The two greatest center legacies in Portland Trail Blazer history meet. One earned his status by winning an NBA Title. The other looms just as large over the landscape just as his stature looms over his fellow Blazer. Read on to find out why. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Welcome to SBN-NBA's rundown of the greatest cult heroes for each team around the Association. You'll find a list of links to NBA sites in the left sidebar of the main page. Click through to the various team sites today to find the favorite cult heroes of every organization!
We held a vote on Blazersedge and Portland fans picked Arvydas Sabonis as the greatest cult hero in Trail Blazers history. He won a narrow victory over the astounding Billy Ray Bates. Come back again another time and we'll tell Billy Ray's fascinating story. Folks also discussed Drazen Petrovic, Mark Bryant, Brian Grant, and Joel Przybilla. But in the end the popular sentiment went straight towards the Lumbering Lithuanian.
Let's answer an unspoken question right off the bat. How can a guy elected to the Hall of Fame, renown as the best international center of all time, be a "cult" hero? Blazer fans themselves struggled with this. But in the end we measured "cult" status not by lack of name recognition but by the gap between the amount of accolades a player receives around the NBA compared to the love shown in his home city. Simply put, Blazer fans love Sabonis so much that unless you're prepared to mention his name alongside the true greats of the era--David Robinson and Patrick Ewing come to mind--you haven't reached a Blazermaniac's level of devotion to him. How did the love grow so strong? Read on.
The Blazers drafted Sabas with the 24th pick of the first round of the 1986 NBA Draft. Nowadays drafting foreign talent is de rigueur. Back then the international market was largely untapped, considered inferior by NBA standards. Eyebrows rose with the pick. Who was this guy? Could he even play? And how in the world would the Blazers pry him from behind the Iron Curtain? The USSR and USA were closer than they had been at the height of the Cold War but relations were still frosty. It was hard to imagine the Soviets letting the centerpiece of their basketball team--their biggest claim to pride and domination--play for a U.S. squad. Portlanders shrugged at the pick and went on with their lives.
Two events would turn those shrugs into blintz-eating grins.
The first was the underground circulation of a tape similar to this one. People knew the words "you" and "tube" back then but they had not yet been combined, so viewings were restricted to copies made from rare news/sports shows and what have you. The picture was grainy, the quality poor. Still, no amount of VCR-induced static could obscure the greatness shown on the screen. Blazer fans saw a 7'3", 280 lb behemoth dribbling the floor like a point guard, whipping passes to teammates, dunking, blocking shots, and hitting jumpers from range. It was like combining Bill Walton and Terry Porter and sticking them into Artis Gilmore's frame. Nobody had seen the like. Three minutes on screen was enough to fall in love.
Then came the 1988 Olympics. The U.S. team featured highly touted first-overall pick David Robinson. Sabonis championed the Soviet team. When Russia beat the U.S. in the semi-final round, in part due to Sabonis handling Robinson, Blazer fans felt a mixture of foiled patriotism and rising hope. The U.S. lost, true, but having what could be the best center in the world coming to your beloved team was a heck of a consolation prize. Soon "this is the year Sabonis comes over" replaced "my sister's cousin is a Realtor and she showed houses in the Portland suburbs to Hakeem Olajwon the other day" as the favorite annual rumor in Blazer land.
Though Sabas was cleared to play internationally in 1989 he did not end up coming to the NBA until 1995, playing his first years in European leagues. Blazer fans were slightly distracted during this period by the rise of the NBA Finals teams led by Clyde Drexler. Sabas-mania died down slightly as real, live championship hopes flourished. Ironically this would end up making the Sabonis legend even bigger in Portland. The Blazers would fall short of a title three years straight during Drexler's prime. When he was traded during the 1994-95 season the dream died. Sabonis would show up at the beginning of 1995-96. This had two effects:
1. It would raise the eternal question of "What If?", a significant element of any cult hero story. To this day the mantra goes, "If the Blazers just could have gotten Sabas in '89 they would have won titles". As good as those teams were, it might be true.
2. When Sabonis did arrive he immediately provided comfort (and a little awe) during the depressing aftermath of the non-championship run. He was no Drexler but he was cool to watch.
That "cool to watch" part was amazing because by 1995 Sabonis, victim of an unconscionably busy Soviet schedule for years and a veteran of several professional campaigns after, was a shadow of his old self. His knees had long since given out. He was heavy, ponderous. It was like seeing Scotty in the old Star Trek series and then watching him again in Star Trek IV. Something's just not the same.
Even moving in the 5 mph zone with speed bumps, though, Sabas was impressive. Everybody who ever saw him in person had the same first impression: Ye gods, this man is BIG! He was Yao Ming before anybody knew who Yao Ming was. And even though he moved like a giant tortoise-walrus hybrid, watching him with the ball was like watching a fish in water. He could see over everyone on the court and he knew how to play the game. He could work out of the low post like any other center, but his high post work was a thing of beauty. If the defense left him in single coverage his man just wasn't big enough to stop him from wheeling from the foul line and dribbling to the hoop. If the opposing center stepped back when Sabas pivoted, the better to stop the dribble drive, the Lithuanian just canned a simple jumper...every time. But if you doubled him to prevent the score, watch out. I have never seen a center whip passes over his shoulder or through his legs. Sabonis did it. As soon as a man came to double-team, Sabas' now-unguarded teammate needed only cut to the hoop and seconds later a perfect dime would float into his pocket and the dunking commenced. Sabonis could face up and shoot the three, rebound on both ends, and set a pick that nobody could deal with. Watching him was not impressive at all from an athletic standpoint. From a pure basketball view, watching this guy was heaven.
Let's put it this way: never has a 12 point, 7 rebound career average caused jaws to drop so much. 40% of Sabonis' potential was enough to convince onlookers that they were in the presence of greatness.
The final part of cult hero status is being underrated by the rest of the world. In this case we're confining ourselves to the NBA world. Across the Atlantic Sabas is still known and considered a legend...more so than he is in Portland even. But in an age before the internet allowed every fan to become an "in the know" expert the NBA's exposure to Sabas came only when he was shown on national TV. This happened only when the Blazers got deep in the playoffs.
The first deep post-season run for Sabonis culminated in the Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs in 1998-99. Sabas had acquitted himself quite well in the earlier rounds versus the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz, but the now-34-year-old behemoth was over-matched by the ultra-mobile combination of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Transport him back a decade and he would have stood a chance. With two bad knees and 60 extra pounds? No way.
The more glaring exposure came the next year in the now-famous Conference Finals performance versus the Los Angeles Lakers. The Blazers, down 3-1 at one point, pushed the Lakers to a 7th game and took a huge lead into the fourth period, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion. The exhausted Sabonis was barely involved in that closing quarter. He had spent the entire series getting pounded by Shaquille O'Neal. These were the days when the league still allowed Shaq to clear out opponents with a sweeping forearm and then dunk on them. Though Sabonis played well during the series, he once again found himself over-matched, especially under those terms. In fact the lack of comparative respect given by the refs reduced him to tears on the bench at one point, an ignoble sight to be sure and one burned into the retinas of all who watched.
And then, of course, there was the SportsCenter highlight of Rasheed Wallace losing it and tossing a sweaty towel right into Sabonis' big mug during a timeout huddle. He might as well have spray-painted the Mona Lisa. That incident made Sabas an even more sympathetic figure at home while neutering him in front of national audience.
With every major episode of national exposure trending negative, fan reaction to Sabonis outside of Portland ran towards, "What's the big deal?" Inside folks and basketball purists still sang his praises but he never came to mind when lists of the great centers of all time were compiled. Still, if you ask a Blazer fan, they'll probably tell you to ignore the stats and listen to the legend of a center that used to be, but wasn't, but could have been, yet was still worthy of the highest praise and remembrance.
How much do Blazer fans revere him still, a decade after he left the team? When his name came up for cult hero status a sizable portion of the responses ran, "No way Sabonis is a cult hero, because he's just a HERO, period!" Around these parts the implication that he played at less than All-World level in the NBA is an insult, even to this day. No matter what they say in Memphis, New York, or L.A., Arvydas Sabonis will always loom larger than life in the Rose City.