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A Lithuanian Basketball Star.
by Sam Toperoff | The Atlantic Monthly Co. | July 1986 v258 p74
A LITHUANIAN BASKETBALL STAR
AVERY FEW AMERICAN professional stars excepted, the best basketball player in the world is probably a seven-foot-three Lithuanian named Arvidas Sabonis, who is, at twenty-one, the center and the backbone of an excellent Soviet National team that has won virtually every international amateur tournament it has entered in the past three years. Because the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, most American fans have had little opportunity to see just how good the Russian players, especially Sabonis, really are.
Last winter, however, Ted Turner and Soyuzsport, the Soviet sports council, signed an agreement to televise worldwide the Federation Internationale de Basketball Amateur (FIBA) World Championship for Men, in Spain, as part of the Goodwill Games package, most of which will originate in Moscow this month. So Sabonis and his teammates will be seen in the United States this summer, on the Turner cable network. The Russians, mostly because of Sabonis's presence, are heavily favored to win the tournament.
The FIBA Championship does not have a single-elimination format. The twenty-four national amateur teams that were invited have been divided into four pools of six teams each. After every team plays every other team in its pool, the three top teams in each pool advance. According to the seedings, the three strongest teams--Russia, the United States, and Spain--have weak opposition within their pools and are likely to move into the round of twelve undefeated. The United States and Italy, another strong team, are in the same pool, and must play one another early, giving the loser almost no chance to win the championship. Should the U.S. team win its pool, its chances for success in the tournament will probably depend on its beating the Russians, most likely in the final round of four teams. All of this assumes, of course, that the U.S. team, ignoring a climate of apprehension about terrorism, holds firm in its decision to compete.
The few Americans who have seen Sabonis play in recent years, mostly professional scouts and college coaches, recount feats of agility and marksmanship that sound all but superhuman. Pete Newell, the director of player personnel for the Golden State Warriors of the National Basketball Association, and a man widely respected for his acute evaluations of the skills at the center position, is lavish in his praise of Sabonis. "He could conceivably become the greatest player in the game,' Newell says. "At seven-three, he is as naturally gifted as any player I've ever seen, and he conducts himself like a very athletic forward. He has tremendous hands and a physique made to order for basketball. If he had played for an American team last year, I'd have drafted him before Patrick Ewing.' (The seven-foot Ewing was the first collegiate player selected in last year's NBA draft, and so coveted were his talents that the league instituted an unprecedented lottery for first pick in the draft among the seven teams with the poorest records. The New York Knickerbockers won the right to sign Ewing and agreed to pay him the largest salary ever earned by an NBA player in his first professional season.)
Newell says, "I saw Sabonis make an unforgettable play last year in a tournament in Hiroshima, Japan. A rebound bounced high off the rim and over toward the corner. Sabonis went up for it way out there, took the ball in one hand and--still up in the air, off balance-- swept the ball backhand, like a discus thrower in reverse, and hit a teammate in stride downcourt eighty-six feet away for an easy layup. I'd never seen a play like it. The only problem with Sabonis is that he'll never have an opportunity to play against the best professionals in the world, unless of course he defects to the United States.'
Guiding the American team in Spain this summer is Lute Olson, the basketball coach at the University of Arizona. Olson has seen Sabonis and the Soviet Nationals on a number of occasions and knows that the American team, made up of the best available collegians, will be hard pressed to stay with them. He says, "I saw Sabonis last year in the finals of a tournament in Dieppe, France. His team was way ahead, and he made three plays that to me were just unbelievable. Three times he took defensive rebounds, led the fast break downcourt, pulled up, and hit three-point shots.' (In international competition three points are awarded for any shot made beyond an arc 6.25 meters, or twenty feet, six inches, from the basket, as opposed to twenty-three feet, nine inches in the NBA.) Olson also has a very high regard for Sabonis's excellent and internationally experienced supporting cast. Alexandr Belostenny, twenty-seven years old, is another seven-foot-three player; he is less mobile than Sabonis but is an effective rebounder and scorer from in close. Like most Eastern European teams, the Russians are extremely accurate at long-range shooting: the guards Valdis Valters and Voldemaras Khomichus, both twenty-seven, are outstanding three-point shooters. Olson says, "Seven or eight years ago the Russians were so mechanical on the court, we could beat them with superior quickness. And that is still our basic advantage, but our edge has been lessened considerably. We have our work cut out for us.'
Newell, in his capacity as talent adviser for Golden State, has kept track of the young player's development since Sabonis first came to the United States, with the Soviet Nationals in 1982, for a twelve-game tour against American college teams. Sabonis, then eighteen, was a member of the Junior National team but played with the seniors for experience. During the tour Sabonis led the Soviets with an average of eighteen points and nine rebounds, while playing twenty-seven minutes per game. The Russians won nine and lost three. In a game televised nationally on CBS, Sabonis led his team to victory over Indiana University, prompting the Indiana coach, Bobby Knight, who coached the victorious Olympic team in 1984, to say of him, "He may be the best non-American player I've ever seen.'
Sabonis's best performance on American soil was against Ralph Sampson, who is seven-four, at the University of Virginia three days after the Indiana game. Sampson had thirteen points and twenty-five rebounds. Sabonis, who fouled out, scored twenty-one points and took down fourteen rebounds. Bill Wall, the executive director of the Amateur Basketball Association of the U.S.A., who accompanied the Russians on the tour, says, "Sabonis clearly outplayed Sampson in that game.' Sampson was the first player selected in the NBA draft at the end of the 1982-1983 collegiate season.
IN THE FOUR YEARS since that American tour Sabonis has improved significantly, but his potential has not been truly tested. The young centers of the NBA play regularly against veterans like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, and Bill Walton; such competition sharpens their skills. Sabonis is rarely challenged by players of comparable ability. "That's a problem,' Newell says. Because the opposition Sabonis meets inside Russia is not challenging to him, he sometimes gets lazy. In the big international tournaments like the one coming up in Spain, he'll be fine, but he doesn't play with the intensity he should, night after night, like Larry Bird. I'd like to see him in the NBA, just to see how great he'd be if he were pushed to the limit all the time.'
Ted Turner would also like to see Sabonis in the NBA someday soon: his own team, the Atlanta Hawks, selected the Russian star in the fourth round of last year's draft (Sabonis was the seventy-seventh player chosen). Surprisingly, at that time neither Mike Fratello, the Atlanta coach, nor Stan Kasten, the team's general manager, had ever seen Sabonis play, leading some suspicious NBA executives to speculate that Turner had made a reciprocal deal with Soyuzsport, arranging for Sabonis's services in exchange for bringing Moscow's Goodwill Games to the world. Whether the Hawks really would own the professional rights to Arvidas Sabonis remains in question, since they drafted him before his twenty-second birthday, something the league forbids unless a player declares his willingness or his desire to be drafted. The Atlanta selection was neither mysterious nor sinister, according to Marty Blake, the director of scouting for the NBA, whose office evaluates the professional potential of every promising basketball player in the world. Blake says, "Atlanta didn't have to see Sabonis. Would you have had to see Ewing to know he was the best player eligible last year? Of course not. Sabonis is in the same class as Ewing, but worth a fourth-round pick just in case he ever did decide to play here. All you'd have to know is that the "Big A' is the best amateur basketball player in the world, the most complete big man around.'
Bill Walton, of the Boston Celtics, the league's Most Valuable Player in 1978, is one of the few NBA centers who have seen Sabonis firsthand. He admires Sabonis's game, which he saw most recently at the June, 1985, European Championship, a tournament that the Russian team won handily. "Even though I've never actually played against the man,' Walton says, "every time I've seen him play he's been awesome. I don't understand why some team just doesn't give him a million dollars and get him over here. Sabonis would be a star in the NBA right away. I can't think of one guy in the league who reminds me of Sabonis --he can do it all.'
Sabonis seems to make the winning difference wherever he plays. He plays in the Russian League for Kaunas, a Lithuanian city of 400,000 which last year won the Division I Championship, upsetting Red Army of Moscow, the perennial champions. "According to my information,' Newell says, "it was in Lithuania that he first saw NBA games [on television]. They picked them up from Finland. He modeled his game on Abdul-Jabbar's, and you can see it in his shooting touch, but he can do so many other things. In fact, he does one thing I've never seen before: he catches passes in the post with one hand. With the other he checks his defensive man. Then he pivots whichever way the defensive pressure dictates.'
MOST EXPERTS DO not give the American team more than an outside chance to win the World Championship in Spain. The Russian team has much more international experience together: its key players, with the exception of Sabonis, were on the team that defeated the United States by a point to win the previous FIBA Championship, in Cali, Colombia, in 1982. Now that Sabonis has joined them, the American task becomes extremely difficult.
But not impossible, according to Steve Alford, who has played against Sabonis and the Russians. His Indiana University team lost twice to the Russians (by twenty points each time) during a tour of Japan last summer; nonetheless, Alford later compared them unfavorably with the 1984 U.S. Olympic champions, a team of which Alford was also a member. "We'd have a killed them,' he said. "There's no way these guys would have stopped Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Patrick Ewing, Wayman Tisdale, and the guys we had inside --not as careless as the Russians are.' Carelessness is a quality rarely attributed to the Russians, but if Alford is correct, the U.S. team may win after all. Although it does not have players of the caliber Alford named, the players we do have are not many cuts below.
The United States' best chance for victory probably will come from playing what Mike Fratello describes as "the American style.' "When a kid grows up in an American schoolyard or playground, he picks up all sorts of things that cannot be taught: a certain spin of the ball against the backboard, all kinds of whirling dribble moves--a feeling for the game, an instinctive knowledge of what is possible in certain situations. It's as though American players develop a sixth sense out there. European players, good as they've gotten, still have that mechanical quality about them.'
The Russians won't be able to match the Americans' overall quickness and ability to improvise. But whether a team with these skills can prevail against a team that excels in tactical correctness and technical execution remains to be seen. What makes Arvidas Sabonis a remarkable player among the Russians, however, is precisely his ability to play an American game like an American.
much thanks to Craig Wilson...
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