Courting a Big Red

Soviet basketball star Arvydas Sabonis is visiting Portland, where the Trail Blazers are assiduously wooing him
June 12, 1988

When it comes to the NBA playoffs, the Portland Trail Blazers have rolled over more often than a Suzuki Samurai. In the last 10 seasons, they've been given the bum's rush in the first round of the playoffs seven times. If the Blazers were a sitcom, they would finish somewhere behind My Two Dads.

Ah, but that was before they saw what a little glasnost can do for your front line.

You think glasnost ends with scientists and exchange students? Nyet on your life. Portland is thinking globally. The Blazers are entertaining their own high-level summit and his name is Arvydas Sabonis.

Sabonis, 23 and about the size of Communism Peak, might soon be visiting a city near you. The Soviet superczar is an honest 7'3¼" (the Blazers measured him in April), 279-pound Big Red Machine. And, what with U.S.-Soviet relations at their chummiest these days, it's looking more and more like Portland will have him in time for next season. The Trail Blazers used their last pick of the first round of the 1986 draft to choose Sabonis, and since then they've asked congressmen, diplomats and even Ted Turner's broadcasting company to persuade the Soviet government to let the big man become the first Soviet citizen to play in the NBA.

In mid-April the Soviets agreed to let Sabonis go to Portland to get treatment for his injured right Achilles tendon. Last August, Sabonis ruptured it for the second time in three months while running up a flight of stairs to answer what must have been a very important phone call. But eight months of rehab in his native Lithuania wasn't doing much good—he wasn't able to run or jump—so the Soviets, thinking of the Summer Olympics in Seoul, let him pack for Portland, where he is the most famous Communist in residence since John Reed.

Sabonis brought along his microsurgeon, Dr. Kestutis Vitkus, who serves as translator, constant companion and Nerf hoops opponent. Together, says Sabonis, they've "enjoyed many luxuries," courtesy of the Trail Blazers, who are paying all their expenses. The luxuries include a plush Jeep Eagle Premier, a high-rise apartment with king-sized beds, a VCR and remote-control TV. "He is constantly "bock, bock, bock' with that little box," laments the doctor. "And I must translate each small bit." His favorite movie so far is Top Gun. And, of course, there are bananas.

"I brought them a bunch of bananas one morning, and they went crazy," says Blazers publicist Tim Renn. "They never get bananas in Lithuania, I guess. So now I bring them a bunch every day. My grocer must think I've got a gorilla in my apartment."

Well, nearly. In little more than a month in Portland, Sabonis has broken every Blazer lower-body strength record and approached every upper-body record. And he has never lifted weights. He also looks like a stud. Most 7-footers seem to have an excess of the dork chromosome, with their too-long arms and Lurch eyebrows and pea-heads. Not Marvelous Arvydas. You see him walking across an empty parking lot, you figure him for 6'4", 190. Meet him close-up and it's as if somebody put him through the 150% blow-up mode on the office Xerox.

Not only that, but he has got happy feet. "I am astonished by how well he can dance," says Vitkus. "He can dance like Michael Jackson." And he can cut a lane as well as a rug. One NBA general manager says Sabonis has "four times the athletic talent" of Utah's 7'4" obelisk, Mark Eaton.

There's more. His shooting touch is as smooth as Stolichnaya. He has a sweeping Maurice Lucas-like hook and a soft jumper. Because of the wider international lane, European big men generally stay out of it and thus do more outside shooting than their American counterparts. But Sabonis's range seems limitless. When the U.S.S.R. beat Yugoslavia in the 1986 World Cup in Madrid, Sabonis bombed in one of his team's three three-pointers in the final moments. One day in Portland, after watching a TV commercial for the NBA that featured a number of last-second miracle baskets, Sabonis spent 15 minutes hollering in English, "Three, two, one..." and heaving up hooks from long distance. He made an astonishing number of them. Of course, whether he can bust jumpers wearing a Michael Cooper overcoat is another question.

He wants the chance very badly. The first time he saw an NBA game on TV, he had just awakened from a nap. "When my friend woke me up," he says, "it seemed that something was wrong with the TV, technically. Everything looked like it was being broadcast at high speed. Then I realized it wasn't sped up. It was hard for me to believe how fast the game was being played."

Sabonis has the right kind of temper for the NBA: short. It's not unusual for him to get mortally hacked off three or four times a day about some little thing or another. It shows up on the court. In a light workout last week against Portland player personnel director Bucky Buck-walter's son, Bryan, Sabonis got mad enough to dispense with dètente and give it the big Socialist Slam. "He's got to learn the NBA power game." says Portland assistant Jack Schalow, who is spending the most time trying to teach it to him. "But he's very strong."

If Sabonis can learn the basic NBA rules—no hemorrhage, no foul—he could become that most precious basketball commodity, a remember-when, back-to-the-hoop, post-up center. Which is exactly why some people in basketball are accusing the Blazers of treason. "I see Sabonis as being a fulfillment of Lenin's prophecy." John Thompson, the U.S. Olympic basketball coach, told the Portland Oregonian. "The capitalists are selling [the Communists] the rope that they can hang us with. I personally feel we're being used.... We are in direct competition with them. To prepare Sabonis to play against us just isn't right."

This brought a pointed chuckle from NBA commissioner David Stern, who said. "Coach Thompson is a great coach, but I'm glad he's not our secretary of state."

The Blazers don't appreciate the xenophobia either. "I worked medical infantry in Vietnam," says Dr. Robert Cook, the team physician and the man in charge of Sabonis's care. "I treated wounded Viet Cong. I would never withhold treatment from anybody for any reason."

Of course, everyone might be wasting wind if the Soviet government doesn't let Sabonis come to stay. However, there are positive signs. First, the Soviets could have sent Sabonis anywhere in the U.S.—or the world, for that matter—to get treatment. Why Portland, unless they wanted Sabonis to get comfortable there? Second, in May Sabonis asked for and received a six-month extension on his visa. Third, FIBA, the sport's international governing body, is expected to vote next April to allow NBA players to compete in the 1992 Olympics, which would mean that the Soviets could have Sabonis back whenever they needed him for international competition. "I have pretty good vibes it could happen," says Blazer president Harry Glickman.

Money should not be an object, although neither the Trail Blazers nor the Soviets have disclosed how, or how much, Sabonis would be paid. To encourage Moscow, Larry Weinberg, who sold the team on May 31, was hitting up the Soviets regularly, using Turner's Goodwill Games producer Bob Wussler to put in good words with—so it was rumored—Mikhail Gorbachev himself. Why would the owners of the Atlanta Hawks want to help another NBA team? Because the Hawks own the draft rights to two Soviets themselves. And Sabonis wouldn't hurt TBS's cable ratings either. Welcome to the borscht belt, y'all.

Sabonis couldn't give a flying ruble about the politics. "I'm a sportsman," he says. All he wants to do in Portland is get his tendon fixed up, play the game and have a little capitalist fun. In fact, the Soviet press chastised him recently for too much "frivolity" after he and the good doctor took a two-day trip to Chicago for a Lithuanian festival, where Sabonis was a big hit.

Sabonis has spawned more Russian fiction than Leo Tolstoy. Louisiana State coach Dale Brown, who tried to get Sabonis to his school two years ago, says he heard the KGB actually cut the big guy's tendon to keep him from defecting to Baton Rouge. Then there were published reports in Soviet papers that 1) Sabonis had become so depressed about his injured tendon that he had become an alcoholic; 2) he had become an alcoholic and cut his heel open on an empty liquor bottle; and 3) he had killed himself.

It turns out that Sabas, as he is known, gets a chuckle out of going along with any rumor a reporter might throw at him. So if one were to say to him, "We hear you've been writing haiku late at night while wearing women's clothing." he would go along with it and laugh it up later. He just likes his fun. He has already had two dates in Portland, gotten his Oregon driver's license, been deep-sea fishing, gone shopping for fancy suits, taken side trips to Olympia, Wash., and Los Angeles, and learned to play the tape deck in his car at ear-shattering decibel levels. He turns it down a little to listen to his English-lesson tapes, and he has already got an English tutor.

That's good, because the first few days the Blazers coaches worked with him on drills, negotiating the language gap was like crossing a muddy field in snowshoes. On the first day Schalow was trying to get Sabonis to take a pass with his back to the basket, make a little juke left, then go hard to the basket the other way for a layin. But Sabonis kept pulling up for 12-foot jumpers. "Go to the hole, son!" Schalow kept saying, but Sabonis didn't understand and Viktus couldn't translate. When Sabonis finally got the message, he took one step and jammed it in with enough force to be felt in Taco-ma. Since then the Blazers have given the Soviets a 50-word list of common NBA nomenclature. "Either he's got to learn English or we've got to learn Lithuanian." says Schalow.

No help at all is Sabonis's Lithuanian trainer, Alexandras Kosauskas, who doesn't speak English either and who was sent in last week, perhaps in part as a frivolity-stopper and in part to learn what the Blazers' doctors were doing right. For in one month under Cook, Sabonis had made significant progress.

Cook has had some hard-luck feet before—those of Bill Walton (who sued Cook for malpractice, and later dropped the case) and Sam Bowie (who has suffered two stress fractures in four seasons as a Blazer)—and now come the size-16's of the foreigner. Sabonis has thus far improved his ankle flexibility by 15 degrees, but he has still got 25 degrees to go before he can even begin to think about playing competitively. John Thompson may not have to see Sabonis wearing Soviet red in the Olympics. Democracy may be safe after all.

"I think it'll be three to six months before he's ready," says Cook. The Olympics begin Sept. 17. The Blazers open camp in early October. In a perfect Blazer world, Bowie gets healthy, Sabonis gets healthy, Sabonis gets the go-ahead from Moscow and Portland starts a front line of 7'1" Bowie, 7-foot Kevin Duckworth and Sabonis. Now that would be an Iron Curtain. Patriots like John Thompson would get to see if Sabonis can hold his own against the best big men in the American game. Like Patrick Ewing of Jamaica and Akeem Olajuwon of Nigeria.

PHOTOBRIAN DRAKE PHOTOPHIL HUBERSabonis was a major foe in the '86 Worlds, but now he's getting good care in Portland. PHOTOBRIAN DRAKE[See caption above.] PHOTOBRIAN DRAKEThe Trail Blazers are baiting the Soviet center with fishing trips and other inducements.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)