Arvydas Sabonis was, and remains, a big figure in Portland, a point that will be reinforced after his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame next month. The city is inviting back Sabonis on Aug. 18 to be honored for his seven seasons in the Rose City. It’s an appropriate gesture for the 7-3 Lithuanian, who along with the concept of brewing, is still one of Portland’s most treasured imports.
There’s no way to get around the fact that with Sabonis, as good as he was in Portland, his legacy in the NBA always will be qualified with “What if?” Drafted No. 24 in 1986 at the age of 22, he didn’t arrive stateside until 1995, staying in Europe until the fall of the Soviet Union and then a six-year stay with Real Madrid. In the interim, all he did was win the 1988 Olympic gold medal and two European Player of the Year honors. He’s the kind of dominant center Portland hoped Greg Oden would become, despite completely different skill sets. To put it in perspective, David Robinson, a year younger, looked hopeless next to Sabonis at the 1986 world championships.
I grew up watching him play for the Blazers every night. He quickly became my favorite Blazer during his run because his skill set reminded me of one of those fisherman’s tackle boxes that never seem to stop expanding. He was the best passer on the team with either hand, any spot on the floor. That led his teammate Harvey Grant to tell Sports Illustrated in 1995: “When he has the ball, cut to the basket, and whatever you do, keep your hands up, or he’ll make you look bad.”
Sabonis sacrificed a dominant inside game by the time he arrived in Portland (a weakness Shaq would dominate in the playoffs with Los Angeles) but there was his shooting â€” 33 percent from beyond the arc and 78 percent from the stripe â€” that showed he could hurt you in different ways within Portland’s offense. By Sabonis earning the respect of his defenders on the wing, seven years of Blazers forwards were free to get the rim.
His mastery with the ball led him to be unbelievably creative on the floor. He played with the style of the 22-year-old world beater the Blazers originally drafted instead of a 30-year-old rookie, willing to try a daring pass or contort his body on a shot like Dirk before Dirk was Dirk. His plays in this retro Top 10 are classics in the Sabonis catalog.
Age and leg injuries that started in the 1980s and got worse in the 1990s eventually broke him down. He often would stand in the backcourt on free throws to minimize his running, and his minutes gradually declined from 32 in 1997-98 to just 15 in 2003. To the end he was still arguably the most exciting player on the floor for the Blazers because of his repertoire that looked like a 1 stuck in a 5’s frame.
If you’re in Portland, the rally will be at Pioneer Courthouse Square at 1 p.m. But plan on showing up early â€” there’s still a lot of love for Sabonis in the Pacific Northwest.
Follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGreif.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.