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Sabonis return to town generates sigh of relief

He may be a little rusty, but the Blazers aren't complaining

Arvydas Sabonis received a pass on the high post, bounced a couple of dribbles, then sent a behind-the-back pass to a cutting Zach Randolph. Two points.

A moment later, in a scrimmage at the Blazers' training facility in Tualatin, the 7-3, 315-pound Lithuanian missed on a short jumper. He reached over two defenders Ñ leapt would be an inappropriate verb Ñ and followed in his own shot for a basket.

There are things Sabonis can do, even as he approaches 38, that few others can do on the basketball court.

'I'm ready to fight him for not being here last year,' coach Maurice Cheeks says, grinning. 'I'm glad to see Sabonis here, man, passing, rebounding, making shots. I welcome every second he's on the court.'

Sabonis, creaky-legged and at times rusty from a year away, probably will play 15 to 20 minutes a night, and he will have to take a game off here and there to rest his achy bones. But he provides a presence the Blazers didn't have last year.

'We missed Arvydas' size and expertise and things he brings to the game,' veteran Scottie Pippen says. 'We fell by the wayside a little bit. It's great to have him back.'

After averaging 10.1 points and 5.5 rebounds for Portland in 2000-01 Ñ lows in his six seasons with the Blazers Ñ Sabonis elected to take a year off, dividing time with his family between Spain and Lithuania.

'My last season in Portland was a hard season, for the team, for me, for everybody,' he says. 'Maybe I needed to get away from everything. I did nothing for eight months. For five months, it was good. Interesting, something new.'

Then he got bored.

'All my life I have been organized Ñ wake up, work out, play basketball,' he says.

In the summer, the Blazers called to see if he was interested in a comeback. About the same time, the Lakers contacted his agent, Herb Rudoy, with an offer to play behind Shaquille O'Neal for the three-time defending NBA champions. But they could pay him only the veteran's minimum Ñ for a six-year veteran, $762,435 for one year Ñ while the Blazers could employ the Larry Bird exception to give him the moon. Sabonis wound up with a three-year deal, the last two option years for both himself and the team, he says. He will make $7 million this season.

It wasn't the money, Sabonis says.

'I heard about the Lakers' offer, but I didn't think it was real,' he says. 'When the Blazers were interested, that was it. I was here before. I knew everybody.'

Rudoy says the Lakers' interest was real, but it never got serious, 'because all Sabas wanted to do was return to Portland.'

Sabonis began workouts only about a month before camp.

'Of course, I am not in good enough shape,' says Sabonis, whose weight is down from a peak of 340. 'Mentally good, but physically, I need work.'

PLUSH PIPPEN: Pippen probably will see very little action during the preseason, and he might not be ready for the start of the regular season. On Monday, the $19.7-million small forward had fluid drained from the knee that was surgically repaired after last season.

Pippen, 37, started playing in pickup games about five weeks ago, but the knee swelled up, and team doctor Don Roberts asked him to back off.

'Since then, I haven't played much,' Pippen says. 'I'm trying to pass some time and let the knee calm down. Hopefully it doesn't recur. It worries me a lot Ñ well, not a whole lot, but I'm not on the court yet. You have to be in top shape to play in this league, and I'm not there yet.'

Pippen didn't get much time on his 95-foot yacht, Lady Larsa, over the summer. That is because his wife, Larsa, was deep into a pregnancy. The Pippens' second son, Preston, is 6 weeks old and doing well. 'Named him after my dad,' Scottie says.

CROWDED ROSTER: The Blazers have 18 players in camp, including 11 who have been NBA starters. That doesn't include small forward Ruben Patterson, who might get the starting nod while Pippen sits out.

Most of the Blazer players admit the depth could be a problem.

'We have too many good players,' Patterson says. 'It was hard for me and DA (Derek Anderson) last year, to sacrifice our own minutes to help the team. Everybody says I should be starting, but that don't matter that much. I like coming off the bench. I bring excitement and energy if the first unit ain't doing it.'

Anderson, who played behind Bonzi Wells at shooting guard last year after starting the previous four seasons with Cleveland, the Clippers and San Antonio, says he feels like the Blazers have '1,001 players at my position.'

General Manager Bob Whitsitt 'is trying to make us better, not tear us down,' he says. 'It still has to come to a point where you don't put coach Cheeks in a situation where he can't find time for guys. É Sometimes it's bad for the coach, but most teams want this problem of having too much talent instead of no talent.'

Can Anderson Ñ who gained 15 pounds during the offseason to bulk up to 210 on his 6-5 frame Ñ be satisfied with a reserve role again this season?

'It's hard,' he says, 'but if we win and continue to grow and mature as a team, I can do it. Everybody has to accept his role. If they don't, we are going to have a problem.'

Pippen's view: 'Guys accepted coming here. They understood what the situation is. There are going to have to be some roles played. The players have to try to keep each other happy. If that happens, we have a great opportunity to do a lot better than we did the last couple of seasons.'

NOTES: Reserve guard Charles Smith says he will be out two to three weeks as he rehabilitates a hip injury. É Assistant coach Dan Panaggio has been buoyed by the players' performance the first few days of camp. 'The attitude and work ethic has been great,' he says. 'Most of what we have done has been at the defensive end, and the execution has been tremendous. We are way ahead of the game from where we were at this point a year ago.'

Five centers are in camp, including 7-foot Ruben Boumtje Boumtje, who on Monday signed a two-year contract, with part of the second year nonguaranteed. É Cheeks says he has been impressed with the play of first-round draft pick Qyntel Woods. 'His conditioning is a lot better than I thought it would be, and he has been a little better than I expected offensively,' Cheeks says. 'I thought Bonzi and Ruben would beat him up a little bit more, where his offense would be affected.'