By Erik Lyslo
Heís not (my-vydas), heís not (your-vydas), heís Arvydas. You might have heard this line a few times in the last six years, but unfortunately itís one line we may never hear again in Portland.
SportsCenter came up with the line, but Portland fans are the oneís who came to love Arvydas Sabonis over these last six seasons. Itís one of those times as a fellow Portlander where you just shake your head and say to yourself, at least I saw him play. Thatís the feeling I get when I know Arvydas Sabonis wonít be returning as a Blazer this season.
You talk about a guy who made his presence known. Obviously that wouldnít be hard to do if we were all 7í-3" and 300 pounds, but this guy was more than just another seven-footer in the NBA. He was a magician in the post who played the game with a style Iíve never seen from a big man. He was a point guard in a center's body. And just to be fair to Arvydas, he was better than most point guards are at distributing the ball.
He really didnít care about scoring. He took pleasure in setting other people up and making that perfect eye-opening pass that wooed the crowd as well as the defense. More times than a few, heíd hit a guy in the face with an amazing pass that seemingly had no chance at getting through the defense.
He palmed the ball like it was an orange and he passed the ball like a quarterback. He was the master of the behind the back bounce pass to a cutting guard and he even used the between the legs bounce pass a time or two. All this and he was 7í-3"? You just canít teach what this guy did on the floor. Thatís what made him so special.
You think about how much better he made the point guards he played with in Portland. Watching him and Rod Strickland play the two-man game was incredible. Strickland always said he was the best big man he ever played with and that included David Robinson, Chris Webber and Kevin Garnett. He single-handedly helped Kenny Anderson have his best season as a basketball player in 1997, and when Damon Stoudamire was focused, he and Sabonis played extremely well together.
Brian Grant loved him like a brother, and despite his displeasure with a few Lithuanian elbows to the face, Rasheed Wallace was a much better player with the big man in there. We all watched Sabas and Zach Randolph blossom into a great one-two punch against Dallas in the playoffs, and Sabonis was easily the most consistent player in the seven-game series with the Mavericks. All this, and the man could barely run up and down the court.
The foot and leg problems were well documented here in Portland, but nobody around here ever saw the man in his prime. We saw him for what he was, and that was the big guy who looked like he couldnít make it up the court, but the same guy who made the defense look foolish with a pass that whizzed by their ear. It just goes to show you how smarts and court savvy will always age better than a guy with no brains and all athletic ability. The athletic ability will eventually go, but the brains are always there. Weíre talking about a guy who was on a half leg, but could dominate a half-court game as well as anybody.
I always loved watching Sabonis when P.J. Carlesimo was head coach. Carlesimo and assistants Rick Carlisle and Dick Harter ran everything through Sabonis in the high-post to utilize his passing ability. J.R. Rider and Clifford Robinson had field days in the low post with Sabonis passing them the ball. In a time where passing into the post is a lost art, Sabonis mastered it. When Carlesimo left, so did the high-post offense. Consequently his assist numbers went down, but his rebounding numbers and his passing ability always stayed the same.
As a former stat wizard with the Blazers, I used to calculate his numbers based on if he were to play 40 minutes a game. They were always somewhere around 19 points and 14 rebounds a game along with five or six assists. The problem is he never played more than 30 minutes a game because of his legs. But the truth was there. Iím sure any coach would have taken 19 points, 14 rebounds and five assists a game from their center.
Then of course, when you talk of Sabonis, you always play the what-if game. Remember, the Blazers drafted this guy in 1986. Four or five years later, he was not only in his prime, he was probably the most dominant big man in the world. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had retired from Los Angeles, and the Blazers team that drafted him was in the finals with the Detroit Pistons. Nothing against Kevin Duckworth, but can you imagine Sabonis teamed with Clyde, Terry, Buck and Jerome? The stories are infamous.
What a lot of people didnít know was when Sabonis did come to Portland for treatment on his legs or feet, he always found his way on the basketball court with the Rip City crew from the finals. Iíve been told by numerous people it was a thing of beauty. The outlet passes to Drexler and Kersey, the pick and rolls with Porter and Danny Young and even Danny Ainge eventually. They said he could have stepped on the court that day and they would have won three championships. He was that good.
The man had a sense of humor too. He knew five different languages, but he pretended like he didnít know the English language all that well. The joke was usually on us. Heíd give you that look like he had no idea what you were saying, and then heíd smile and answer your question in that deep Lithuanian voice. One reporter asked him after his first year what he thought about the city of Portland. It had rained about 10 straight days and the sun was nowhere in sight. Sabonis smiled, looked at the reporter and said, ďI leave tomorrow.Ē You wouldnít have guessed the Lakers had just knocked us out of the playoffs. The media room was all laughter.
These are just some of the things I remember about Arvydas Sabonis. Where do you start when you talk about all the great plays he made? I can tell you this; last season wasnít a season most fans will want to remember, but ask for a bright spot and Arvydas Sabonis comes up every time. We watched him because he was flashy. We cheered for him because he did things that amazed us for a guy his size. He toyed with players that were much more athletically gifted than he was. We even saw him get in a couple of shoving matches with Shaquille OíNeal. Whether it was a classic Sabonis hook-shot off the backboard or a behind the back pass through a defender's legs, there will never be another Arvydas Sabonis. Iíll bet anything on that. If you have any Arvydas memories, I encourage you to email them to me. firstname.lastname@example.org Have a great week.
Since posting this story, Erik has received a great deal of interest from fans around the world. He's received emails from Lithuania, Russia, France and Spain. Newspapers in Lithuania and Spain have all asked to run his story for the entire country to read and it's already been posted on Eurobasketball.com. Click here to read some of the great emails Erik has received on the basketball legend, Arvydas Sabonis.
Erik Lyslo is in his fourth year of writing for Blazers.com. He worked in Public Relations with the Trail Blazers for three years from 2000 to 2003. In 2001, he was named Oregon Collegiate Journalist of the Year while a senior at Portland State University. He now works with the Oregon Youth Soccer Association as their Olympic Development Program Coordinator.
Erik is on the Executive Board for the Portland Baseball Group and in his free time, he enjoys playing and coaching basketball, water skiing in his boat, golf, and spending time with his wife Katie at their cabin in Washington.