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Scott Howard-Cooper

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By the time Arvydas Sabonis finally entered the NBA in 1995, he was already past his prime.
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images

NBA, fans didn't get chance to see Sabonis at his best


Posted Jul 13 2011 11:17AM

So much of the NBA portion of his career was shrouded in mystery, from the clandestine pre-dawn meeting in a foreign hotel to the eternal uncertainty of what might have been in healthier times, to all the moments of conveniently forgetting English in a conscious decision to remain as much of an unknown as possible.

Arvydas Sabonis will be inducted in the Hall of Fame on Aug. 12, via the International committee, amid little knowledge from this side of the world of the contradiction of a mountainous center who could give some point guards lessons on passing. And if there is a lasting sense eight years after the body gave out once and for all and his Trail Blazers career ended, it's not a good one: The best that never was. That's Sabonis, in greatness and disappointment.

In Europe, they know a much different version, one of a brilliant player before his 7-foot-3, 290-pound frame deteriorated. They remember a talent that had a major role in the Soviet Union winning Olympic gold in 1988 and Lithuania claiming the bronze in '92 before he finally went to Portland in 1995 at 31. They know of someone who easily deserves enshrinement in Springfield, Mass. Talk about a talent.

That's why his seven seasons in two stints with the Trail Blazers could be disappointing. Because NBA fans never saw anything close to the real Sabonis. Part was his doing -- the well-liked Sabonis would be joking with teammates in the locker room and suddenly, when a reporter approached, switch to a sullen, intimidating hulk who could not share himself because of the language barrier. His English was actually fine, but the line helped him to avoid interaction.

The other part was health. An arthritic foot. An infection in the foot after surgery. A blown-out Achilles' tendon. Team doctor Bob Roberts would later tell the Oregonian, "The X-ray alone would get you a handicap-parking permit," after looking at the medical file prior to Sabonis' move to the NBA and that "His foot was so bad it just didn't look like he would be able to run, to say nothing about basketball."

The Sabonis of overseas greatness -- the two Olympic medals, the four selections as European Player of the Year in Spain and the Soviet Union -- could sprint with uncommon dexterity for his size. That was the gifted center Portland drafted with the 24th pick in 1986, when international prospects were still a curiosity in the NBA and getting one from the Soviet grip was nearly impossible. The Blazers tried the State Department and American tycoon Armand Hammer, known to have close ties to Moscow, and most anyone they could find connected to the Soviet basketball federation. When then-owner Larry Weinberg and VP of Basketball Operations Bucky Buckwalter finally met with Sabonis at the 1986 European championships in Madrid, not long after the draft, uneasy handlers insisted on the secrecy of a 3 a.m. meeting in a hotel room. Eleven years later, Buckwalter still can't help but wonder if Soviet officials expected a smash-and-grab job, just grabbing Sabonis and making a run for the airport.

Sabonis didn't make it to Portland until 1995. The lower body was so worn that he averaged just 24.2 minutes in 470 regular-season games. But the wrap-around passes. Standing far out on the perimeter and whipping the ball inside for a teammate's layup. The 3-point range. There was a flair that made him a fan favorite despite never coming close to matching the buildup of years of waiting.

"A guy who if he had been healthy enough to play 30 minutes a night would have been an All-Star," said Chris Dudley, a Portland teammate and fellow center.

A constant All-Star.

"It was such a great era for centers with Hakeem [Olajuwon] and [David] Robinson and Patrick [Ewing]," Dudley said. "Arvydas would have been mentioned with those names."

Rick Adelman, who was Portland's coach when the Trail Blazers had Sabonis' rights but the coach in Golden State and Sacramento when Sabonis finally made it to the NBA, said, "He would have had a huge impact. He was just a vastly talented player, and before his injuries, could really move. He could do everything.... I had a feeling, in Portland, if he would have came over when I had the team I had, we might have had two or three championships.

"By the time he got to Portland, he was way past his prime and he just could not move very much. But he still was a very effective center. [Americans] knew he was good, but they really didn't have the same exposure to European basketball [as now]. You just had the Olympics. You saw them [European players] a little bit, and that was about it."

Sabonis left the Trail Blazers following the 2000-01 season, returned for another try in 2002-03, managed 15.5 minutes in 78 appearances, then left the NBA for good. In 2011, Buckwalter still occasionally watches a 30-minute compilation of Sabonis as a magnificent teenager about to take on the world.

"He was a phenomenal talent," Buckwalter said.

Past tense. It was past tense in 1995 too, greatness and disappointment merging in the NBA circle that never got to see the real Sabonis.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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