The Sabas Reunion Tour
Bring up the name Arvydas Sabonis to long-time Trail Blazer fans and the reaction is fairly predictable. You’ll hear talk of his size, his presence in the middle, his passing ability, and his amazing touch from the field. Then, the conversation almost invariably turns to all of the what-ifs. It’s not a slight against Sabonis, or the team, but the what-could-have-beens, as far as it relates to the Blazers, will always be there.
The last few weeks has rekindled all of the Sabonis talk, as basketball fans in the U.S., and particularly in Portland, are finally being treated to a Sabas reunion tour. Blazer fans will get their chance to see Arvydas in downtown Portland, and then at a gathering at the Rose Garden this week.
In the past few years, rarely has a week gone by when I haven’t been asked about Arvydas. Fans usually just want to know how they can contact him, or when he might come back for a Trail Blazers’ game. Well, there will be no appearance on the big screen during a Blazers game on this trip, but, all things considered, this is probably an even better time to celebrate.
As you know by now, Sabonis was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame over the weekend. He was obviously being inducted based on his entire body of work, but being Bill Walton was by his side, the moment had a huge Trail Blazer stamp on it.
In typical Sabas style, his comments were brief, and he didn’t waste many words.
“Thank you, Bill. Thank you. Today is a very special day for me- for my country. And, I’m very proud to be here. I would like to say thank you to the Hall of Fame, for my family, whole family, my parents, my friends, my teammates, my coaches. Special thanks I would like to say to Portland Trail Blazers and Blazers medical team for believing in me and helping me after serious injury and I got to come back to professional basketball. To be Olympic champion, and to tonight here together with Bill Walton and all of you, thank you very much.”
Sabonis, as Blazer fans remember, never seemed to be terribly comfortable talking about himself, or taking credit for much, and that’s certainly still the case. That’s just one the endearing qualities that made him one of the most popular Blazers of all time.
Even if he’s not the one spinning the tales, this has been a great opportunity to hear so many basketball people share stories about Sabonis, especially from a his pre-Blazer years. It’s the stuff of legend, and being there is such a lack of video evidence, we rely on those stories and first-hand accounts of what he was in his prime. You’ve heard the stories, I'm sure.
Arvydas was the European Player of the Year four times. He led the Soviet Union to the gold medal in the 1988 Olympics, and led Lithuania to the bronze in 1992.
Sabonis started playing basketball at age 13, and by the time he was 15 he was on the Soviet national junior team. His professional debut came in 1981 with one of the oldest teams in Lithuania- BC Zalgiris, in his hometown of Kaunas. He won three-straight Soviet League titles, and reached the finals of Euroleague with Zalgiris.
Some people don’t realize that the Trail Blazers were actually not the first NBA team to draft Sabonis. He was selected with the 77th pick of the 1985 draft by the Atlanta Hawks. But, he wasn’t yet 21, and the selection was voided. It was that following spring that he suffered a devastating Achilles tendon injury. Despite that, the Trail Blazers drafted him 24th in 1986. It would take them nine years to get him into a game.
Already nursing the Achilles injury, those in the know say it was between ’85 and ’89 that a heavy playing schedule and not much down time took a heavy toll on his body. The Soviet Union pushed him back way ahead of schedule to play in the ’88 Olympics, where on one leg he dominated David Robinson and the U.S. team in a semi-final game.
By the time he was cleared by Soviet authorities to come to the NBA in 1989, chronic knee, ankle, and groin issues started to greatly limit his mobility. Sabonis stayed in Europe, playing three years with CB Valladolid, and then Real Madrid, who he helped to the Euroleague title in 1995. During that season, Arvydas averaged 23 points, 13 rebounds, 3 blocked shots, and 2.4 assists per game.
After that season, in 1995, Sabonis finally signed with the Trail Blazers. He had a great rookie season, but was already 31 years old. The questions of how good he could have been, if only.. started even then.
The questions and the speculation about what it would have been like certainly shouldn’t overshadow his career accomplishments, but it’s an undeniable part of the story, especially as it relates to Portland and the NBA.
Prior to Sabonis’ arrival, Blazers team doctor Don Roberts looked at Arvydas’ medical files and gasped. As he told The Oregonian’s Jason Quick, “The x-ray alone would get you a handicap parking permit. His foot was so bad it just didn’t look like he would be able to run, to say nothing about basketball. So, I called (Bob) Whitsitt and said ‘I don’t think he can play.’ Bob said, ‘Oh, he can play.’”
Keep in mind, this was before Sabonis put on a Blazers jersey. He went on to have seven dazzling seasons in Portland. The theme of those seasons were as much about toughness and playing through intense pain as they were about his stats.
That was the reality. He was a warrior, who had so little left to prove on an international stage, but continued to pound away.
It was so amazing to watch this 7’3” giant, who was then tipping the scales at well over 300 pounds, pass and shoot like a guard. Operating with his back to the basket, he looked like Wayne Gretzky orchestrating from behind the net.
P.J. Carlismo told Kerry Eggers of The Portland Tribune about Sabonis, “His understanding of the game set him apart. He always shot the ball well, and was not a good, but an unbelievable passer. He was so creative. Other players weren’t prepared for it.”
Buck Williams told Eggers, “He was a guard locked in a big man’s body. When you played with Sabonis, it was like Magic Johnson, where you have to watch out or he’d hit you in the head with a pass.”
Buck, of course, was part of the Blazer teams that made two trips to the NBA Finals in three years in the early 90’s. Yes, he’s thought about what could have been had Sabas, then in his prime, been one of the men in the middle on that squad, along with Kevin Duckworth.
Williams told Eggers, “Had Arvydas been with us, he could have transformed us into a championship team (they were only two wins away from being that anyway, in ’90 and ’92).”
Clyde Drexler has been quoted in the past as saying the Blazers “would have had four, five, six titles. Guaranteed. He was that good. He could pass, shoot three pointers, had a great post game, and dominated the paint.”
All this is not to take anything away from what Sabonis did accomplish in his seven seasons as a Blazer. He helped the team to the Western Conference Finals on two occasions, and was always a fan favorite. That remains the case today.
Now, he’s in the Hall of Fame. And now, for the first time since he retired from the NBA after the 2003 season with the Blazers, he’s back in Portland.
On Thursday, August 18th, there will be a public rally at 1pm at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland. Arvydas will be on hand. Then, on Thursday night a reception will take place at the Rose Garden with Sabonis and other members of the Blazers alumni team. You can get into this exclusive event for $50, and that includes heavy appetizers, two drinks, and a chance to mingle with Blazer personalities and a chance to hang with Sabonis. Proceeds from the $50 ticket go to the Make it Better Foundation. For details, and to purchase tickets to the reception, click here.