|Arvydas Sabonis in his prime in the 1980s playing with the Soviet national|
team. Had Communism not prevented him from playing in the NBA in his prime,
he may have been one of the best centres in history. We'll never know.
He could have been one of the greatest basketball centres ever. However, because of the Iron Curtain that had descended over Europe, it would be 10 years from the time he was drafted to the time he actually played professionally. When he finally did arrive, to little fanfare, he was so talented that, even deprived of the chance to play with the best in his prime, he still put up impressive numbers.
I was recently reminded of the greatness that was Arvydas Sabonis because his son Domitas, looking and playing just like his father, hit the national stage in the recent NCAA March Madness basketball tournament.
The first time I heard of this big basketball player from Lithuania was in 1987, when I was sitting in the waiting room of my optometrist in Lethbridge. Dr. French, the eye doctor was originally located in Coaldale, and I started seeing him after Dr. Batting, my family’s long-time optometrist in Lethbridge, had retired. Dr. French re-located to a larger practice in Lethbridge soon after I started seeing him.
It was actually the last time I went to see him. There was a magazine in the waiting room, but I don’t actually think it was a sports magazine. I read this article on Ted Turner, the founder of the Turner Broadcasting System, Cable Network News, partner of Jane Fonda, and owner of baseball’s Atlanta Braves and basketball’s Atlanta Hawks.
The focus of the article was on Turner’s desire to try and improve his basketball team by bringing over players from the Soviet national team. The Hawks had the rights to a guard named Alexander Volkov, but the player Turner coveted was a big, powerful centre named Arvydas Sabonis. The article described him as the perfect blend of size and skill. He had hands as strong as a vise, could cut well to the basket, and could shoot from the field – and he was over seven feet tall.
The problem would be getting him out of the Soviet Union.
Consequently, I didn’t hear about Sabonis or any of those Soviet players for awhile, but when I did, they shook and shocked the basketball world.
It was the fall of 1988, and I was in my second year of university. The Summer Olympics were in Seoul, South Korea that year, but I didn’t have a chance to watch too much.
What I heard though, was amazing. The Soviet Union had upset the heavily favoured United States to win gold in men’s basketball. That was an American team that included future NBA stars such as David Robinson and Danny Manning.
Who was leading the Soviets? None other than their dominating centre from Lithuania.
Coming to America – finally
One day in 1995, I’m watching an NBA game, and I hear a name I had not heard in a very long time. He was a rookie centre for the Portland Trail Blazers. At that point I realized his name was Sabonis, not Sarbonis as I had misread in the optometrist’s office so many years before.
At first I wasn’t sure it was the same guy, but the announcers made a big deal of the fact he was an old rookie, and how he had been drafted 10 years earlier. Later, I think it was Sports Illustrated, did a story on Sabonis and the draft class of 1986. While he was a rookie in the NBA, so many of the players drafted the same year were already done with basketball either flaming out, fouling out, or retiring.
Sabonis was almost 31 when he joined the Portland Trail Blazers. He ended up making the all-rookie team, and was runner-up both as NBA Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year. He would go on to play in the NBA until 2003, with a one-year hiatus. He would play in Europe after that, retiring from basketball altogether in 2005.
What a different world Domitas Sabonis lives in from the one his father inhabited in the 1980s. Domitas is free to attend university and play basketball in the United States and still live in Lithuania. Ultimately, the only factors that will restrict where he plays are the ones faced by every other player in North America: skill level; politics; money.
His father had to face a world divided down ideological lines into Communist and non-Communist. Worse, he suffered so many injuries, when the world changed he was not the same man he used to be.
Although Arvydas Sabonis had a serviceable and productive NBA career, I am left with one question: what could have been?