It’s no secret that Arvydas Sabonis‘ career was marred by injury and a lack of accomplishment on the biggest stages. After years of continuous professional and international play, his body had broken down to the point where he was almost unrecognizable as an NBA rookie in 1995 as the force who dominated a young David Robinson in the Olympics just seven years earlier. However, if there has been one thing that has carried stronger than Sabonis’ plethora of “what ifs” it has to be the dedication of his loving fanbase.
Thousands were on hand Thursday afternoon to celebrate one of Oregon’s most beloved professional sports heroes. Sabonis played for the Portland Trail Blazers from 1995-2000 and again from 2001-2002 as a member of one of the winningest eras in the Pinwheels’ history. Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland was jam-packed full of fans, young and old, who came to pay their respects to Sabonis. The 7-3 center was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last week, and at the rally the big Lithuanian made his first appearance in Oregon in over eight years.
The celebration kicked off with a thundering introduction as the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers, a drum core based out of Portland, marched Sabonis down through the crowd and to the stage. Mark Mason, the voice of the Blazers, introduced Arvydas by carrying out his favorite chant – the Lithuanian word Sabas loosely translated to fans as “power” – with the crowd.
“JÄ—ga! JÄ—ga! JÄ—ga!”
Mike Barrett, play-by-play announcer for the Blazers, played the role of MC at the event but took a moment to speak with Dime: “Sabonis was a cut of one, the greatest of his time [before injuries]. He did things we’d never seen anyone who came over from Europe do here in the NBA. He always saw the play before the play.”
When asked if he thought Sabonis’ career was one limited by injury, Barrett instead offered the brighter side: “He came back too early [after injuries playing international ball]. But that’s what they did back then, they pushed themselves. They played for their country and for their team. But you could say that in 1988 when Sabonis defeated the USA on one leg, that created the need for the Dream Team in 1992. I think other European players saw him dominating with one leg and thought ‘I can do it too.’ He paved the way.”
The city of Portland is no stranger to showing their affection for their sports icons, especially Trail Blazers. Team President Larry Miller told Dime: “It’s important for us to stay connected to the community. We always try to stay in touch with former players.” Indeed, former Blazer players Brian Grant and Antonio Harvey both work for the organization and were on hand to sign autographs and speak at the the event, alongside Chris Dudley. All three were teammates of Sabonis at one point in their career.
“My first year here in Portland, I didn’t think [Sabonis] could speak English,” said Grant, joking to the crowd. Grant went on to explain how he had come up lame after one practice and Sabonis merely asked, in his booming voice and thick accent, “You OK?”
Dudley added to the legend of a reserved Sabonis: “Every time the reporters would go over to Sabonis’ locker he’d look up at them and say ‘No. No English. No English.'”
“We spent a lot of time in the trainers together – my knees, his ankle – and after a while it was more than just ‘You OK?'” said Grant of his bonding experiences with Sabonis.
All of the former teammates in attendance had much praise for Sabas as a player and as a man with Dudley calling him one of the greatest to ever play the game. Harvey joked about the real danger of being hit in the side of the head with a pass from Sabonis due to his incredible court vision, “I don’t know what’s so funny – you ever been hit in the side of the head with a basketball before?” he asked the crowd.
Harvey was sure to add weight to his tone when it came to Sabonis’ legacy and his affect on him as a player: “”He taught me how to be a professional, and how to conduct myself.”
During the presentation, Sabonis often stood awkwardly, shuffling his hands while ever-being uncomfortable as the center of attention and talking about himself. When it was finally his turn to speak to the crowd, his hands seemed to fumble up the microphone stand for a moment before he finally broke a smile: “Thank you very much. I’m surprised. I’m surprised you all remember me.”
Understatements aside, he went on to thank Bill Walton for presenting him at the Hall of Fame and reminisced about his favorite memories as a Blazer. Sabonis immediately brought up that he would always remember Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals in which the Blazers would be outscored by 18 points in the fourth quarter to lose their chance at the NBA Finals. The crowd met his nervous laughter with a predictable “boo!” He pressed on, saying his favorite game as a Trail Blazer was a 1997 game in which the Blazers and the Phoenix Suns would go to 4OT with Sabonis hitting a three-pointer to send it to one of the overtime periods.
“You were good,” nodded Barrett.
“I was lucky,” smiled Sabonis.
After the ceremony, Sabonis made his way to the side of the stage where he joked about whether or not he missed Shaquille O’Neal (“No.”) and gave typically reserved if not cleverly sardonic answers to rhetorical, unanswerable questions. Reporters gave Sabonis their usual laundry list, bombarding him with “what ifs” that he met with a calm exterior, a shrug and an understanding smile. More importantly, the most lasting response of the day was what Sabonis said about his induction into the Hall of Fame and its meaning.
“Now people, and kids, in my country [of Lithuania] can grow up and play basketball. We’re not a lot of people, only 3 million, but it’s good to know,” he said.
In typical understated fashion, Sabonis summized himself to the crowd of media shoving microphones in his face. Even with thousands of screaming fans pawing at him for his autograph and gathering to see him speak for a few minutes in the middle of a Thursday afternoon, he still never made it about himself. On a day on which he’d been given the key to the city of Portland and had August 18th officially labeled “Arvydas Sabonis Day” by the mayor’s office, he looked elsewhere.
Arvydas Sabonis is unquestionably deserving of his status, both in the Naismith Hall of Fame and in Portland, Oregon. That he withstood such good-natured, but obviously undesired attention from fans is a wonder. It’s no secret that Sabonis is one of the most intelligent players to have ever played the game. In a world in which he assuredly had some sense of self-awareness, there was never a sense of self-inflation. Instead, his accomplishments were only validated by the affect they had on others. For the game of basketball and the city of Portland, there’s no doubt Sabonis left a big, big impression.
What will you remember about Sabonis?
Follow Dane on Twitter at @DaneCarbaugh.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.