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A shadow of his former self
by Janis Carr | The Orange County Register | April 25, 2001
Sabonis' skills have slowly eroded thanks to age, injuries and persistent pain.
LOS ANGELES Portland Trail Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis once loomed larger than anyone playing basketball, and it wasn't just because he stood 7-foot-3.
He dominated the European league, winning titles, scoring points by the dozens and pushing aside any and all comers. He was compared to Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Today his knees don't bend as easily, his feet move more slowly and he flops repeatedly on defense. Although Sabonis still can put together a good game, he rarely dominates opposing centers.
That was never more evident than Sunday in Game 1 of the Blazers' first-round Western Conference playoff series against the Lakers. Shaquille O'Neal manhandled the burly Lithuanian, striking for 24 points in a 106-93 victory at Staples Center. And before O'Neal got going, Horace Grant repeatedly dunked on Sabonis.
The beatings have been severe. During one encounter, O'Neal reportedly so physically and mentally dominated Sabonis, the Blazers center wept on the bench.
"I own Sabonis," O'Neal wrote in his recently published book, "Shaq Talks Back," before adding, "It's not that I dislike him.
"In 1984, at the Summer Olympics, he was maybe one of the top four or five players in the world - including NBA players. He was big, strong, skilled. One of the great shames in basketball was that he never got to play in the league during his prime, when no one could stop him.
"Fine. But he's 36 years old now. He can't move like he used to. I just have to back him down, then dog him out. That's the law of the playground. Sabonis doesn't like that."
Sabonis doesn't argue with O'Neal's take on his play.
"I do my job as best I can against Shaq," Sabonis said Tuesday after practice. "Look, I'm 37 years old (in December), I'm too tired to work on defense. Offensively, I know what I do. But it is difficult to get back on defense."
Still Sabonis plays. In the final year of his contract, he said he would like to play next season but isn't sure if his banged-up body will allow him. Throughout his six NBA seasons and two decades playing overseas, Sabonis has endured, among other injuries, two torn Achilles' tendons and a degenerative bone problem in his feet, brought on by an infection years ago.
"He plays in pain every day," Portland coach Mike Dunleavy said.
Dunleavy first spotted Sabonis during a European trip in 1983, when the coach was scouting talent in Spain. Sabonis, he said, was unbelievable in the way he could bulldoze his way through the middle and score on anybody.
"He was one of the top centers of all time," Dunleavy said. "When you see him now, you might consider him a pretty good player. But back then, there wasn't anybody who could guard him. The players he plays against now couldn't have done anything against him back then. Not even Shaq could have guarded him."
But Sabonis' age is rising, his performance plummeting.
In 1995, after an illustrious career overseas in which he won three Olympic medals (one gold, two bronze), Sabonis decided to enter the NBA and test his skills against the world's best players. He adjusted effortlessly and was voted to the All-Rookie team - at 31.
That season, Sabonis was Portland's third-leading scorer (14.5 points a game) and second-leading rebounder (8.1).
Over the next few years, injuries and age began to sap Sabonis' game. This season, the player voted as the international competitor who had the most impact in the NBA modern era, averaged just 10 points and 21 minutes.
Yet when Sabonis feels good, so does Portland. This season, when he scored 10 points or more, the Trail Blazers were 22-5.
But he feels ill often. Sabonis missed 21 games, the first eight recovering from left knee surgery. He missed another four because of a sprained knee, three because of back spasms, two more because of a sore right foot, another because of a sprained right ankle, one because of a toothache and two because Dunleavy wanted him to rest.
"He was a great player in his prime," teammate Dale Davis said of the quiet giant. "He's a little old now, and we don't expect the same of him when he was young. But the things he does too are great. He does a tremendous job."
Sabonis doesn't have regrets. There are no what-ifs in his vocabulary, such as what if he had joined the NBA sooner? How big a star could he have been?
"I am happy here now," he said. "Better, they say, late than never. Basketball has been very good to me."
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