by Paul Knepper
This afternoon the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced its class of 2011 and I’m happy to say that one of my all-time favorite players, Arvydas Sabonis, is one of the inductees. Joining Sabonis in the class of 2011 are: five-time NBA All-Star and member of the 1992 Dream Team, Chis Mullin and five-time NBA Champion and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Dennis Rodman.
The other inductees are: Stanford Head Coach Tara VanDerveer; Olympic Gold Medalist Teresa Edwards; Harlem Globetrotter legend Reece “Goose” Tatum; former Celtic great Tom “Satch” Sanders; innovator of the triangle offense Tex Winter; Philadelphia University Head Coach Herb Magee; and one of the greatest players in the history of the ABA, Artis Gilmore.
This is a piece I wrote about Sabonis a few years ago for the website The Love of Sports.
Arvydas Sabonis had the most complete game of any big man over the past 25 years. That includes Hakeem Olajuwan, Moses Malone, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and David Robinson. Unfortunately, serious knee and Achilles tendon injuries robbed him of his mobility long before he came to the NBA at the age of 31 and most Americans never had the opportunity to see him in his prime.
Born in Lithuania, Sabonis earned a reputation as the “best big man in the world” while playing in the Soviet Union during the 1980’s. He carried the Soviets to a Gold Medal in the 1988 Olympics, defeating a U.S. Team led by David Robinson, Danny Manning and Mitch Richmond along the way.
The Portland Trailblazers selected him with the 24th pick in the 1986 NBA draft, but in one of the great casualties of the Cold War, he was barred from playing in the United States at the time. However, after suffering the first of many knee injuries in 1986, Soviet officials allowed him to rehabilitate with the Trailblazers’ training staff.
In between rehab sessions, “Sabas” played pick-up games with many of the Blazers. His outlet passes and shot-blocking presence were the perfect compliment to Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter, and the Portland guards were giddy over the prospect of playing with the great Lithuanian.
To their disappointment, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Sabonis chose to play ball in Spain instead of coming to the U.S. Over the next six years he led his team to two European Championships and was named European Player of the Year four times. Finally, in 1995, with nothing left to prove to in Europe, “the best big man in the world” came to the NBA.
It was soon apparent that the Sabas that joined the Trailblazers wasn’t the same player who had dominated David Robinson in the 1988 Olympics. After several major injuries, it took him an eternity to make his way up the court and at times appeared as if he were playing on one leg. Still, he was one of the better big men in the league.
There was nothing Sabonis couldn’t do on the court. At 7-foot-3, 280 pounds, he was an immovable force in the low post, the one center in the league Shaquille O’Neal couldn’t push around. He used his size to control the defensive backboards and pester opposing players when they drove the lane.
Sabas’ skills on the court were well refined. He possessed an impressive array of post moves, with the ability to finish with either hand and was also equally adept at knocking down an 18-footer. The most impressive aspect of Sabonis’s game was his brilliant passing. Early in his career with the Blazers, they ran the offense through him in the high post, where he’d palm the ball like a grapefruit before throwing a nonchalant, behind-the-back bounce pass to a cutting teammate. He also ignited Portland’s fastbreak with one-handed outlet passes that always hit his guards in stride.
The Blazers made the playoffs in each of Sabas’ seven seasons with the team, coming within one game of the NBA Finals in 2000 before succumbing to the eventual champion Lakers in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals. He averaged 12 points and 7.3 rebounds over his NBA career, while playing just 24 minutes per game. Projected over 36-40 minutes, those are All-Star numbers.
Many NBA enthusiasts refer to Sabonis’s career in terms of “what could have been.” Portland fans are quick to say there’s no telling how many championships the Blazers would have won if Sabonis had joined the nucleus of Drexler, Porter, Buck Williams and Jerome Kersey in the late 1980’s.
I for one am just grateful for the opportunity to have seen such a skilled practitioner work his craft. His extraordinary combination of size, talent and skill made him a thrill to watch and even in his diminished capacity, it was evident that Arvydas was one of the greatest big men to ever man the paint. I congratulate on him on his well deserved induction into the Hall of Fame.