Portland Trail Blazers VP of Corporate Communications Michael Lewellen and Managing Editor of Team Content Kris Koivisto added to their podcast series, The Trail, with an episode about beloved Trail Blazer Arvydas Sabonis. The episode focuses on how Sabonis came to play for the Trail Blazers and features the voices of broadcaster Bill Schonely, team founder Harry Glickman, former executive Bucky Buckwalter, and more. Listen below.
Schonely describes the first pursuit of Sabonis by a U.S. team:
The first attempt to bring Sabonis over to the United States happened a year before the Trail Blazers drafted him in 1986. Dale Brown, who was the coach of LSU basketball at the time, had lost his starting center, John Williams, to the NBA draft, and Dale came up with this big idea to replace him with none other than Sabonis. Now, at the time, both President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were looking for ways to build cooperation between those two Cold War foes, but coach Brown had this idea of an exchange program; an exchange program between LSU and Russia, where he would take the LSU team on a tour of the Soviet Union in return for the services of the 21-year-old Arvydas Sabonis.
Now, Brown had seen Sabonis play several years before this while on a 12-game tour of the United States, and he believed him to be a Bill Walton caliber player. Well, he ended up writing the Soviet Union and to Gorbachev and to the White House. Well, from what I can remember about the whole situation, he actually did get permission to proceed, but the U.S. government was unwilling to formally endorse this mission. So what did coach Brown do? Brown headed to Europe himself and he tried just about everything to get Sabonis and convince him to come play.
Now, in the end, two state department officials showed up at his door and asked that all attempts to recruit Sabonis end, and end now. And that was the end of that part of the story.
Glickman and Schonely discuss the initial confused efforts of the Atlanta Hawks, who tried to draft Sabonis before the age of eligibility in 1985:
Glickman: The rule at the time was you couldn’t draft a player until his college class had graduated or, in the case of European players, there’s no college class. He had to be, I think it was 22 years old at the time, and Sabonis was just becoming 22.
Schonely: Why did the Hawks do it, with the rule being that a player needed to be 22? Well, there are a lot of guesses out there over the years and some guess that the Atlanta Hawks actually got his birthday wrong. What I mean is, the records around Sabonis’ birth and early years growing up are pretty hard to come by.
Buckwalter explains his reasoning for drafting Sabonis in 1986:
When I decided that we could start looking at foreign players as legitimate recruits and players in the NBA, I had some friends in Europe—primarily a player that had been at the University of Utah with me, George Fisher—who was coaching in France and then coached successfully a lot of different players, and at that time he had won two European Cups and they had played against Russia. He had started talking about Arvydas Sabonis and sent me some clips. And Arvydas, at that time, was not hurt. Some of the clips that I had when Arvydas was 17, 18, 19 years old—he was doing things that would just blow your mind. Fans here in the NBA never got to really see him because he was only playing on one leg.
Well, I fell in love with him, then I went to see him. And then we’d decided to draft him and out of the blue I went to our owner, Larry Weinberg and I said ‘I’ve got this player who I think is a legitimate player and he’s one of the best centers and there are people who say he’s the best big man in the world. I think we should take him late first round. We have the 24th pick.’ And he said ‘Go for it.’
The entirety of the podcast is worth listening through. It includes fan reactions to Sabonis’ selection, anecdotes about his medical history, accounts of Cold War politics, and even a bit about the late former Blazer Drazen Petrovich.
If this sort of thing interests you, I highly recommend you watch The Other Dream Team documentary, not mentioned in the podcast, but available to rent for a minimal fee from the video below.