The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.
No. 16 | Arvydas Sabonis
Games Played with Blazers: Regular Season 470, Postseason 51
*PTS: 12.0 | REB: 7.3 | FG%: 50.0% | 3PT%: 32.8%
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: Drafted 24th overall in the 1986 NBA Draft, joined club in the summer of 1995.
Departed Club: August 2003, waived
Place in History: Pop quiz. Who is the best-known player to ever wear a Portland Trail Blazers uniform?
Damian Lillard would have to be considered due to his work in China and the ubiquity of internet video in the current age.
Scottie Pippen certainly qualifies. His work with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls has inscribed his name in basketball annals forever.
But the real answer to the question might just be Arvydas Sabonis, who was already legendary in his home country Lithuania and the former Soviet Union before he set foot in Portland. The 290 million people who got to see him grow into basketball stardom behind the Iron Curtain, along with legions of European players and fans who watched him run roughshod over their teams during those years, gave Sabonis an enormous following that only grew when he hit the NBA.
Though he had briefly toured the country in 1992 as part of the Soviet National Team, most Trail Blazers fans first took notice of Sabonis in 1986, when Portland spent a first-round pick to secure his rights. The Atlanta Hawks had selected him 77th overall the year prior, but the pick was voided because he was under 21 at the time of the draft. Bucky Buckwalter and company stepped into the void, taking a flyer on a player that few Americans had seen in person, but basketball insiders were buzzing about.
Fans got a real look at their prospective star in the 1988 Summer Olympics, when Sabonis manhandled future first-round pick David Robinson and Team USA on his way to a gold medal. For perspective, The Admiral was accompanied by Mitch Richmond, Hersey Hawkins, Stacey Augmon, Dan Majerle, Danny Manning, and six other players who would make it to the NBA. Sabonis had future Golden State Warriors bench stalwart Sarunas Marciulionis on his side, and...that’s it.
After that game aired, the initial reaction to Sabonis’ dominance was, “Holy”. We can’t print the second word.
All of a sudden people were scrambling for highlight films of Sabonis performances. A few surfaced. They revealed everything a basketball analyst could dream of: a 7’3 center with a big vertical leap, impeccable footwork, nearly-prescient court vision, and fantastic timing. By the way, he also dribbled well and he passed like a point guard. Oh...and he had range out to the three-point arc. Young Sabonis was a walking cheat code. If you tried to bring his equivalent to an online basketball league today, you’d be laughed at and shown the door.
A video or three will give you the idea.
Most will be dazzled by the blocks on Robinson and the authoritative dunks. Sabonis was breaking the world, barely looking like he was exerting himself. Far more unbelievable was the full-court outlet pass, tossed over the shoulder and right on target. Or how about the balance and awareness required to hit a leaning three-point shot at the buzzer, catching and spinning while keeping his toes meticulously off of the line?
What Sabonis did should have been hard for any player, impossible for a 7’3 center. He made it look natural.
For the better part of a decade, though, Sabonis became Portland’s version of the girlfriend in Canada. Supposedly he existed, but nobody this side of the border had seen him in person. East-West politics kept him firmly in Lithuania during his early 20’s. Playing in Spain occupied the later years.
During the interim, Blazers fans had plenty to distract them. Clyde Drexler and company would make runs to the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992. Nowhere to be found, Sabonis became an afterthought.
After Drexler was traded and the cupboard began to look bare, thoughts returned to the international superstar. Fortunately, he was now prepared to step into the NBA. In the Summer of 1995, the big news came. Portland had finally signed their man.
In his debut month with the Blazers, Sabonis hit double figures in 10 of 13 games, twice scoring 20, despite averaging just 23 minutes per game. He hit 65% from the field and shot 58% on 26 three-point attempts. Portland expected something big and they got it.
The first impression of anyone who’s actually stepped into the same room with Sabonis is that he is huge. Whatever you think NBA-big is, he’s bigger. Sabas made power forwards look like point guards. Seriously, it was like, “What’s that shadow that just engulfed Buck Williams? Oh geez, look at him standing next to Sabas!” It was like a mountain came to earth and put on sneakers.
That said, 1995 Arvydas Sabonis resembled his early highlight films the way a 52-year-old divorced father of three resembles his Tinder profile pics. He was only 31, but a billion basketball miles playing as a Euro star and figurehead for Soviet dominance had left his knees with the consistency of cottage cheese. He was recovering from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon and botched foot surgery. He looked girthy and moved like a glacier. Obviously Portland wasn’t getting prime Sabonis.
Even so, the ent-like, playing-through-constant-pain version of Sabas was still as impressive as any center the Blazers had seen this side of Bill Walton. He played fewer than 24 minutes per night coming off the bench behind Chris Dudley, but he still averaged 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds. That translates to 22 points and 12 rebounds per 36 minutes. “Start that man!” cried the fans.
That’s exactly what the Blazers did between the end of 1996 and 2001. Sabonis’ scoring and three-point percentages would slip as he continued to age, but his rebounding never did. Nor did the phenomenal passing ability which would soon become a Portland staple.
Sabas could catch at the three-point arc, then whip the ball into a post player or cutter before you could blink. The inverse worked too. When he caught in the post, defenders never knew whether he was going to roll to the rim for a layup or wave the ball around in one giant mitt like a dad playing in the driveway with eight-year-olds, only to flick it to a shooter or driver. (Flip a coin whether he dished it behind his back or behind his head.)
Or hey, why not mix it up and imagine Sabonis as the cutter? He didn’t dunk much anymore, but his hands were covered in flypaper and he could convert a layup in a hundred ways on either side of the rim. Sabas had size like Yao Ming, moves like Isiah Thomas.
Sabonis never once attempted more than 11 shots in a game during his rookie season. He would still score 20 or more 17 times. He saved his best for the playoffs, where he poured in 26, 26, 27, and 25 versus the Utah Jazz during a five-game series loss. As it turned out, Felton Spencer and Greg Ostertag weren’t quite equipped to handle him. He’d earn All-Rookie Team honors when the season was complete.
Over the years, Sabonis’ greatest opponent would be Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq wasn’t as big as Sabas. He was nowhere near as skilled either. Watching their early matchups, one almost feels embarrassed about the disparity. But O’Neal was young and muscled to the hilt, with stardom, the Lakers’ marquee name, and time on his side. Shaq’s legend continued to grow as Sabonis’ waned. O’Neal dominated their matchup during the 2000 Western Conference Finals. Courtesy of his famous forearm clear-out (an offensive foul for most other centers, but a move the Lakers center was allowed to employ with impunity), Shaq threw around Sabas like a rag doll. After that, it became clear that the Lumbering Lithuanian was not going to carry his team to glory.
Following the defeat, Sabonis played one more year with the Blazers. That was long enough to get a towel thrown in his face by Rasheed Wallace in a timeout huddle after inadvertently smacking the power forward in the face during play. “Towel Gate” went down during Portland’s 81st game of the 2000-01 regular season. After the Blazers fell to the Lakers in a three-game sweep two weeks later, Sabonis was gone. He retired, citing a desire to spend more time with his family.
Sabonis would return for one last hurrah in 2002-03, coming off the bench for 16 minutes a night over 78 games. Portland fans were glad to see him, but splitting time with Dale Davis wasn’t his style. At 38, his game wasn’t the same. The Blazers wanted him to come back the season after, but he refused and headed home for good.
In his wake, Sabonis left plenty of excitement, great stories, and one of the biggest “what-if’s” in franchise history, rivaling Bill Walton’s foot in 1978, Sam Bowie’s 1984 draft selection, and Greg Oden’s health in 2007.
What if Arvydas Sabonis had come to the Blazers as a 21-year-old juggernaut, playing alongside Drexler, Williams, Jerome Kersey, and Terry Porter? What if he hadn’t spent a decade masticating his legs through constant play in sub-optimal venues before he even got to Portland? Would the Blazers have won titles instead of just coming close? Would Portland have been able to brag about fielding one of the best centers in NBA history instead of fondly remembering the man who, even old and broken, was still one of the best and most beloved figures in franchise lore?
We’ll never know the answer to those questions. We do know that Sabonis was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2010 and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011, on the latter occasion he was joined on the stage by Walton himself. Predictably, the 6’11 redhead looked short and slight next to Sabas.
We also know that Sabonis fathered four children, including son Domantas, himself an NBA All-Star who currently plays for the Indiana Pacers.
For the legend brought to life, for amazing passes and terrific threes, for years of playing through pain severe enough to floor most of us, and for allowing Portland fans to get a glimpse of basketball greatness personified, Arvydas Sabonis earns the 16th spot in our Top 100 list of Trail Blazers players and influencers.
Click these videos and ask yourself the same thing NBA defenders did for seven seasons: How do you stop a mountain, especially when the mountain has moves like that?
Share your memories of Arvydas Sabonis below and stick with us as we continue onward towards #1!