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What ifs will stick forever in rating Arvydas Sabonis

On Sports
by: L.E. BASKOW Arvydas Sabonis, dunking in a May 2003 Trail Blazers game, will be inducted this weekend into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Then, he’ll be honored in a return visit to Portland.

The year was 1995, and Rick Carlisle - then an assistant coach on P.J. Carlesimo's staff with the Trail Blazers - beckoned me into his office in the Rose Garden.

For 15 or 20 minutes, we watched video of Arvydas Sabonis at age 17, helping the Soviet national team to victory over Bobby Knight's Indiana team at Bloomington in 1981.

On the screen was a slender Sabonis, incredibly long and sinewy, running the court, scoring in a variety of ways, rebounding and passing with a rare adroitness.

For most who saw Sabonis play before he suffered his first Achilles' tendon injury at the tender age of 21, the question is this:

What if?

What if the native of Kaunas, Lithuania, had been able to go through his long career injury-free? What if he had not had to play, in his own words, 'on one-and-a-half legs' through the latter stages of his career?

Carlisle is among those who wonder.

'When he was 17, 18, 19 years old, Arvydas was a physical specimen like I had never seen before,' says Carlisle, who coached the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA championship in June. 'He was a 7-3 guy who could run like Bobby Jones and and shoot like Larry Bird. He was unbelievable.'

Even with the Achilles' tendon, knee and ankle injuries that limited his mobility and shortened his career, Sabonis' stamp on the international game was indelible.

His induction this weekend into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame at Springfield, Mass., is proof. On his resume: Eight times the European player of the year, two-time Spanish League most valuable player, gold medalist with the Soviet Union at the 1982 world championships and the 1988 Olympic Games, for seven seasons one of the NBA's most imposing big men while with Portland.

Sabonis, who played with the Blazers from 1995-2001 and again in 2002-03, will be honored next Thursday in Portland, making his first visit to the City of Roses since his final season here.

It will be a time to reflect on some very good times that might have been even better.

'I'm satisfied with my career,' says Sabonis, 46, who lives in Lithuania, runs a youth basketball school and is part owner of the Zalgiris club, for whom he began his pro career in 1981. 'Maybe one regret - that nobody stopped me when I first got injured and explained to me to watch for the symptoms.'

Sabonis is speaking about the Achilles' injury that robbed him of his speed and quickness, and eventually shortened his career.

Bucky Buckwalter was the Blazers' director of player personnel and the man most responsible for selecting Sabonis with the 24th and final pick of the first round in the 1986 NBA draft.

'I have a half-hour tape, a composition of highlights of Arvydas playing from the ages of 18 to 20,' says Buckwalter, retired and still living in Portland. 'He was doing some amazing things. Passing from the high post. Elevating over people. He was a very gifted big man, more skilled than maybe any big man other than (Bill) Walton in passing.

'In Europe, he was playing against not terribly competitive opposition. Had he been able to play against better competition, he'd have developed more and become one of the all-time greats. As it was, he still was pretty damn good.'

Already a 7-footer, Sabonis became a member of the Soviet national junior team at age 15 in 1979. He had three stints playing professionally for Zalgiris, from 1981-89, 2001-02 and again from 2003-05 before retiring at age 40. In 2003-04 and at 39, he still had the skills to earn Euroleague regular-season MVP honors.

Sabonis' first visit to the U.S. in 1981 with the Soviet national team put him on the radar of many NBA scouts, including Buckwalter, then an assistant coach and scout for the Blazers.

The next year, Sabonis was a force with the Soviet team that won gold at the world championships in Colombia. The Soviets boycotted the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, but by that time, 'he was generally acknowledged to be the best player in the world outside the NBA,' says P.J. Carlesimo, his first head coach with the Blazers.

In 1985, the Atlanta Hawks chose Sabonis in the fourth round of the NBA draft. The selection was voided because Sabonis was not yet 21.

By that time, Buckwalter - a pioneer among NBA execs in terms of scouting internationally - was in pursuit. He was in Germany in 1985 to watch the Soviets win gold at the European championships. The next year, he convinced owner Larry Weinberg to do something no NBA team had done - take a European in the first round. Portland also chose Drazen Petrovic, a sharp-shooting guard from Yugoslavia, in the third round.

'Larry was absolutely on board,' Buckwalter recalls. 'In those years, we were drafting in the middle part of the first round and couldn't get the top players. We had to figure out a different strategy. I said, 'There are some foreign players who can help.' Larry said, 'Go.' When we drafted Sabonis, Larry was the happiest man in the world.'

It took nine years, though, for the Blazers to get Sabonis to Portland.

The political climate in the Soviet Union at the time prohibited its players from playing in the NBA.

In part because of that, Portland's selection of Sabonis in the first round was greeted with disdain domestically.

'We took a lot of criticism,' Buckwalter says. 'How could you waste a first-round pick on a guy you may never get? And, how could you draft a player from the Evil Empire?'

After the draft, Buckwalter flew to Madrid for the 1986 world championships and watched Sabonis help the Soviets win the silver medal. He and Weinberg also had a clandestine 3 a.m. meeting one morning with Sabonis, outside the watch of the KGB, arranged by an intermediary - a Lithuanian, fluent in both languages, who interpreted.

'Arvydas wanted to play in the NBA, but he couldn't without approval from the Russian federation,' Buckwalter says. An attempt at defection 'would be too hard on his family. We told him we'd do what we could to facilitate it the right way.'

The Blazers planted a seed during that time by offering to provide rehabilitation help for Sabonis after surgery to repair his injured Achilles' tendon. The Soviets acceded, and Sabonis spent six fruitful weeks in Portland with the club's medical team.

'I lost a year of playing due to the injury, but the rehab was very good,' Sabonis says. 'I am very thankful to Portland for that.'

Sabonis came back to lead the Soviets to gold in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, outplaying David Robinson in a victory over the U.S. in the semifinals. Sabonis played professionally for Zalgiris through 1989, then was allowed by the Soviets to play in Spain, at first for CB Valladolid (1989-92) and then for Real Madrid (1992-95).

All the while, Portland was working on its end to get Sabonis to the NBA. The Blazers were aware they would to have to pay off somebody - probably Alexander Gomelsky, the Soviet national coach and Sabonis' guru - to facilitate a deal.

'Larry had connections with the State Department, and we had conversations with a lot of (Soviet) authorities,' Buckwalter says. 'We asked, how much will it take to get Arvydas to the NBA? We'd talk to a person in the (Soviet) Sports Federation, and he'd say one thing. Then we'd go to someone with the Basketball Federation, and he'd have another opinion. We tried to work every angle, but it never went anywhere.'

By 1992, the dissolution of the Soviet Union gave its republics independence. At the Olympics that year in Barcelona, Sabonis was part of a victory by his native Lithuania over the USSR - which he considers one of the highlights of his career.

In 1995, at age 30, Sabonis was finally allowed to come to the NBA. And by that time, there was no under-the-table payoff to any Soviet official to worry about.

Even with his deteriorating mobility, Sabonis made an immediate impact, averaging 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds despite playing less than 24 minutes a game. He was the NBA's player of the week in March and was named to the league's All-Rookie first team.

'He was a very effective player,' says Carlesimo, Sabonis' coach the first two years in Portland. 'His understanding of the game set him apart. He always shot the ball well, and was not a good, but an unbelievable passer. He was so creative. Other players weren't prepared for it.'

During his time in Portland, Sabonis averaged 12 points and 7.5 rebounds, shooting .500 from the field, .328 from 3-point range and .786 at the foul line. His best season was 1997-98, when he averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds at age 33.

'He had such a great feel for the game,' says Dick Harter, an assistant during the Carlesimo era in Portland. 'He was always one play ahead as far as the pass. He could catch the ball, and he'd be one play ahead of the defense.'

'He was a guard locked in a big man's body,' says Blazer assistant coach Buck Williams, a teammate of Sabonis in Portland. 'When you played with Sabonis, it was like Magic Johnson, where you have to watch out or he'd hit you in the head with a pass. Sabonis was the same way. Such a savvy passer.

'I remember one game, he had the ball and I thought he was going to shoot, so I headed to the basket to get rebound positioning. I was open for just a second, and he threw me a pass I wasn't expecting. It hit my hands and went out of bounds. You always had to be alert.'

By the time he came to the NBA, Sabonis' body had changed. The frame that was at 240 pounds early in his career had grown to more than 300 pounds.

'He was a big, hulking guy who was excellent with his back to the basket,' Carlesimo says. 'He was good on the pick-and-roll, and with an up-and-under move. But like so many of the international big men, he liked playing away from the basket.'

Sabonis loved the behind-the-back pass - 'at times to a fault,' Carlesimo says.

'If you double-teamed him, and his teammate moved without the ball to the basket, he'd find him, usually with a behind-the-back bounce pass,' Carlesimo says. 'He threw some passes behind-the-back to guys streaking down the court. I mean, how many guys would even attempt it? And he could thread the needle with it.

'He was able to do just about everything with both hands. He could throw a left hand pass behind the back just as easily. The fakes, the up-and-under moves - his whole repertoire was almost like Meadowlark Lemon with the Globetrotters.'

Because of his leg problems, Sabonis never averaged more than 32 minutes a game in Portland. In 1995-96 and 1996-97, he divided time in the post with Chris Dudley.

'Because of his health issues, Arvydas needed to be limited in his minutes,' Dudley says. 'It worked out great for the both of us. We complemented each other well. I was an energy player. It allowed me to go all out during the minutes I had on the court.

'It would have been fun to play with him before he had the injuries, but even then, he was so skilled. A tremendous shooter, passer, rebounder - he could do it all.'

Carlesimo appreciated that Sabonis was one of the few players who could physically match up with Shaquille O'Neal.

'He was an effective defender,' Carlesimo says. 'Not that anybody stopped Shaq in those days, but Arvydas bothered him with his size and strength and by being clever. One guy was young and the other late in his career, but we were one of the few teams that had somebody who could compete with Shaq's strength underneath. Shaq overpowered everybody, but Arvydas would battle him.'

Sabonis left the NBA in 2001 and spent the 2001-02 season playing for Zalgiris. He returned for a final season with the Blazers in 2002-03, averaging only 15.5 minutes as a backup.

'Had Arvydas been with us, he could have transformed us into a championship team,' says Williams, power forward on the Portland teams that lost in the NBA finals in 1990 and '92. 'He was such a team player. He made everyone around him better.'

Clyde Drexler held the utmost respect for the late Kevin Duckworth, the Portland center of the early '90s. But Drexler has often wondered what a Sabonis in his prime would have done alongside Drexler, Williams, Terry Porter and Jerome Kersey.

'When he was healthy, Sabonis was phenomenal - a big guy who could run the court, dominate the low post, block shots,' Drexler says. 'He was a great passer from the post.

'Walton, Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), (Wilt) Chamberlain - those guys set the standard for passing big men. But Sabonis was right there, too.'

'I have no doubt Arvydas would be in the conversation as a top 15 or 20 player all-time without the injuries,' Carlisle says. 'He would have combined an impeccable international career with an extremely high-level NBA career. He had the court sense and ball skills of Bird, and the size and strength of guys we had never seen before.

'The three best-passing big men of all-time were probably Bird, Walton and Abdul-Jabbar. I'd put Arvydas right there with them.'

'It reminds me of the great Negro League players who weren't allowed to come to the major leagues until late in their careers,' Carlesimo says. 'Arvydas was basketball's Satchel Paige. By the time he got to the NBA, he was basically playing on one leg.'

Sabonis looks back in his playing days with fondness. He'd have loved to have stayed healthy longer.

'After I had the first surgery, I was very young and wanted to play, and I may have come back too soon, without thinking of my future,' he says. 'That is why I had the Achilles' problems.

'Instead of finishing my career at 40, maybe I could have finished at 43.'

Maybe. As it was, Sabonis' basketball path ended at a destination few could argue with: a deserved spot in the Naismith Hall of Fame.