Arvydas Sabonis, the Lithuanian tsar

Feb 25, 2013 by Vladimir Stankovic - Euroleague.net Print
Vladimir Stankovic at 2012 London Olympic GamesAt the 1983 EuroBasket in Nantes, France, I came across Arvydas Sabonis in a nearby mall. By then he was the young center of the USSR team. It was his second competition at a senior level because, with his enormous talent, he basically skipped the junior period in his career. After having played the cadet European championship in 1981 in Greece, where the USSR was crowned champion with 17 points per game by Sabas, he was already a great talent. One year later, while his generational peers - Sarunas Marciulionis, Valery Tikhonenko, Josechu Biriukov, Igors Miglinieks and others - played the junior European championship, Sabonis was in the World Championships in Colombia with the seniors, alongside Sergey Tarakanov, Valdis Valters, Vladimir Tkachenko, Anatoly Mishkin, Aleksandar Belosteny, Sergejus Jovaisa, Valdemaras Chomicius... He was less than 18 years old at the time, having been born on December 19, 1964 in Kaunas, Lithuania. The USSR became world champion beating the USA by 95-94, with a scoreless Sabonis, even though his talent helped his team reach the title game. For instance, he scored 28 points against the hosts, Colombia.

Let me go back to my enocunter with Sabonis. We had a cup of coffee, he was very kind. We talked a little but enough for me to put together a short interview with the future superstar of world basketball. From our conversation, I only remember a single sentence: "I will never play for CSKA Moscow" he told me. When I was back home, I was looking through the pages of the Borba newspaper, the one I was sports chief in, and I never found the interview with Sabonis. When I asked my work peers what had happened, they told me: "We didn't have much space those days, and since he is an unknown player..."

Shortly after, interviews with Sabonis were world exclusives but my peers made the typical mistake of the coach who fires a young talent, future superstar, from a club because he has "no talent". Years later, fortunately, I had the chance to know Arvydas a little better, make several interviews with him, talking to him several more times in a casual way and, most of all, enjoying his game.

Pure talent

Arvydas Sabonis was an unrepeatable player. In my almost 50 years following basketball I have never seen a player similar to him. There were taller players, more celebrated players, but never did someone with his height (2.20 meters) have that much talent in him. I couldn't even mention what aspect of the game was his strongest point: rebounds, shooting, assists, game vision, leadership... He was a natural-born talent, a giant born to play basketball and do big things in this sport.

If I had to compare him to someone I can only think about Kresimir Cosic, the great Croatian center of Zadar and the Yugoslav national team. Even though both played center, they didn't look like each other physically, their game had many resemblances. Cosic was a visionary, the first big man to ever play at all positions. He has great game vision, he went to the perimeter to deliver playmaker assists and, especially, he understood basketball like nobody else. His main weapon has his basketball IQ. Sabonis was like his pupil, but even with a few more qualities in him: he was 10 centimeters taller, with a stronger body, a better long-range shot (he scored many threes). Both changed basketball, were icons of their respective eras, and led their teams and national teams to the top. The only time they coincided in a big competition was in the 1983 Nantes EuroBasket, but Yugoslavia and the USSR never played each other there and we didn't have the chance to see, even if in a symbolic way, the duel between the two greatest centers of all time in European basketball. Cosic was 35, Sabas was 19.

After Nantes, where Russia was third after losing to Spain in semis by 94-95, Sabonis played the junior world championships in Palma de Mallorca and didn't win the gold medal either, because the young Americans were better in the title game (78-82), but his 18.5-point average confirmed that a new star was born.

After missing the Los Angeles 1984 Olympicos due to the USSR boycott, Sabas was back to the big stages at the Stuttgart EuroBasket of 1985, where the USSR domination was overwhelming and he was chosen MVP. In the final, Czechoslovakia fell by 89-120 with 23 points and 15 rebounds by Sabas. His average was 20 points. The all tournament team included Valdis Valters (USSR), Drazen Petrovic (Yugoslavia), Detfel Schrempf (West Germany), Fernando Martin (Spain) and Arvydas Sabonis (USSR). Some starting five! That same year, on March 19, his team, Zalgiris Kaunas, reached its first European final. It was the Cup Champions Cup against FC Barcelona in Grenoble and Zalgiris lost by 73-77 despite Rimas Kurtinaitis' 36 points. Sabonis had one of his usual double-doubles, 14 points and 16 rebounds.

The following year, Zalgiris, as USSR champion, represented the country in the Champions Cup, now the Euroleague, and reached the title game where it had to square off against Cibona Zagreb, the defending champ after having beaten Real Madrid the previous year in Athens. The game was played in Budapest on April 3 and didn't end well for Sabas. His team lost by 82-94 while referees Costas Rigas of Greece and Vittorio Fiorito of Italy expelled Sabonis, who to that point had 27 points and 14 rebounds, in minute 31 after a blow in the face to Mihovil Nakic, as an answer to a provocation. His European dream at club level would have to wait.

The second disappointment that year arrived at the World Championships in Spain. After coming back from 9 points against Yugoslavia with 41 seconds to go, the USSR was the favorite to win the title game against the USA, but lost 85-87 against a good American team led by David Robinson, Rony Seikaly, Sean Elliot, Brian Shaw and the excellent playmaker Tyrone Bogues, who stood only 1.60 meters.

Olympic gold

In the middle of the eighties, Sabonis started to suffer injuries, which would become his biggest enemies throughout his career. Ankles, knees and especially his tendons started to suffer the consequences of such an effort made by such a big man. After missing almost all of 1987, he was back for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. His start was not that promising because in the first game against Yugoslavia, the USSR lost 79-92. But after beating the USA in semis 82-74 with Sabas's 13 points and 11 boards, the Soviets prevailed in the final against Yugoslavia by 76-83 with 20 and 15 by Arvydas. His dream was accomplished. Also, after several political changes during the perestroika era of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachov, the doors were open for the best players of the country to show their talent in other places.

At the 1989 EuroBasket in Zagreb, Sabonis and his Lithuanian teammates (Marciulionis, Chomicius, Kurtinaitis...) would win the last medal (bronze) for a multi-nation USSR with Ukranians Volkov and Belosteny, Latvian Gunars Vetra, Estonian Tit Sokk, and Russians Tikhonenko and Valery Gaborov. In the World Championship of 1990 in Buenos Aires, the Lithuanian players would already not be there and their dream was to play with Lithuania as soon as possible.

As some kind of prize for the Olympic gold, the best USSR players obtained the legal permits to leave the country. Sabonis went to Spain to play with Forum Valladolid. The surprise was big: one of the best players in the world was signing for a humble team in Spain. The reason was that the biggest teams in Europe were not that confident on Sabas' physical condition and also that Valladolid president, Gonzalo Gonzalo, had the good judgment, and help of sponsors, to gather one million dollars and take a risk. He hit the jackpot.

Sabonis was not in top form because of injuries when he arrived, but the great job by the medical services of the club made a sports miracle easier. In his debut, a friendly game against Real Madrid, he scored 27 and pulled 10 boards despite his team's loss (81-95), but he made it clear that Spain was in for a real treat with a new superstar. In the following three seasons, he would play 37, 37 and 36 games, averaging 23.6 points, 13.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists, taking Valladolid to the playoffs for three straight years and in 1992-93 to the Korac Cup semifinals, where the team lost to a strong Messaggero Roma team, with Dino Radja, Roberto Premier and Ricky Mahorn.

Real Madrid, Gold, NBA, Comeback

In the summer of 1992, after three brilliant seasons in Valladolid, two importan things happened in the life of Sabas. First, he signed for Real Madrid for three seasons. Second, he won the bronze medal with Lithuania, already an independent country, at the Barcelona Olympics. Sabas's averages in Barcelona were 23.9 points, 13 rebounds and 1.8 assists. He was 28 years old and was in his prime. He was a dominating player, one of the few who could win games on his own.

By arriving to Real Madrid, his main goal was winning the European crown, but before doing that in 1995, he suffered another disappointment. At the 1993 Final Four in Athens, Real Madrid lost, unexpectedly, against Limoges - the eventual surprise champ - by 52-62 in the semis. The arrival of Zeljko Obradovic to the bench of Real Madrid would be the start of a great collaboration between and player and a coach which evolved into great friendship between two men who have given a lot to basketball. Obradovic has no doubt in pointing to Sabas as one of the undisputed members of the starting five among all the players he has ever coached, while Arvydas always says that Zeljko is the best coach he ever had.

On April 13, 1995 in Zaragoza, Spain, a basketball giant fulfilled his dream: winning the Euroleague crown and also being named MVP of the Final Four in the process. In semis, Real Madrid got revenge against Limoges with a 62-42 victory, while in the title game, the Spanish team defeated Olympiacos Piraeus with Eddie Johnson, Volkov, Dragan Tarlac, Milan Tomic, Panagiotis Fassoulas and Giorgios Sigalas by 73-61. The Lithuanian Tsar had 23 points and 7 rebounds.

Before leaving for the NBA to fulfill his last dream, Sabonis took part in the Athens EuroBasket of 1995 where Lithuania reached the final and and lost to Yugoslavia with Divac, Djordjevic, Danilovic, Paspalj, Bodiroga, Savic and company by 90-96 in the best final I have ever seen. At 31 years old, Sabonis was leaving the Spanish League after 235 games and averages of 20.3 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 33 minutes on court, to take the next important step in his career: signing for the Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA. The club also fulfilled its dream of taking Sabas to the USA almost a decade after having chosen in the 1986 draft with pick number 24.

At 31, when some players retire, Sabonis showed the world that he still knew how to do a lot of things. Never did such a veteran rookie attract as much media attention as he did, but Sabas justified it all. He won Player of the Week awards, was part of the All-Rookie team, Best Sixth Man, and rookie of the year runner-up. In seven seasons averaging more than 24 minutes per game, he averaged 12 points (32% in threes) and 7.3 rebounds. The projection to 36 minutes was 17.9 points and 10.9 boards. Everybody was just wondering what he would have done had he arrived to the NBA seven or eight years earlier.

After fulfilling all his dreams, at 39 years old, Sabonis decided to have his biggest wish granted: dressing again the jersey of his Zalgiris. He literally played for his own team, since he had just bought most of the stock in the club. He signed for the club of his heart and immediately became a Euroleague star again: in the 2003-04 seasn, he was named MVP of the regular season and the Top 16, playing 28 minutes per game with 16.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 26.3 index rating averages. At 40 years old.

In Lithuania, nowadays, he is still an idol. He has been president of the basketball federation for the last years and since 2010 he is a member of the FIBA Hall of Fame. Since 2011 he is also in the Springfield Hall of Fame. His three sons play basketball and are members of the Lithuanian national teams for their age groups, but they have a great handicap: the Sabonis name is a great burden in the basketball world.

Arvydas Sabonis, an unrepeatable player.