"I love this city, these people. I feel comfortable here.'
by: L.E. BASKOW Arvydas Sabonis draws a foul from Dirk Nowitzki of Dallas during a 2003 Trail Blazers playoff game.

His English seemed rusty, not surprising since he has probably had little practice at the language since leaving the United States in 2003.

But Arvydas Sabonis still managed to convey his emotions about the warm reception that greeted him during a two-day visit to his old NBA city.

'I am surprised,' Sabonis told me with a smile Thursday night after a 90-minute meeting with Trail Blazer employees and season ticket-holders at the Rose Room in the Rose Garden. 'It has been seven, eight years since I was here. I love this city, these people. I feel comfortable here.'

If I may help out the 7-3 Lithuanian lug, he was flattered, humbled and warmed that Portlanders would reach out to him in the way they did this week.

Sabonis, wife Ingrida and their 6-5 daughter Ausrie - who is 13 years old - enjoyed a dinner with a select group of former teammates and Blazer execs Wednesday night.

On Thursday, a crowd estimated at 2,500 jammed Pioneer Courthouse Square to pay tribute to the giant who played for the Blazers from 1995-2001 and in 2002-03. He was given a key to "Rip City" by broadcasting legend Bill Schonely and the club's Hall of Fame banner was unveiled with Sabonis' name included for the first time.

Sabonis, always uncomfortable in the spotlight, did his best to cooperate with media and mingle with the folks who turned out to show their love for one of the better post men in franchise history.

'Arvydas may have done more interviews in a two-day period than he did in seven years as a player for the Blazers,' radio play-by-play voice Brian Wheeler cracked.

On Thursday night, Sabonis - looking a little tuckered out from all the attention - was gracious as he signed autographs and posed for dozens of photos with adoring fans at the Rose Room.

Then he participated in a roundtable discussion with former Blazer execs and coaches Harry Glickman, Bucky Buckwalter, Jim Paxson and P.J. Carlesimo, drawing a standing ovation when it was over.

It would have been great if he'd taken a charge from someone in the audience - he was among the best in the business at flopping - or chasing after a referee with his mouthpiece in his hand. Can't ask for everything, I guess.

Ausrie is not a basketball player - maybe she'll be a runway model - but two of the Sabonis' three sons are. The middle boy, Tautvydas, is a 6-4 forward who recently helped Lithuania win the world U-19 championship. The youngest boy, Domantas, may be his country's premier 15-year-old player.

'He's a lefty, like (Sarunas) Marciulionis,' Sabonis said proudly. 'How good? I don't know. Maybe (he will be) very good.'

Sabonis still wore a glow from the proceedings of last weekend at Springfield, Mass., where he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

'I don't think it has sunk in,' Sabonis said. 'I may not understand yet. It may take a month or two. Of course, I am proud to be included among the legends of basketball.'

During his 48-second speech - by far the shortest ever for a Naismith inductee, I'm guessing - he thanked the Trail Blazer medical staff for its work with him before and during his time with the team.

Sabonis made mention of it again Thursday night during his roundtable remarks, stressing the work done with him as he rehabbed in Portland from Achilles' tendon surgery for three months prior to the 1988 Olympic Games. That, mind you, was two years after Portland drafted him but seven years before he wound up in a Blazer uniform.

'After that, I came back and was able to play in the Olympic Games,' Sabonis told the crowd. 'That was very important for my basketball life. I really appreciate what they did for me.'

Sabonis said he now lives in his hometown of Kaunas, Lithuania, where he is serving as ambassador for EuroBasket, the biennial continental championship that his country is hosting for the first time in 72 years beginning Aug. 31. He also runs his own basketball school in Kaunas. "We have 600 kids," he said.

A Sports Illustrated article said Sabonis is in line to be the next president of the Lithuanian Basketball Federation, with the current president's term ending in October.

'There will be an election,' Sabonis told me with a shrug. 'I'm putting off (thinking about it) for now. I have many other things to do. If they elect me, I will try and see what happens.'

At 46, Sabonis still looks good. He told Wheeler he still plays a little pickup basketball.

'Two times a week,' he said with a grin. 'One basket. No running; just shooting.'

Life is good for Sabonis, a nice thing to see. After a great week in the States, it's probably even a little better.

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