No sports league does “what if’s” quite like the NBA. What if Dr. J and Pistol Pete were full-time teammates in Atlanta? What if the Bowie doesn’t go ahead of Jordan in ’84? What if Len Bias never dies? What if the Blazers draft Durant in ’07? What if Yao Ming’s feet don’t fail him? Or injuries never dominate the narratives of Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill or (possibly) Derrick Rose’s careers? What if the Bulls had traded Scottie Pippen for Shawn Kemp in ’94? What if the Lakers granted Kobe’s trade request in 2007?
Two of the more painful “what if” scenarios involve international stars who became NBA stars in their own right, only under abbreviated stints. Drazen Petrovic has been discussed. Well on his way to becoming arguably the greatest European perimeter player in history, the haunting question of what could have been remains a black eye 20 years after his fatal car crash in June 1993. The other is Arvydas Sabonis.
Thankfully, he never met the same fate as Petrovic, but despite being the 24th overall pick by the Portland Trail Blazers in the cursed 1986 draft, Sabonis would not make his NBA debut until November 3, 1995. By then, Sabonis was the owner of a ruptured and repaired Achilles and a string of knee and ankle injuries; the tolls of which could have qualified him “for a handicapped parking spot based on the X-ray alone” according to former Portland GM Bob Whitsitt. But the urban legends surrounding his talent are what make his legacy so intriguing.
Sabas was billed as perhaps the most talented European player ever thanks to a venomous elixir of skills for a 7’3 giant that defied logic. He could protect the basket (and dismantle it), run the break with the ease of an off-guard and shoot from distance. This buffet of talents led the New York Times’ Tom Friend to acknowledge in November 1995, “But a decade ago…Sabonis might have run laps around Patrick Ewing.”
In an industry like sports journalism that bases some of its bread and butter on hyperbole, the praise thrown towards Sabonis wasn’t exactly unwarranted. He went toe-to-toe with David Robinson in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and left with a gold medal, even denying The Admiral twice in the ’92 Games.* Dino Radja, who was from Croatia and a member of the Celtics in 1995, went as far to say, “That guy, without his injuries, would have been better than David Robinson. Believe me, he was that good. Know him long time. In 1985, he was a beast. He ran the floor like Ralph Sampson. Could shoot the three, dunk. He would have been an NBA All-Star 10 years in a row. It’s true, I tell you.”
So why exactly was Sabonis a 30-year-old rookie at the time of his league debut? Mainly because of a small disagreement referred to as “The Cold War.” The Blazers, then-senator Alan Cranston and Congressman Ron Wyden and even two secretaries of state were forced to practically beg Soviet Union coach Aleksandr Gomelsky for his services. No dice. Gomelsky was hellbent on not losing Sabonis without a legal fist fight and demanded talks to even discuss the issue begin at $200,000.
It was nine years later and a last ditch “baby, baby, please” begging to Mikhail Gorbachev that Portland was able to lure Sabonis to the Pacific Northwest and capitalize on what was left in the tank of his immense talent. From there, Sabas left his impact on the league. His speed had abandoned him, but the flashes of brilliance remained in Portland. Battling with Shaquille O’Neal – who was at the absolute peak of his powers – Sabas famously helped lead his 1999-2000 Portland squad to the brink of the NBA Finals.**
Those looking for a crash course in the mythical career of Sabonis, however, should start with Jonathan Abrams 2011 feature on the traveling European who had a fancy for beer and American cars and ribs. Sabonis’ journey through basketball would culminate in an induction to the Hall of Fame in 2011.
As basketball fans though, we were robbed of the prime of a career from a big man who could have thrived in an era where big men were royalty. And Sabonis perhaps would’ve stood near its apex. The spectacle does reinforce one narrative – no professional basketball franchise has had worse luck with potentially all-time great players than the Portland Trail Blazers. Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant are the obvious strikeouts. Brandon Roy and Greg Oden are modern day heartbreaks.
Arvydas Sabonis and Drazen Petrovic were selected 36 picks a part. One never found consistent playing time and bolted East. The other was a victim of politics. Portland went on to achieve its fair share of success in the late ’80s and early ’90s, reaching the Finals in 1990 and 1992. But it’s impossible not to ponder what a young marksmen shooter and pit bull competitor and young do-everything seven footer could’ve brought to a table already seating Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey and Buck Williams.
Those NBA “what if’s.” They’ll do the trick every damn time.
* – To be fair, David got him, too.
** – He also never reacted when Rasheed Wallace threw a towel in his face on national TV. The reason being because it would have divided Portland and he never wanted to do anything that would have jeopardized the betterment of the team.
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