Kevin Durant made waves last season after referring to Kristaps Porzingis as a “basketball unicorn,” based on the Latvian big man’s unique skill set. The nickname has since entered the basketball lexicon, used to refer to a player who is able to dominate the low post game like a traditional big man, but also handle the ball and make plays from the perimeter—a sort of point-center, if you will. Other players to fit this mold include Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns, and Nikola Jokic.
However, Keith Smith of 16 Wins a Ring makes the case that former Trail Blazer Arvydas Sabonis was the original unicorn. Smith takes a look back at the Lithuanian- born player’s basketball career, spanning his early days dominating the youth circuits of the former Soviet Union, his time as a European superstar in the 1980s, and finally his Trail Blazer career, which began years after his prime; his prime that was cut short due to injuries brought on by overuse at the hands of Soviet coaching.
Sabonis burst onto the scene as a 15-year old on the USSR Junior National Team, and turned professional at 16, joining his hometown Žalgiris of Kaunas, Lithuania in 1981. He dominated the Soviet League, leading Žalgiris to three-straight championships from 1985-1987, upseating powerhouse CSKA Moscow, coached by Alexander Gomelsky, who was also the coach of the Soviet National Team. Gomelsky routinely played Sabonis through injuries, including a torn Achilles, which drastically affected the big man’s mobility.
Smith aptly describes a pre-injury Sabonis:
But in the 80s, it was as if Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had grown five inches and were rolled into one. Sabonis not only attempted, but completed passes that only Bird and Johnson were trying at the time.
On defense, he used his size and quickness to dominate around the basket. He was a ferocious shot blocker, who loved chase-down blocks against unwitting opponents. He could also rebound better than anyone in the world at the time and thoroughly controlled the glass. The basketball world had never seen anything like it.
In 1988, Sabonis, coming off of a second Achilles injury, led the USSR to Olympic gold and a shocking upset over the USA National Team in the semifinals in Seoul, South Korea. He dominated David Robinson, going for 13 points and 13 rebounds in the head-to-head. The humiliating defeat of the Americans, at the closing of the Cold War nonetheless, played no small part in the United States allowing NBA players to be on the Olympic squad, ushering in the Dream Team of 1992.
The newly liberated Lithuania, led by Sabonis (and rocking those spectacular tie dye Grateful Dead unis), earned the bronze medal at the highly competitive ‘92 games in Barcelona; perhaps even more impressive than the loaded USA’s expected gold.
Sabonis was originally drafted by the Trail Blazers in 1986, but didn’t actually make it to the Rose City until 1995 due to various complications. By then hobbled by injuries upon his arrival, team doctors famously proclaimed that, “Arvydas could qualify for handicapped parking based on his X-rays alone.” Nonetheless, the Lithuanian legend was highly effective for the Blazers, making the NBA All-Rookie First Team as a 31 year old in 1996.
Arvydas played six solid seasons in Portland, averaging 12 points and 7.3 rebounds per game during his NBA career. Yet, many wonder what could have been if a fully healthy Sabonis could have joined the likes of Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter at the height of his career in the mid-late 1980s. Drexler maintains that the team “would have won four to six titles with Sabonis. He was that good. He could pass, shoot threes, had a great post game and dominated the paint. Guaranteed.”
While Sabonis was a fan favorite during his time in Portland, and part of a very successful, if troubled era of Blazer basketball, it is important for fans to remember that the “our” ‘Vydas was merely a shell of the dominating player he was during the 1980s. Sabonis was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011, a fitting end to a terrific career. His legacy lives on in his son Domantas, a starting forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Smith’s full article can be found here.