Sabonis in action
In the summer of 1994, Zeljko Obradovic left Joventut due to financial reasons despite having won the European title in Tel Aviv. Real Madrid took the chance to sign the young coach everybody was talking about, owner already of two titles with two different teams: Partizan in 1992 and Joventut. The move proved providential for Madrid, since the Spaniards ended second in their group (9-5), only after Panathinaikos (10-4), and in front of CSKA Moscow and Scavolini, both with 9-5. In the other group, Limoges was first (10-4), Olympiakos second (9-5) Cibona and Buckler Virtus third and fourth (both 8-6). In the quarterfinals, only Real managed to sweep, beating Cibona 2-0, while Panathinaikos (vs. Buckler), Limoges (vs. Scavolini) and Olympiakos (vs. CSKA) each needed three games to advance. In the Final Four, played again in Zaragoza, Spain, Olympiakos won the Greek semifinal for the second year in a row, while Real Madrid did not have any problems downing Limoges. In the final there were no doubts: Real Madrid was ahead by 10 points at halftime (38-28) and maintained its clear lead until the end, 73-61. Arvydas Sabonis, in his third and last year with Real before going to the NBA, finaly won the European title that had escaped him at two previous finals: in 1986 with Zalgiris and in 1992 with Real Madrid. Now, the team which still has the most European titles, had its first title in 15 years.
Interview: Arvydas Sabonis of Real Madrid
'Sabas' is king
It was April 3, 1986. In the Sport Hall of Budapest, Hungary two legendary European teams confronted each other in the old European Champions Cup final: Cibona Zagreb, the defending champion and challenger Zalgiris Kaunas, representing two countries that no longer exist: Yugoslavia and the USSR. Cibona had the late Drazen Petrovic and Zalgiris had Arvydas Sabonis. Both were 22, but they were already on their way to being legends. Though they never played together, they shared some clubs, Petrovic going to Real Madrid and the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers, and the man Europe knew as Sabas following the same route. That spring day in 1986 belonged to Petrovic and Cibona, despite 27 points by Sabonis, who would also lose a second final, with Real Madrid in 1993, to Limoges. But in 1995, arguably the greatest center of his generation reached the mountaintop. Madrid was champ again, and Sabonis was king at last.
The third time was the charm, Arvydas?
"Thank God it was...really. I didn't know how I would have taken another loss in a final. Until then I had won lots of titles with Zalgiris, the USSR national team, the Lithuanian national team later, and with Real Madrid. But I was still missing the most important of them all at the club level. And we won it."
How did you do it?
"We had a good team. Zeljko Obradovic, our coach, knew how to use our individual qualities and make a compact team out of us. Our main aim was the Euroleague, and virtually all our efforts were concentrated in reaching that aim. I admit that I hardly remember some things from that season, not even how we got to Zaragoza. But I do remember the Final Four."
First Limoges, then Olympiakos in the final...
"We beat Limoges easy, I think they didn't even score 50 points. It was our revenge for the loss in the semifinals two years earlier. In the final, against the Greeks, we had no problems, either. I remember I was not in the best condition to play - my shoulders hurt - but I managed to do my thing."
You call 21 points and 9 boards in semis, then 23 points and 7 rebounds in the final, "doing your thing"?
"I played well, but we had a good team. Joe Arlauckas was a great offensive player. Antonio Martin helped me a lot under the boards. Antunez was a good guard. Garcia Coll and Santos were incredible defenders. Chechu Biriukov was a great shooter, and most of all, a great friend."
Are you still in contact with some teammates from those years?
"Yes, mostly during the summer, which I normally spend in Spain. I occasionally speak with Biriukov and Garcia Coll...those are good memories. It was a title that gave me immense joy, and we celebrated it big. I'm almost the only one who is still playing."
The NBA is constantly attracting the best players from Europe. Do you think that trend will continue?
"I don't see why it should stop. It is the law of the market, like the law of life. It's like my Lithuania: It's a small country which cannot maintain its talents, but there are always new ones arising. And the same happens in the rest of Europe: there will always be young talents."
Do you see an NBA division in Europe?
"Why not? It's difficult, but not impossible. Everything is a matter of money, if the numbers show it can be a profitable business..."
"Well, business and showtime."
We have read that your eldest son, Zygmantas, has been already called by the regional team in Andalucia for his age group. The Sabonis dynasty remains under the boards?
"It's still early to say anything. This month he'll turn 12. I have not seen him all year, because my family lives in Torremolinos, and I'm here in the Unites States living alone, practicing, travelling and sleeping. He surely has some talent, but I wouldn't like that he is called up because he is a Sabonis. He has to earn his place thanks to his qualities."