The pinnacle. The summit. The zenith. The ultimate accomplishment. The Olympics.
Twenty Portland Trail Blazers appear in Olympic annals sporting the colors of eight different countries. Perhaps the most notable are Arvydas Sabonis and Clyde Drexler whose presence in Olympic history changed the face of the world’s paramount athletic competition.
Sabonis represented two countries while appearing in three consecutive Olympic campaigns. A crucial component to the USSR squad in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Sabonis led his team to the coveted gold medal in a victory over the United States.
But for Sabonis, a native of Lithuania, 1988 was just the beginning. Before his next Olympic appearance in 1992 his home country would separate from the USSR opening up the opportunity for a new national team.
The Sabonis-led team of Lithuania made its debut donned in tie-dye donated by the Grateful Dead and Nike. Propelling themselves through the competition with heart and national pride on the line, the determined Lithuanians captured the bronze from the Soviets.
Drafted by Portland in 1986—the same year the late Trail Blazer and Olympian Drazen Petrovic was drafted—Sabonis was a dream come true for the Rose City. Though he didn’t make his first appearance in Rip City red until 1995, nearly ten years after being selected, he’d thoroughly captured the hearts and support of Blazer Nation by the time the 1996 Atlanta games rolled around. The bronze medal earned for the second consecutive Olympics by Lithuania was celebrated in Portland and Sabonis’ native land.
He struggled for words to describe the feeling of representing his country, but in the end settled on a simple phrase.
“Anytime you wear your country’s uniform is special.”
The 1988 loss to the Sabonis dominated USSR spurred the United States make a monumental change to the face of Olympic basketball and include professional players. What followed was the emergence of what was and always will be deemed by most the greatest basketball team ever assembled, the original Dream Team.
The U.S. became obsessed with the iconic team of superstars and reveled at the idea of a virtually guaranteed gold medal. Rip City was fully represented by a man considered one of the greatest Trail Blazers of all time, Clyde Drexler.
Swishing warm-up suits slathered in red, white and blue infused the country with Dream Team fever as they balled their way to a sweep of the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games and earned the nation a gold medal. Drexler’s journey to success wasn’t just about winning. It was about proving to the world that the United States and the NBA produced the greatest basketball players on the planet. Individual superstars who played as a team with a united purpose.
“Our team this summer happened to be the entire country. And that makes it very special,” Drexler said. Special for our nation and special for the Rose City. One of our own represented Portland and all the basketball glory we could possibly imagine in a single summer.
Winning gold, building a national identity and defining an era. Those are the legacy of Trail Blazers who belong to another brotherhood called Olympians.