He is one of my favorite players of all-time. He brings joy to long-time Blazer fans and pain to even longer time Blazer fans. He is one of the greatest pure shooters of all-time, one of the greatest all-around players and no one who only witnessed his NBA career has any idea how good he truly was. In spite of what my dad might say about Bill Walton, he is the greatest passing big man of all-time. He could shoot it from anywhere on the court. He could score, rebound, block, pass, do it all. But by the time he came to Portland his knees were mostly shot and the fans only caught glimpses of what could have been. He’s not my Vydas. He’s not your Vydas. He’s Arvydas Sabonis!
The joy was from watching him play. He was so much fun to watch, especially passing the ball. I distinctly remember watching a game with Matt in February of 1998. It was the Blazers in Chicago, a game the Blazers were expected to lose (the Bulls would go 37-4 at home that year – Jordan’s last). It was amazing to watch the Blazers pull the game out, lead by Sabonis and his season-high 20 rebounds (6 more than the man being inducted with him, Dennis Rodman) as well as 21 points and 4 assists. But it was one particular play that I remember more than anything else. He was standing up at the key, facing away from the basket. But his vision was so good, he could see Isaiah Rider cutting to the basket, and his passing skills were so perfect, that without looking, he bounced the ball backwards between his legs right to Rider’s hands for the lay-up. It was plays like that that helped lead the Blazers to back to back Conference Finals the next two years.
It’s ironic that he is linked to Bill Walton for his passing, because Walton lead to Sabonis being on the Blazers in the first place. In September of 1985, the Celtics traded their #1 pick in the next draft to the Clippers for Walton. A further trade moved that pick to Portland, where they made Sabonis the last pick of the 1st Round in 1986. He is better than anyone in that round, even Brad Daugherty. The next two best players came after him in the second round: Rodman and Jeff Hornacek.
But he stayed in the USSR for another 9 years. So, instead, when the Blazers made their runs at the title in the early 90’s, their center was a man chosen seven picks later: Kevin Duckworth. Duckworth was a black hole for the ball and not much of a rebounder. All Blazer fans look at Sabonis and think “If only he had been there.” Duckworth was so widely reviled that when I moved to Portland, just a month after they lost to the Bulls in 92, KGON was running ads on television that said “You told us what you want. More classic rock. Free beer. Trade Duckworth!” Then came Chris Dudley and the tampering charges and the injury and a number of first round exits. Then came Sabonis.
In his rookie year, my senior year of college, the Blazers finally moved into the Rose Garden, which had twice the capacity of the Coliseum. So, while I had only been to 1 game in my first three years in Portland, I started averaging about a dozen games a year. Dudley was still the starter that year, but he was an offensive black hole and Sabonis had very good rookie numbers of 14.5 pts and 8.1 boards. By the next year, he was the clear starter and the chants had begun, the ones I have repeated to Veronica and my old roommate John hundreds of times: “He not my Vydas! He’s not your Vydas! He’s Arvydas Sabonis!”
Sadly, his knees were indeed shot and he was already in his thirties. He couldn’t move like he used to, didn’t quite have the lift for rebounds or blocks. But he anchored those two Blazer teams that came close to the Finals. I also remember a glorious moment during the lock-out season when I would watch triple-headers on NBC, then go to McDonald’s for their $.39 cheeseburgers, then come back to watch the Blazer game. One night he did a full court run from basket to basket and finished it with a slam dunk. It like watching a live action slow-motion. He was the lynchpin of the only Olympic team to legitimately beat the US team prior to 2004, winning a Gold Medal in Seoul. And now he goes to Springfield to enter the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. And I’m cheering for him every step of the way.
Note: I got the plush doll as a free giveaway at a Blazer game over a decade ago. Veronica hates it with a fierce passion. I love it. As I remind her, “He’s not my Vydas. He’s not your Vydas. He’s Arvydas Sabonis!”