CHICAGO — When Domantas Sabonis takes the court at United Center Sunday, he will become the second player from his native land of Lithuania to appear in an NBA All-Star Game, joining …
Zydrunas Ilgauskas? Yep, Big Z. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ affable big man earned two spots (2003, 2005).
Still, given Sabonis’ background, legacy and genetics, it would be reasonable to think that the Indiana Pacers big man had been preceded by, say, his own father, Arvydas, in participating in one of the league’s highest honors.
Someone teased that he now had basketball bragging rights over his dad, a Hall of Famer, in at least one category. The younger Sabonis wouldn’t go there.
“I’m never saying anything like that. For me, he’s one of the greatest,” he said. “Different eras, different players. It’s completely different.”
Arvydas Sabonis arguably is one of the greatest European basketball players of all time and one of the NBA’s biggest “what if?” stories. When he entered the league at 30 with Portland in 1995-96, the 7-foot-3, 250-pound center had morphed through injuries and time into a different performer altogether.
In his NBA debut on Nov. 3, 1995, Sabonis scored 10 points with seven rebounds and flashed some of the finesse that stole fans’ breath. But he moved gingerly and more slowly, toting an extra 40 or 50 pounds — not out of shape but beefy and land-bound, an older version of his former self.
Arvydas Sabonis became the stuff of YouTube legend, separated from his son Domantas’ career not just by a generation but by a dramatic shift in global and sports politics. The father was the better player. The son is getting opportunities his old man never had.
"All of us wanted to beat our dad but it was impossible."@Dsabonis11 shares his earliest basketball memories of playing with his dad, Arvydas Sabonis, in this new edition of "My Home Court." pic.twitter.com/EAHwjpXEBp
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) February 17, 2018
“I talked to my father last night for a while,” the newly crowned All-Star told NBA.com two weeks ago, the morning after the reserves were announced. “Everybody’s enjoying it. It’s really amazing for our family and I.”
Arvydas was fairly inscrutable in his seven seasons with the Blazers, equally quick to smile or scowl but never an effusive interview.
We grew up in the basketball world. My dad never encouraged us to play. … We had basketballs in our hands and just decided we were going to play.”
Domantas Sabonis, on the influence of his father, Arvydas Sabonis
Did he ever get wistful about the years he lost behind Iron Curtain, his skills essentially held hostage by the Soviet Union’s dictates that he deploy his skills for their glory only? Few ever knew, because he didn’t share.
But there’s no mistaking the love he has for the game and for the family’s most accomplished torch bearer. Brothers Zygimantas, 28 (“Ziggy”) and Tautvydas, 27 (“Tuti”) both stand 6-foot-9 and competed in Europe. But the youngest of the three, “Domas,” took the family business to a new, higher level: first as an import at Gonzaga University and then at age 20 as the 11th pick in the 2016 Draft by Orlando.
“He watches every game. He always points out a couple things he sees,” Sabonis told NBA.com of his father’s interest and pride. The entire family, including his mother Ingrida (the first “Miss Lithuania” in 1988, by the way) and sister, Ausrine, is expected to be on hand for All-Star weekend.
Domantas had the hoops mythology on his side — he was born between Games 4 and 5 of Portland’s 1996 first-round series against Utah. After his dad’s NBA retirement in 2003, the family moved to beachside Malaga, Spain (which explains Domantas’ proficiency in three languages). He played for a junior team in that city as a 15-year-old and at 17 was vying with grown men in the Euroleague.
But as far as actual, Sabonis-family development, Domantas said: “We grew up in the basketball world. My dad never encouraged us to play. We just grew up going to his games in Portland. We had basketballs in our hands and just decided we were going to play.
“We never played 1-on-1 but we played shooting games. Pickup games with his friends. Half court.”
Their NBA styles are different, owing somewhat to age. His father was massive, surpassed in size and strength only by Shaquille O’Neal. He had a reliable mid-range shot, a sweeping hook and uncanny court vision.
Domantas is four inches shorter, leaner and lefthanded. But he shares some of that vision and likes to find teammates with those slick one-handed passes. He especially is a weapon in the Pacers’ pick-and-roll, previously (and again lately) with Victor Oladipo, now with Malcolm Brogdon too.
“You can tell in many ways he’s probably the heart and soul of this group,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra told The Athletic last month. “They play a physical brand of basketball and he’s arguably one of the most physical players in the league. But he does it with intelligence — he’s not just plowing over people — he has a skill set that he brings and he’s big.”
Domantas Sabonis’ “feel” for the game strikes teammates and opponents alike as the basketball characteristic he most inherited from Arvydas.
“Feel? For sure,” he said. “I personally don’t see comparisons. But my family and my dad’s friends, they grew up watching my dad play, they say they see so many similarities it’s crazy.”
A player’s first All-Star selection often comes in a breakthrough season. In Sabonis’ case, though, it’s an honor that has more to do with his increased role than any dramatic step up in performance.
To date, he’s averaging 18.3 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 4.8 apg – all career highs. This comes after back-to-back seasons of steady improvement (11.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg in 2017-18 and 14.1 ppg, 9.3 rpg last season).
You can’t really stop him — he does a bit of everything. He makes the right play. He gets people open. He makes your job easier, so you can’t ask for much more than that.”
Pacers guard T.J. McConnell, on Domantas Sabonis
The big difference in 2019-20 is that Sabonis has started 52 out of 52 games, teaming up with fellow big Myles Turner. Last season, he came off the bench for all but five games, finishing second in Kia Sixth Man Award balloting.
So Sabonis is doing what he’s done. He’s just doing it now for three-quarters of each game rather than half.
“As far as what he’s done this season, he was doing it last year,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. “He rebounded for us, he initiated the offense, we played through him on the offensive end. At times post-ups or the pick-and-roll action. The fact that he’s in the starting lineup, he’s getting more minutes.”
With Oladipo out a year while recovering from quadricep surgery, Sabonis’ place in the Pacers’ pecking order rose. The conference coaches needed to account for Indiana’s 31-17 record at the time he was selected (they promptly lost six in a row before beating Milwaukee Wednesday).
The reserve spot was seen, too, as a reward for Sabonis’ consistency, work habits and 41 double-doubles (and four triple-doubles). He also kept up with Oladipo (‘18, ‘19) in their pact to prove the 2017 Paul George trade didn’t favor Oklahoma City after all.
“It’s beyond deserving,” teammate T.J. McConnell said of Sabonis. “We wouldn’t be where we are without him. He’s carried us.”
McConnell said he “hated” playing against Sabonis when they were foes. “When I was in Philly, he was just one of those dudes who changed the game every time he was in,” McConnell said. “You can’t really stop him — he does a bit of everything. He makes the right play. He gets people open. He makes your job easier, so you can’t ask for much more than that.”
Said Bulls coach Jim Boylen: “What people don’t realize about him is his physicality. He wears you down, he just pounds on you and gets to that left hand. It’s very difficult to handle him.”
There’s something poetic in Sabonis’ terrific 2019-20 season hinging on the newfound opportunities he has had in Indiana’s system, because of the opportunities denied to his father three decades ago.
Arvydas might as well have wanted to play on Mars — he wasn’t coming to the NBA in those pre-Glasnost and Perestroika days. In March 1990, Lithuania became the first republic to break away from the Soviet Union. Then it took several more years for his body to feel right enough to test it against O’Neal, Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Alonzo Mourning and the rest.
Had the father arrived in the NBA at his son’s age, league history — certainly, Blazers history and family history — might have been different.
Former Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy once told The Oregonian: “There’s no question that before he came over, he was one of the top three centers in the world, right there with [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar and [Bill] Walton. He could run like a deer, shoot, pass. He would have been incredible.”
Missed but not forgotten, that pretty much sums up Arvydas Sabonis’ prime. Even the creakier version etched himself into memories, though. During Wednesday’s Lakers-Nuggets game, announcers Dave Pasch, Jimmy Dykes and Jeff Van Gundy marveled over Denver center Nikola Jokic’s passing skill and searched for comparisons.
“Walton,” one said. And then: “Sabonis.”
Van Gundy quickly clarified: “Older Sabonis. And his son’s a great passer too, but not like Arvydas.”
Domantas, though, is keeping the family business running. And business, particularly this weekend, is good.
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