NBA fans of the early 2000s remember Arvydas Sabonis, the center of those hard-nosed Portland Trail Blazers. Sabonis is usually remembered for being the old and slow player who was a brilliant passer out of the post.
Fans might also remember Sabonis being able to step out and hit the 15-footer. Sabonis is remembered for having a short-lived NBA career that fell short of winning thanks to Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Fans probably remember all of this about Arvydas Sabonis, but do they know Sabonis was a superstar player overseas? In this article, we'll dive deep into how good of a player Sabonis was in Europe.
Lithuanian Basketball Star, Arvydas Sabonis
Arvydas Sabonis was born in Kaunas, which was at the time known as Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. By the age of 13, Sabonis started to play basketball, and he quickly fell in love with the game.
In just two short years, Sabonis would be selected to the USSR Junior National Team. Here, the international world would get their first glimpse of a future superstar.
In 1982, Sabonis played on the Soviet Union National Team, and they traveled to the United States, playing against a few college teams. Now, America saw the talent Sabonis possessed.
American colleges would keep their eyes on Sabonis as he joined his hometown team, the Basketball Club Žalgiris. This club is one of the oldest basketball teams in the EuroLeague.
Sabonis' time with Žalgiris would make him a legend in Lithuania. Before Sabonis joined the Basketball Club Žalgiris, the team known as CSKA Moscow was the dominant team in the Soviet League.
Sabonis wouldn't care about CSKA Moscow's dominance, as he led Žalgiris to three consecutive Soviet League titles from 1985 to 1987. The entire international basketball world was witnessing a new dominant force in Arvydas Sabonis.
This dominance led NBA teams to act as Sabonis would be drafted twice in the NBA.
NBA Draftee, Olympic Gold Medalist
Sabonis was initially drafted in the 1985 NBA Draft with the 77th pick of the fourth round by the Atlanta Hawks. Despite being selected by the Hawks, Sabonis would not play because the pick would be ruled illegal since Sabonis was not 21 years of age.
The following year, in the 1986 NBA Draft, Sabonis would be selected again, this time in the first round with the 24th pick by the Portland Trail Blazers.
This pick would come as a shock to some, as Sabonis tore his Achilles' tendon in the Spring of 1986. Sabonis' ACL injury didn't come as a complete shock, as he appeared to be overused by the Soviet national team.
Both the Soviet national team and the Basketball Club Žalgiris had Sabonis playing nonstop basketball with not many breaks in between the two. This wore Sabonis' body down.
Sabonis would have surgery to fix his Achilles' tendon injury in 1988 in Portland by the Tail Blazers' medical staff. Their hope would be that after recovering from surgery, Sabonis would finally make his NBA debut.
This wouldn't happen, as only four months later, the Soviet national team deemed Sabonis healed and rushed him back to play in the 1988 Olympic Games. For Sabonis, this would be devastating for his career.
Sabonis' career would suffer from him being rushed back to play, but for the 1988 Olympic Games, things would be glorious. The Soviet Union National Team upset the United States Olympic Team 82-76 in the semifinals.
This became the first time the USA men's basketball team did not win the gold medal since the 1972 Olympic Games, where they lost to the Soviet Union in the Gold Medal Game.
This time around, the Soviet Union would win the gold by defeating Yugoslavia, 76-63, in the Gold Medal Game. Sabonis averaged a solid 13.3 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game during the 1988 Olympic Games.
Sabonis would stay in Europe and play for Club Baloncesto Valladolid, S.A.D., a Spanish basketball team, for three seasons. After three seasons with Baloncesto Valladolid, S.A.D., Sabonis joined Real Madrid, where he'd find success as he saw when he was with Žalgiris.
From 1992 to 1995, Real Madrid was blessed to have Sabonis on their roster. In that time, Sabonis led Real Madrid to two Asociación de Clubs de Baloncesto (ACB) titles (1994, 1995) and the 1995 European Cup.
Sabonis also participated in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, this time as a member of the Lithuanian team, since the Soviet Union fell on December 25, 1991. Lithuania won the bronze medal in both the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games.
Sabonis wowed everyone who watched him play, including some big names in the game of basketball:
“The best young player in the world,” Indiana Hoosiers head coach Bobby Knight said after watching Sabonis lead the Soviet national team to win the gold medal at the 1982 World Championships.
“A 7’3’’ Larry Bird because of his shooting range, passing ability, and court vision and mentality to dominate games,” Hall Of Famer Bill Walton said of Sabonis.
“He had the size, the skill, the strength, and everything to be able to play. The evolution that you see now would started a bit earlier. He was really special, and the league didn't see him in his prime or anywhere near his prime,” Boston Celtic great Kevin McHale said this about Sabonis on NBA Gametime.
“Every bit as athletic as David Robinson. I remember him catching a couple of dunks over the back of David Robinson in competition. This guy was incredible for the Soviet Union. If Sabonis would've been here in his prime, he would speed up the evolution of where the three-point game is right now, especially in terms of bigs stepping out and being able to shoot out there,” Brian Shaw explained about Sabonis on NBA Gametime."
After the 1994-95 season with Real Madrid, Sabonis' incredible international basketball career looked like this:
- 6x Euroscar Player of the Year
- 2x European Player of the Year
- 4x Lithuanian Sportsman of the Year
By the time the 1995-96 season came around, Sabonis was finally ready to take his talents to the NBA.
Welcome To The NBA, Mr. Sabonis
It was the summer of 1995 when Sabonis contacted the NBA team that drafted him in 1986, the Portland Trail Blazers, and told them he was ready to join the team. Before he'd get a chance to play, the Trail Blazers would give Sabonis a physical, which is routine.
The Trail Blazers organization was aware of Sabonis' history of injuries and being overworked, so they put Sabonis through extensive medical testing. After the testing, a Trail Blazers team doctor said this:
“Arvydas could qualify for handicapped parking based on his X-rays alone.”
Even with this horrible news, the Portland Trail Blazers decided to roll the dice as they signed Sabonis to a deal, and NBA fans would finally get their chance to watch Sabonis play in basketball's biggest league.
As a rookie, Sabonis showcased his skills that wowed NBA fans. He had some incredible games, including in the playoffs against the Utah Jazz.
The Trail Blazers would lose to the Jazz, 3-2, but Sabonis personally shined. He averaged 23.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. This includes 26 points on only 11 shots in Game 1 (5-11 field goals, 16-20 free throws) and a 27 point, 12 rebound performance in Game 3.
Sabonis finished his rookie season with averages of 14.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game. This was good enough to earn Sabonis a spot on the 1995-96 All-Rookie team.
Sabonis would play six seasons for the Trail Blazers, retiring after the 2000-01 season. The Trail Blazers wanted to re-sign Sabonis, but he refused, citing that he was “tired mentally and physically.”
Sabonis would stay retired for only a season before returning to the Trail Blazers in the 2002-03 season. The Trail Blazers would make the playoffs as the sixth seed with a 50-32 record.
Sabonis would average 10.0 points and 4.0 rebounds in only 14.5 minutes per game in his last NBA playoff series. The Trail Blazers would fall to the Dallas Mavericks, 4-3.
Back to Žalgiris To Finish His Hall Of Fame Career
After retiring from the NBA after the 2002-03 season, Sabonis returned to the team where his career first took off, the Basketball Club Žalgiris. Sabonis would end his career on a high note.
Žalgiris would make the Top 16 stage of the EuroLeague with Sabonis back on the roster. He was also named the regular season MVP and the Top 16 MVP.
Sabonis would also be named Basketball Club Žalgiris' team president, as their fans truly adored him. 2005 would be the year Sabonis would officially retire from the game of basketball as a player.
On August 20, 2010, Sabonis was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame for his legendary international career. August 12, 2011, would be the day Sabonis was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, solidifying his incredible basketball career.
Sabonis is now a part-owner of the Basketball Club Žalgiris, and he runs a youth basketball clinic in Kaunas, Lithuania. It's great to see Sabonis is still involved in the game of basketball, and, as you might know, his son, Domantas Sabonis, is an NBA player with the Sacramento Kings.
Sadly, NBA fans didn't get to witness Arvydas Sabonis in his prime before all his injuries. But for international fans, they were lucky enough to watch one of the greatest basketball players ever perform on the highest stage.
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