One For The Books: The Big Man's Big Game

Wayne Thompson, the original beat-writer for the Portland Trail Blazers takes the fans back to an important point in team history and brings that game back to life with his "One For The Books" articles, which go beyond the box score. This installment of "One For The Books" was taken from the November 2002 issue of Rip City Magazine where Wayne relives one of Arvydas Sabonis' finest outings in a Trail Blazer uniform against the Timberwolves in March of 98. This issue hit the stands just as Sabonis was about to embark on his return to the Trail Blazers after he had taken a one-year hiatus the year prior. And this history lesson was a little reminder to those who forgot....Sabonis still had plenty of gas left in the tank. Without further ado, enjoy "The Big Man's Big Game!"

By Wayne Thompson

IN THE SUMMER OF 1988, basketball fans around Portland talked excitedly about an Arvydas Sabonis sighting at the Riverplace Athletic Club.

"You ought to see this guy," said Bucky Buckwalter, then the Trail Blazers vice president of basketball operations.

"He's Oscar Robertson in a 7-foot-3, 280-pound body."

Then just 24 years old, Sabonis was undergoing therapy in Portland after two career-threatening ruptures of his Achilles tendon. In his daily workouts at Riverplace, Arvydas would put on a show for club members.

Geoff Petrie, the Blazers shooting coach, was dazzled by the Lithuanian's artistry and range. Indeed, we all bore witness to the uncanny shooting touch and ball-handling skills of the greatest basketball player to come out of Europe.

Four hook shots from near the right corner, about 14 feet out, went bank-swish; two dozen jumpers in a perimeter from behind an imaginary three-point circle. He missed one.

None of us, Petrie included, had ever seen a shooting demonstration quite like that from a man who stood three inches over the height of your average doorway.

Buckwalter had selected Sabonis for the Blazers in the first round of the 1986 NBA draft. Bucky was forever hopeful that Arvydas would bring his enormous talent to America and become a Trail Blazer.

But the timing was wrong. Already the toast of Europe and well known in South America and Asia, Arvydas had no interest in playing in the United States. He played for Russia. He played international basketball where the pass, no the dunk shot, was revered.

And in Cold War terms, America was a major rival, if not the enemy.

Seven years later, however, a 31-year-old Sabonis, fresh from being named the European Player of the Year in 1995, did come to the NBA, becoming the first Blazer rookie in 15 years and only the seventh in franchise history to score 1,000 or more points.

For the next six seasons, Sabonis, even though in his 30s, his mobility and quickness reduced by prior injuries and surgeries, was a force for the Blazers in all phases of the game.

Of his 392 Blazer games from 1995 to 2001, though, none of them was more complete and more revealing of his mastery of fundamentals than Portland's 95-92 win over Minnesota on March 12, 1998.

Against the Timberwolves at the Rose Garden, Sabas scored 28 points, including the winning basket in the final seconds, and tied his NBA career-high of 20 rebounds. Moreover, it was his play alone that spared the Trail Blazers from what might have been a nightmarish defeat.

After leading by 16 points in the third quarter, the Blazers found themselves trailing 92-91 in the closing seconds, when a Minnesota forward blocked an inside shot by Portland's Isaiah Rider.

The rebound, however, went straight to Sabonis, who was alone on the other side of the basket. Sabas easily dunked with 7.2 seconds left to give the Blazers a one-point edge.

Portland's Rasheed Wallace then denied Minnesota a chance to retaliate when he stole the inbound pass from the Timberwolves and got the ball to Rider, who was fouled. Rider sank two free throws with a second left to make it 95-92.

The Wolves missed a three-point attempt at the buzzer that would have tied the game, but the damage, chiefly that imposed by a 33-year-old Sabonis, was done.

"We were lucky to win this one," said Blazer coach Mike Dunleavy, pointing out that the Blazers, having lost four of their last five games, had lost focus as Western Conference teams battled down the stretch to win favorable playoff positions.

"This is the time of year when you should be jelling and sharpening your game," he added. "Arvydas has been in so many situations like this over his long career. He's the anchor for us. He carried us tonight."

The victory gave the Blazers, who were in sixth place in the Western Conference standings, more breathing room over the Timberwolves, who were seventh. Portland's win improved the team to 35-26, while Minnesota fell to 33-30.

"They just had too much size for us," said a disappointed Minnesota coach Flip Saunders. "We just had no one who could contend with Sabonis. It's not just his great size, it's also his passing and shooting skills.

"That 300-pound body (of his) takes up a lot of room under the defensive board and his being there and blocking out people lets the other Blazers steal the caroms that he doesn't get," Saunders pointed out.

Dunleavy concurred with that assessment. "He (Sabas) was obviously terrific, but that's your game plan, that's our strength and edge a lot of nights. If anything, we should have gone to him even more, especially later in the game when Minnesota rallied back."

Sabonis put on an exhibition in the first quarter. In 9:18, he had seven points and six rebounds, and would have had more than one assist if his teammates had converted a couple of his snazzy behind-the-back passes. He also drew two quick fouls that took Minnesota center Stanley Roberts out of the game.

Sabonis, in fact, had his team-high 29th double-double of the season before the end of the half (15 points, 11 rebounds).

The Timberwolves shot poorly from the outside in the first half and only got one easy basket, a layup in transition by Cherokee Parks. Parks, however, couldn't stop Sabas, either. Sabas outrebounded Minnesota's entire starting lineup 11-8 in the first half, and his 15 points were only one less than the total scored by Minnesota's starting frontline.

On a night when Rider was celebrating his 27th birthday with a 5 for 18 shooting disaster and six turnovers, Sabonis was cleaning up after him, not only on the game-winning dunk off of a Rider miss, but earlier Sabas blocked a Wolves shot at rim range after an inbound pass was stolen from an inattentive Rider.

The Blazers, nevertheless, continued their sloppy play in the fourth quarter. At one point they made five consecutive turnovers, but Sabonis settled them down. He scored on a roll into the key, then was fouled on a similar move and made two free throws, finally missing one late in the game.

Wallace, who made the pivotal defensive play to thwart Minnesota's last-gasp try at victory, scored jsut 15 points in the game. But he said the Blazer game plan was not about his individual battles with the Minnesota forwards, but rather was all about matching Sabonis up against the Wolves' centers.

"We tried to take advantage down low," Wallace told The Oregonian's Paul Buker. "We knew that if (Stanley) Roberts got into foul trouble early, Cherokee Parks was too small to handle Sabas."

This was Sabonis's greatest season as a Blazer in terms of games (73) and minutes played (2,333), rebounds (729), assists (218), points (1,167) and scoring average (16.0 points per game).

After this win especially, he didn't do his usual disappearing act into the training room to duck post-game interviews. Instead, he talked to reporters about his perspective on the Trail Blazers' future.

"I have enjoyed this season," he said as if the thought came as a surprise to him.

Asked by the The Oregonian's Steve Brandon if he expected to re-sign with the Blazers for two more seasons, Sabas said, "If I am healthy, yes, I want to play."

Did Sabonis think the 1998 Blazers had the potential to win the NBA championship?

"Not yet," he said candidly, "This is a young team, and we need time to play together. Tonight is an example. We lose focus for awhile.. Maybe in three or four years, we be there. I don't know exactly how long."

The late Bill Musselman then a Portland assistant coach, put it another way: "I don't know how close this team is to a championship, but I can't believe we'd get there without the big guy.

"He's like fine win. He may be getting older, but passing and shooting skills, size and intelligence--those things don't deteriorate."