head. "Nope," he said. "That hasn't changed. I'm happy with the way we're playing. Winning makes a lot of things seem better, but it doesn't change everything."
As for Portland's free throw shooting, it improved from a horrid 64.3% before the 18-game run to a respectable 70.8% during it, a phenomenon for which Carlesimo has no explanation other than the law of averages.
Some observers say that the Blazers benefited as well from Carlesimo's
mellowing on the sidelines. "People I respect have said that to me, that I'm treating guys nicer, but I don't see any change," he says. "I think it's more that when you go 14-2, 15-2, everybody loves everybody."
Everybody seems to love Sabonis, who has quickly become the most popular Trail Blazer among Portland fans after almost a decade in which he was little more than a concept. Following the 1986 draft, when the Blazers chose him with the last pick of the first round, he was playing brilliantly in the Soviet Union. But Sabonis, unable to get through the Iron Curtain, was rarely seen by American fans.
He was just 17 when he became a starter on the Soviet national team that toured the U.S. in the fall of 1982, during which it split a pair of games with Indiana University and narrowly lost to a University of Virginia team that featured Ralph Sampson. "I thought he was as good a prospect as I had ever seen," Indiana coach Bob Knight later said. "He was stronger than Bill Walton. I couldn't get over what potential he had. Such a great raw talent."
In the '80s Sabonis starred for Lithuania's Zalgiris Kaunas team, which he led to three consecutive Soviet Union titles, and for the Soviet national team. But injuries began to diminish some of Sabonis's skills. While playing for Zalgiris Kaunas in 1987, he ruptured his right Achilles tendon. Only three months later, when he fell while climbing a flight of stairs to answer the phone, he ruptured the tendon again before it had fully healed. Tendinitis in his knees followed, and before long Sabonis was not only wearing a heavy ankle brace for the Achilles but also encasing his knees and feet in ice after games.
Despite his injuries Sabonis maintained his status as one of the best European players ever. After he helped lead the U.S.S.R. to a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics, Soviet coach Aleksandr Gomelsky suggested that it might be time for Sabonis to test himself in the NBA. Sabonis took Gomelsky into the locker room, rolled down his socks to reveal the scars and discoloration below his calves and asked, "Do you think I can play in the NBA with these?"
Still, Sabonis flirted with the possibility of signing with the Blazers, briefly moving to Portland so the team's medical staff could oversee his recovery from his Achilles tendon operations. But his own doubts about his health and the lure of lucrative deals overseas persuaded him to return to Europe. When Lithuania gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Sabonis was playing in Spain. Then, when a three-year deal with Real Madrid expired after last season, he signed a five-year, $12 million contract with the Blazers. "I decided it was now for the NBA or never," he says.
"Everyone wants to play in the NBA, and I thought that if I didn't try, it would always come back to me in my mind: Could I have done it?
There's no longer any doubt in anyone's mind that he can play in the
NBA, even though he is not nearly as agile as he was in his prime.
"The pain is always there," he says of his scarred legs. "If I didn't
feel it, I would think maybe I was dead."
In fact, he will draw votes
for both the Sixth Man and the Rookie of the Year awards. His insertion into the starting lineup has hurt his chances of winning the former--since he will have come off the bench in more games than he started, he would still be eligible--and his status as a 31-year-old European legend makes it hard to think of him as a rookie. But Sabonis is picking up supporters for Rookie of the Year, including coaches
Bill Fitch of the Los Angeles Clippers and George Karl of the Seattle SuperSonics. "There's no question," Karl says. "It's not even close. He has helped his team rebuild an attitude. His starting and his passing and his presence have given that team a confidence it didn't have earlier in the year."
What might Sabonis have achieved if he had entered the NBA in his
prime? Los Angeles Lakers center Vlade Divac, a Serbian who played
against Sabonis in Europe, has said that Sabonis could have been as
good as the New York Knicks' Patrick Ewing, the Houston Rockets'
Hakeem Olajuwon or the Orlando Magic's Shaquille O'Neal. Sabonis
smiles slightly when told of this assessment. "I have thought about
it, but I have not worried about it," he says. "I only know that it is
better that I am here now than not at all."
Sabonis's uncertain condition was the reason Chris Dudley started 59
of the first 60 games of the season for the Blazers and Sabonis came
off the bench, most often to play the second and fourth quarters. "We
wanted to see how his body would hold up," Carlesimo says. "When it
became clear he could handle 20 to 24 minutes, we decided we could try
stretching him out a little bit, but you still won't see him go past
28 to 30 minutes very often, if at all."
Although he usually wears the expression of a weary veteran, Sabonis
has taken care to display the deference of a rookie. When asked about
the Strickland-Carlesimo issue, he says, "I am a first-year player, so
I should not comment." Even though he understands English quite well
(he's also fluent in Polish and Spanish, in addition to Lithuanian and
Russian), he prefers to speak through an interpreter during interviews
for fear of using the wrong English word or phrase and saying
something that could be misconstrued. He has also muted his game
somewhat, excising the theatrics that were a part of his style in
Europe, where he was known for playing to the crowd with his gestures
and making the overly flashy pass. The new, toned-down style may be
part of Sabonis's broader maturation. He once had a reputation for
enjoying the postgame parties almost as much as the games. Legend has
it that in Lithuania his countrymen would go into a liquor store and
instead of asking for vodka, request "a Sabonis." At the 1992
Olympics, after helping Lithuania win the bronze medal in the
afternoon, he celebrated with such abandon that he missed the medal
presentation in the evening.
But these days Sabonis goes home to his wife, Ingrida, a former model
and actress, and his two sons, Zygimantas, 5, and Tautvydas, 4.
Ingrida is expecting a third child in late April or early May--"just
about the time the playoffs start," Sabonis says. "I am sure she will
be kind enough to have the baby on an off day."
Six weeks ago the possibility of the birth's interfering with a
Portland postseason game seemed remote, but the Blazers now expect to
be busy well into May. "If people think we're just going to be in and
out in a hurry, that's O.K.," Strickland says. "We'll just lay low and
then surprise them." Like sharks, no?
PHOTO (COLOR): During Portland's 16-2 run, Sabonis's sleight of hand
befuddled rivals and caused a teammate to liken him to a Globetrotter.
PHOTO (COLOR): As Phoenix's Charles Barkley discovered, Sabonis can be
an awe-inspiring presence.
PHOTO (COLOR): For Arvydas, Ingrida, Zygimantas and Tautvydas, it has
been quite a climb.