He never made an All-Star Game as an NBA player. He was never a league MVP. He was never an All-NBA selection. Yet Arvydas Sabonis richly deserved the nod of being named recently to the Basketball Hall-of-Fame.
By the time Sabas got to the NBA in 1995, he was nearly 31. He had already earned a gold and bronze medal at the Olympics with the Soviet Union and Lithuania respectively. He had won countless individual and team honors in Europe. Unfortunately, injuries had already started to take their toll on Sabonis’ body by the time he joined the Trail Blazers. But while his body never seemed to be at full strength during his NBA days, his mind was always sharp, and usually two steps ahead of everyone else when he was out on the court.
I saw Sabas for the first time in my initial season with the Blazers, initially recalling that he was quite simply the biggest man I had ever seen. Big hands, big feet, and a big laugh that filled a room. He was very playful, and loved to try to convince unsuspecting media types that he couldn’t understand English and therefore wasn’t able to answer their questions. He’d usually let the reporters in on the joke eventually, but when a new one showed up to interview him, the act was on again, and he could always pull it off with a straight face.
On the court, he was as good a passer as I’d ever seen, big man or small. His instincts were incredible, and though he lumbered more than ran up and down the court, he got to where he needed to be, and his skills never left him, even when playing in pain on many nights. Because of his size, when he’d move across the lane for one of his patented hook shots, I’d describe it on the radio as “rolling thunder”. It may not have been Kareem’s “sky hook”, but it was just as difficult to block. And because he could also go outside to shoot a smooth looking jumper with 3-point range, he was a tough cover for any other center in the league.
During my early days with the team, I used to interview a Blazers’ player after wins at the Rose Garden at center court, a tradition that Schonz started years before I arrived in town. There were nights I’d ask for Sabonis to be my guest, but he was too shy to ever come out. He’d always tell me he wasn’t comfortable with his English and didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of the fans. I told him they’d just be thrilled to see him out there. He promised me he’d do it one night, but would never say when. Well, I kept after him one season until finally he told me after the next home win, he’d finally keep his promise. I recall going back to the locker room myself after that game to make sure he wouldn’t try to wiggle out of it because I was sure he’d have second thoughts. And sure enough he did. He begged me to let him out of his promise, but I told him the fans were waiting and he relented and walked back out to the court with me. He had his head down and was almost afraid to look up to see how many fans had hung around for his historic first center court interview. I asked him some easy questions, making sure to talk slowly and not use any fancy words that he might have trouble understanding. He handled it just fine, but told me the next day as we were heading out on a road trip that his heart was racing the whole time and he didn’t want me to ask him to do that again. I assured him I wouldn’t and thanked him for keeping his word. It would turn out to be the one and only center court interview he ever did.
Blazers’ fans of the early 90’s often wonder how many championships the team could have won if Sabonis had come to Portland in his prime and before his body began to break down from injuries. It’s one of those questions we’ll never have an answer to, but I can tell you this much. The time we did get to see Sabas in a Blazers’ uniform was still pretty special. He sacrificed everything he had to play as often as he did, and over the years I know you great fans appreciated his effort. And for all his talents, not only displayed in the NBA, but for many other years in Europe before that, Arvydas Sabonis is a deserving new addition to the Basketball Hall-of-Fame. If only I could bring him back to center court at the Rose Garden one more time to talk about it!