I will always remember April 15th, 2001 when class met crass. The Blazers were playing their arch enemies the Los Angeles L*kers when Arvydas Sabonis accidently brought his hand down on Rasheed Wallace’s face. It was obviously an accident but that did nothing to soothe Rasheeds anger. During the next timeout Mike Dunleavy was trying to go over plays with his team when Rasheed Wallace threw a towel straight into Sabonis’ face. Sabonis reacted only by altering his expression to one of disappointment and dismay but even that was barely perceptible. Later during the game Sabonis was whistled for a flagrant foul on Kobe Bryant, a memory that I am sure would bring a little smile to us Blazer fans and showed us the always calm giant had a little fire in him.
Looking back that was an opportunity to have steered the ship on the right course instead of the waters that harbored the infamous Jailblazers. At that point I would have traded Rasheed for a pack of gum. Truthfully, I would have been happy to have paid someone to take him. A perfect testimonial to the fairness of life was that Rasheed was later traded to the Hawks and then Pistons where he went on to win a championship and was seen as the final piece to the puzzle. Sabonis however, had to deal with the erosion of his giant frame and that of the talent level around him until he eventually retired.
I truly believe that Arvydas was the most underrated and misused center in the history of the NBA. While Shaq usually won the battles between the two it was our ability to single cover Shaq that made us the only team in the west able to contend with the powerhouse L*kers and were it not for some horrible calls in the fourth quarter of game 7 against the L*kers in the 2000 conference finals, Blazer fans would have been celebrating our second championship in the franchise’s history. The battles with Shaq were again a case of class meets crass. Shaq as he always has done was never satisfied with just outplaying his man but always delighted in taking jabs at his adversary in the form of elbows ,shoulders and taunts.
Arvydas’ basketball IQ was so high that only names like Bird, Magic and Walton belong in the same conversation. I personally thought the Blazers coaching staff made a mistake by not running the offense through Sabonis at the high post. Sabonis’ passing skills would catch defenders completely unaware resulting in the ever valuable “easy baskets”. It wasn’t just fancy underhanded bounce passes either. Sabonis was able to rotate the ball instantly without thought due to his court vision.
Sabonis also possessed an array of offensive moves. He could hit the three point shot and any set shot inside of that from anywhere on the floor. He also had very solid post moves and could shoot with either hand at an extremely efficient rate.
A passing, outside shooting center from across the pond might lead some people to believe that he was a finesse player or soft. The only thing soft about the man was his shooting touch. Shaq might have been able to gloat because they went on and won rings, but I know that he knows that no center ever banged one on one against him like the Lithuanian leviathan. His sheer size made him a solid post defender and his huge paws would gobble up rebounds as soon as the ball came off the rim and in one motion, would get the outlet pass to a guard and the team would be in quick transition.
By the time Sabonis came to the Portland Trailblazers, he had already played a fourteen year pro career. He had taken gold away from the Americans in the 1988 summer Olympics and had won three Soviet league titles, two Spanish league titles, and one Euroleague title. Once with the Blazers, Sabonis was named to the all rookie team and was runner up for rookie of the year to eventual teammate Damon Stoudamire and runner up for sixth man of the year as well. Arvydas Sabonis was thirty-one when he joined our Blazers. Still, even though he had suffered through numerous injuries and had been playing at a high level of basketball since he was fifteen, Sabonis was a top ten center in the league and to those with more appreciation for the subtleties of the game, would have him ranked much higher.
The Trailblazers didn’t get Sabonis until he was in the twilight of his career and even then he was a special player. Blazer fans could only wonder what things would have been like had he gotten the opportunity to play with Clyde, Terry, Jerome, Buck and the rest of that crew. My guess is we would have taken some of those rings Michael won and everyone would know what only a few of us do. Arvydas Sabonis was one of the greatest basketball players to ever step foot on any basketball court. Perhaps Michael with fewer rings would not be known as the greatest player ever. Perhaps there never would have been a Jailblazers.
It’s not only that Sabonis was one of the most underappreciated Blazers ever, but was one of the most underappreciated players in the history of basketball period. I won’t say that he was completely unheralded but certainly not heralded enough.
Arvydas Sabonis averaged 12.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists for his career, spanning seven seasons all with the Portland Trailblazers. In his rookie year , Sabonis averaged 23.6 points and 10.2 rebounds in the playoffs. His best season was the 1997-98 season when he averaged 16.0 point,. 10.0 rebounds and handed out 3.0 assists from the center position while shooting a robust 49% from the field.
After retiring from the NBA, Arvydas went back to the team he started his pro career with, Zalgiris. He went on to win the 2004 Euroleague MVP and the Top 16 MVP. A true legend of the game, an honorable man returned home and finished his career as honorably as he had started it back in 1981, twenty-four years earlier.