The Arvydas We Knew
By Mike Rice
The Trail Blazers on August 18th are going to honor one of the most beloved Blazers of all time. They will honor him after he is inducted into the Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA.
Trail Blazers general manager Bucky Buckwalter saw in 1986 that the young man from Kaunas, Lithuania might be the best center in the world. Arvydas Sabonis is his name.
The Trail Blazers drafted him with the No. 24 pick in the first round in 1986. The team knew that any player that lived in the Soviet Union at that time would have to wait until the rules changed to come over and play in the NBA.
While they waited until 1995 for Arvydas, he showed the Blazers in those nine years what they were waiting for.
Sabonis was the key player when they Soviet Union won the gold medal in 1988. In 1992 and 1996 he lead Lithuania to bronze medals. He was the European Player of the Year six times before he came to the Blazers.
When Arvydas finally came over before the 1995-96 season, the nine previous seasons in Europe took their toll on his body. At one time he was the most gifted 7-3 center in the world. He could run, shoot with great percentage, rebound and block shots. Arvydas never talked about his ankle that had half the flexibility of a normal person or the knee problems that required an ice pack whenever he was out of the game.
In his first season the Blazers weren’t quite sure how to use him. In his first 56 games , he led the Blazers in scoring only once. He had 23 points against the Bulls in November. In those 56 games the Blazers were 10 games under .500 at 23-33. Then they had a team meeting and everyone was told that their new center, who was the best passer and most unselfish player on the team, would be the No. 1 option in the half court offense. Arvydas in the last 26 games led the team in scoring ten times and in assists ten times. It was no coincidence that the team finished out the string 20-6 and the season 44-38. Sabonis had saved the season, and he became the darling of Portland.
At age 31, he became the oldest Rookie of the Year candidate in NBA history. His 55 percent shooting, 1058 points and 130 assists made him runner up for the Sixth Man award that same season.
Sabonis played until he was 38 with the Trail Blazers, mostly on one ankle and two bad knees, but you never heard him complain once. He became very close to Jay Jensen. Only the two of them knew how Arvydas had to gut it out every night. In fact, Jensen was among those in attendance for Sabonis’ induction.
Arvydas had some great teammates and some strange ones in his second year in Portland after saving the 1995-96 season, he had Kenny Anderson and JR Rider at the guard spots. Needless to say Arvydas led in rebounding 44 times, with Brian Grant being the lead rebounder 24 times, but most of the shots were taken by Anderson and Rider, so they led the Blazers in scoring 44 times. Their final record was 49-33, but this team could have been much better if it would have been more inside-oriented.
During his remaining years Aryvdas was a main factor in getting the Trail Blazers to the Western Conference Finals in 1999 and 2000. He ranked in the Top 10 in three different categories during his NBA career. He was seventh in field goal percentage in 1996 (55 percent), ninth in rebounding in 1997-98 (10.0 per game) and sixth in defensive rebounds (580) in 1997-98.
His stats weren’t his main strength while he was in Portland. He was a great scorer and dunker in his younger days in Europe. In Portland, he was more known for being a great teammate and having the highest basketball IQ of anyone in the league. (his behind-the-back passes to slashing cutters was proof of that). People who really know basketball knew he was the heart and soul of the Blazers.
Off the court, Arvydas was a charmer. He often told reporters “No speak English” in his deep, accented voice when he didn’t want to be interviewed. Truth be known, Sabonis spoke five languages and that twinkle in his eyes never left when he said, “No understand.”
His career had some really interesting turns, and he might have been better off not coming back in 2002-03. The Trail Blazers restricted Shawn Kemp’s contract and gave Arvydas more money and he decided to come back to Portland. That was the year Maurice Cheeks asked his players if they wanted Sabonis back. Cheeks came out the next day and said, “They want him back.” He started only one game that year with Dale Davis assuming the starting center spot.
The team had a really diverse group with then-assistant Herb Brown saying that if the team could take advantage of Arvydas Sabonis and Scottie Pippen’s skills and unselfishness, they could win 50 games. That team had Rasheed Wallace, Bonzi Wells and Damon Stoudamire, players with very strong personalities. They did win 50 games but were beaten in seven games by Dallas in the first round. That was the end for Arvydas, who was great in the 1999 and 2000 players before sitting out the 2001-02 season.
Did the Blazers miss Arvydas after that 2002-03 season of 50 wins? Well, the team didn’t have a winning record for the next five years.
Everyone that watched Arvydas play every night knows how special he was as a player and person. I will always remember walking into the locker room with Arvydas covered in ice, hearing him say that he only wished we could have seen him when he was 25
Arvydas Sabonis will be at a rally at Pioneer Courthouse Square on Thursday at 1 PM. That 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