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Rip City Magazine Rewind: Sabonis Speaks Out!

In November of 1992, the Trail Blazers launched Rip City Magazine with the goal of "capturing all the excitement and action of Portland's 23rd season, neatly packaged for you to read and review time and time again, now and in future years."

Almost 20 future years later, and Rip City Magazine lives on. And this summer, we'll dive into the archives to offer up some of the most memorable covers and stories from nearly two decades of RCM.

In honor of the news that Arvydas Sabonis will return to Portland before his induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame, we decided to forgo chronological order to highlight some of the best Sabas stories told in Rip City Magazine. First up, a Q&A cover story entitled "Sabas Speaks Out!" from the April 1997 issue. Edis Jurcys conducted and transcribed the interview from Lithuanian to English. You can view a larger version of the cover here. Enjoy!


Interview by Edis Jurccys

As a native Lithuanian and occasional interpreter for Arvydas Sabonis, I've spent considerable time with the Blazers center over the past two seasons. But that doesn't mean we've become real close. Sabonis tends to keep things simple. Basketball and family are the two priorities in his life, and he has little time or much else.

We did, however, recently sit down at his Portland home for this extensive interview, conducted in Lithuanian and then interpreted into English for Rip City Magazine.

Our conversation took place after a Blazers game at the Rose Garden. We drove separately to Sabonis' home and entered through the garage. His family -- wife Ingrida and three young sons Zygimantas, Tautydas and Domantas -- was asleep. Sabonis turned on the kitchen light, produced a pot of food and served up one of this favorite dishes: sauerkraut with potatoes and sausages. its aroma reminded me of home.

Sitting across from each other at the dining room table, we enjoyed a great meal cooked by Ingrida and a long chat. Sabonis talked about the new-look Blazers and the remodeling he did this past summer on his grandmother's house. He told me about Zygimantas' karate lessons and past fascination with ZZ Top. We covered the past and the future, but we started with the present.

RIP CITY MAGAZINE: Have you explored Portland?

SABONIS::So far, I haven't. My family and I have been to the zoo twice. But I don't have enough time to explore the sights in Portland or the Northwest. This is my second season playing for the NBA. Last year I was extremely busy, and this year is unfolding the same way.

RIP CITY: Are you used to the rain?

SABONIS:: Yes. I remember a funny story from last summer. I was visiting my grandmother and other relatives in Lithuania. We were outside chatting and having fun when some rain began to fall. Everyone ran inside the house except me. To me, the rain was an ordinary event. I shouted to them: "What happened? Are you guys scared of the rain?" Right now, rain doesn't bother me too much.

RIP CITY: Have friends from Lithuania visited you here?

SABONIS:: Most of my friends come to visit me during big holidays, such as Christmas and New Year's. and my birthday (December 19). Right now, we don't have any visitors. Besides, I don't have too many good friends. And those who I consider good ones have their own families, with kids, and it't not easy for them to take the time to come here for a visit.

RIP CITY: How do you spend free time here?

SABONIS:: If I have free time, I like to be with my family and take care of my body. I prefer to stay home, play with my kids, take hot tubs and sleep rather than go out. If I don't have a practice I like to sleep until 12 p.m. following a game. I also take an hour-and-a-half nap before each game.

We occasionally like going out to eat at a nearby Spanish restaurant. Our kids also like McDonald's and a Japanese restaurant where they can watch the preparation of the food in front of them. By my favorite place to eat is home.

RIP CITY: Do you cook at home?

SABONIS:: Earlier I did, but right now, no. I can cook anything, but if I want to make something special I have to think hard to remember how to do it. Ingrida cooks very well, so I don't need to get involved. However, if I have to stay home by myself, I wound't die of starvation. I would be able to cook some food.

RIP CITY: You're also rumored to play a mean a accordion. What are your musical skills and tastes?

SABONIS:: When I was younger, my mother wanted me to learn how to play music rather than spend my time outside hanging out with my friends. I learned to play the accordion and today, after some practicing, I can play three or four songs. I don't read music anymore, though.

At home I enjoy listening to classical music. When I'm driving I like to listen to local jazz stations. In my youth I liked ZZ Top. When we play in Houston, one of the musicians from ZZ Top comes to watch us play.

RIP CITY: What do you think of the local styles and fashions?

SABONIS:: Style is different here. People are more relaxed. They don't pay as much attention to their clothing. Whatever you wear demurring the day is fine for a restaurant at night. If you feel comfortable in your clothes, it's good. In Spain (where Sabonis played prior to coming to Portland), when you go out all the people you see are dressed up, wearing makeup and looking very formal. It seems like dressing up is more of a ritual over there.

RIP CITY: How often do you call Lithuania?

SABONIS:: It depends. Sometimes I am on the phone to Lithuania five or six times a day, sometimes only five or six times a week, and some weeks I make no calls at all. I am in the process of planning some big projects in Lithuania. With my parents I like to talk an hour and a half or two hours, depending on the subject.

RIP CITY: What's the project?

SABONIS:: I wish to create a children's basketball school in Kuanas (Sabas' birthplace) with professional basketball coaches, the same ones who taught me when I was a kid. I would like to make a serious, functional school, with all the necessary conditions, including medical treatment, rehabilitation and massages. It would be a place where students could think exclusively about basketball and how to improve themselves. After that, one could demand results.

In Lithuania, basketball has been the No. 1 sport and it is likely to stay that way. When I first played on Lithuanian teams, we always had to go play basketball in other countries. No one would come and play basketball in Lithuania because we didn't have any accommodations, transportation, hot water, showers or decent food.

This school will allow Lithuanians to watch live basketball games in a local sports arena rather than on TV. Next summer, the building of the big sports arena at my school should be completed. Already we have located 600 children, ranging in age from 8 to 15, all of who want to play basketball. In order to let these children currently practice basketball, we have to pay rent to use arenas.

At the school I'm building, children will only pay a token fee. My purpose is to encourage kids who have a desire to play not only those who can afford it. Having lots of money, I don't want to sit on it. I dream to create and leave something good and valuable, so even after my death people can remember me in a good way.

RIP CITY: Are your parents planning a trip to visit you?

SABONIS:: It depends on when the NBA playoffs end. In June my wife will be delivering a baby, and to invite parents during this period would not be a good idea. There would be no time for them to explore Oregon and the Northwest.

RIP CITY: Are you expecting a boy or girl?

SABONIS:: We are expecting and praying for a healthy child. And if it is another boy, we both want to try again to have a girl.

RIP CITY: What do you miss most about Europe?

SABONIS:: I miss my parents. I think it's because of my age. As I am getting older, I miss my parents more than ever. Unfortunately, now I live much farther away from them than I used to in Europe. In Europe, I was much younger and I didn't have such strong feelings of missing my folks. I would love to spend Christmas and the New Year's holiday with my parents, but that hasn't happened for a long time.

RIP CITY: Is your mother also a good cook?

SABONIS:: She cooks very well, but when my dad makes food, there is no comparison. When my dad is cooking soup, my mother doesn't even come into the kitchen to help him. My dad can make any kind of soup and no one else can make such delicious food. He has a great instinct for cooking, a "smell" for it.

RIP CITY: Do you keep in touch with your fellow Lithuanians in the NBA?

SABONIS:: Yes. Today there are three other Lithuanians in the NBA: Sarunas Marciulionis in Denver, Virginius Praskevicius in Minnesota.

RIP CITY: Are there any more Lithuanian players who you expect will come to the NBA soon?

SABONIS:: There are many, and all of them are dreaming of playing in the NBA. If you are very talented, to play in the NBA is the best place to be. Being here, you have an opportunity to learn how to play "big basketball."

I have mixed advice to tell them, however, about coming here or staying in Lithuania for another couple of years. They also could get better there. In Europe, the Lithuanian youth basketball team won the championships. It is our new generation of basketball players, and I can see that something exciting is happening over there.

RIP CITY: Do you think you would have been able to play for the NBA when you were 18 years old?

SABONIS:: When I was 18 years old, I knew very little about the NBA. At that time, we didn't have any literature or TV news about international sports in Lithuania. We received information about the NBA only when we played basketball in other countries. That is when I found out that the NBA had the best basketball players in the world. Back then, if God wished for me to come to the United States and play basketball for the NBA, I knew they would have turned me into a good player. Any player who has the opportunity to play in the NBA can become and excellent player. Today, I am still learning, and my understanding about basketball is getting better and deeper. Basketball is the sort of sport where one never sees the same game twice.

RIP CITY: Why did you decide this past summer that 1996 would be your last Olympic appearance?

SABONIS:: For my generation of players on the Lithuanian team, we've done our best job, and we are finished with that. Right now we have new, young players. They have to represent our country in the way that they want in regards to the meaning of the team and our national flag. I wish them the best.

RIP CITY: What else did you do last summer?

SABONIS:: After the Olympics, I spent August in Lithuania. In September I visited my friend in Estonia, where we worked out with weights.

RIP CITY: I heard you helped your grandmother remodel her house.

SABONIS:: My grandmother is 90 years old and she lives with my uncle. She lives in a very old house, and we helped her remodel the second floor. Now she has hot and cold running water and gas inside the house. She doesn't have to carry water from the well anymore. During my summer holidays, I used to carry four buckets of water from the well each day.

Last summer when I went to visit her, I brought her some hard candies. She was very pleased and bragged to her friends. Healthwise, she is doing very well. If she lived in the city, she would be dead. People who live in the country live longer. In the past, during winters, my parents took care of her in the city. But this winter she decided to stay in the country because now she has better living conditions, nicely done, warm room of her own. While remodeling, it was important to us that we make a cozy room for my grandmother.

She is still very active and she always wants to be busy. My grandfather died when he was 91 years old. My great grandfather was very tall, about 7-0. Because his feet were so big, he had to sew his own shoes.

RIP CITY: Didn't you spend most of your summer holidays at your grandparents' house when you grew up?

SABONIS:: Yes, that is the place. My grandparents lived all their lives near the beautiful lake Dubuklis, which is located about one hour from the city of Kaunas where I grew up. People sometimes laughingly call this lake by our family name: Lake Saboniu. It's a beautiful lake, not so big, not so deep. Today there are fewer fish than in my childhood. I love fishing, diving and spending nights at the lake. So far this season in Portland, I still haven't had am opportunity to go fishing.

RIP CITY: Is your life more private here than it was in Lithuania?

SABONIS:: The problem is my English. It is not enough to communicate with a person when you know only 12 words. I am just switching those 12 words around to create new sentences, that's all.

RIP CITY: You knew 12 words last season, but you know 12 more this season.

SABONIS:: (Laughs) It's the same thing. It's not enough, those 24 words, for me to have confidence and feel comfortable keeping up with reporters and answering their questions. In Spain, I had a similar image. I didn't try to run away or reject reporters. But why do we have to talk about the game so much? You saw it. That's enough.

RIP CITY: Do you enjoy your celebrity status locally and the publicity you receive here?

SABONIS:: I don't read publicity. I don't subscribe to any local newspapers or magazines. I saw the article about "Lithumania" in Rip City Magazine (July/August, 1996), but I didn't read it because I don't know enough of the language to understand it. I feel fine not reading newspapers. Once in a while, people start joking with me and I don't have any clue what's happening until someone tells me about a story that was published in The Oregonian.

Both in Spain and here in Portland, I read sports magazines because I am interested in reading what's happening in sports around the world. I also like to watch TV. And I receive newspapers from Lithuania. I enjoy reading them because I like to know the news of my country.

RIP CITY: Are you recognized here?

SABONIS:: I play the game and I want my team to win. I don't worry about recognition at all. When we play the game at home and I hear fans screaming and supporting me, I feel very good and it lifts my spirits. I receive more energy and I don't want to disappoint them.

RIP CITY: Do Oregonians approach you, talk to you?

SABONIS:: People always talk to me and ask for an autograph. If I can understand their questions, I like to answer them. If I don't understand, I usually just smile at them.

RIP CITY: Have your sons begun to be interested in basketball? Will you encourage them to play?

SABONIS:: So far, my oldest son Zygimantas (5) likes to play basketball. He likes to shoot hoops and he knows Michael Jordan. When I play basketball with my friends, Zygimantas is always interested in being with us and shooting the ball. And he does well. I give him a lot of encouragement. My middle son Tautvydas (4) plays basketball in order to keep company with us.

RIP CITY: What else do your sons do here in Portland?

SABONIS:: Both of my older sons take a karate class. Last year, they were a little too young to learn much, but this year I can see they are doing very well. They listen to the instructor and they have more discipline.

Both of them enjoy watching TV shows like Power Rangers and movies starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. They're very involved in these movies because they can see karate in action. When they're watching karate, I can not approach or touch them because their attention is so riveted. I don't let them watch moves where this is a lot of bloody violence, though.

RIP CITY: Do your boys speak English?

SABONIS:: Tautvydas speaks English the best; he sounds like a real American. But when he speaks Lithuanian, he has a big accent and it is hard to understand what he is saying. He speaks in three languages at the same time: Spanish, English and Lithuanian. If I want to understand what he's saying, I sometimes have to ask him to speak very slowly.

The teachers at the school tell us that our kids have adjusted to the school system very well. They behave surprisingly well at school. At home, they behave quite differently; they make messes everywhere. Before bedtime, we insist that they clean up their mess and after cleaning up, they can go to sleep.

RIP CITY: What do you enjoy about playing basketball?

SABONIS:: I have a lot of happy and sad memories about playing basketball. Only in sports can you enjoy such wonderful sensations. You can't experience this feeling of happiness anywhere else.

However, sometimes you experience this happiness and it looks like you've reached the peak and there is nothing above you. Then you realize in a couple of days that all this happiness goes away because you have to go back to practice again and be ready to play for another season.

What is a miracle for me is that I still can play after surgeries and rehabilitation treatments for injuries, and this seldom happens in basketball.

RIP CITY: How has your role with the Blazers been different than the role you had in Europe?

SABONIS:: In Europe, everything was different. I was a "purchased player" and I had to pull the whole carriage. Over there, if you don't play well, they will exchange you with another players. Over here we have the best players in the world and there is no concern about who can shoot the hoop. It can be done by anyone. It is easier to play because the game does not depend on any one player. Here, it is a team game and you have to play together, helping each other. If you miss a shot, another player can make it.

RIP CITY: How are the 1996-97 Blazers different than last season?

SABONIS:: Last season, the beginning was very hard for me. I didn't know how the other players played, and they didn't know me. After some time I began to feel more comfortable.

We had exactly the same situation at the beginning of this season. We have new players and new talent. Right now, we are understanding each other I am used to playing in the offense. Kenny Anderson and I both are doing well. If you take Kenny Anderson out of our games, you will see a different ball game altogether. He is a great player.

RIP CITY: Are you more comfortable this season speaking with teammates during and after the game?

SABONIS:: I respect them all, and I feel they respect me. This year I speak more often. After the game, if we win against a tough team, we enjoy ourselves more and get more excited. After losing we are more upset and there are less conversations. But the game passes quickly and there is not much time to enjoy or be upset. The next day you have to play again.

RIP CITY: What do you think of the talent on this Blazers squad?

SABONIS:: I think all our players are capable of playing in the starting lineup. The coach knows how to make decisions about which players should play, and when.

RIP CITY: What do you think when you are in good open position and no one passes you the ball?

SABONIS:: Sometimes during a game, a player is not always capable of observing every other player and passing the ball to the one who is open. It depends on how much time we have played or practiced together before you can guess each move that the other players will make. For example, look at [John] Stockton and [Karl] Malone. Practically every time Malone is open he receives the ball from Stockton. This is the result of many years of practiced and trust. If you think the same way with one or more of your teammates, it makes the game twice as easy to play.

RIP CITY: Very often this season, your teammates seem to be surprised by your passes and turnovers result. How do you explain that?

SABONIS:: Sometimes I do shout at them to wait for a pass. P.J. [Carlesimo] tells me to only pass if I'm sure someone can catch it. For me, though, this is difficult because when I'm in good position, my hand moves by itself and passes the ball. I don't have any time to think about whether my teammate will catch the ball or not.

Again, I am telling you that it depends on how much time you practice together. In basketball, you have to be ready for the ball at any time and in any place because you cannot predict what's going to happen at any given moment.

RIP CITY: Do you believe you can continue to play at this level for years to come?

SABONIS:: If I don't have any more big or severe injuries, I can play and play.

RIP CITY: Are you content?

SABONIS:: I am very happy that after such severe injuries I still can play basketball, especially here, in the NBA. Just before arriving in the United States, many specialists tried to convince me that I was not a 100 percent player because of my injuries. They advised me not to go to the U.S. to play basketball. But it was one of my dreams to come here. After all, the NBA is the mecca of basketball. Now I have even more to tell the young basketball players at my school.

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