Even in Lithuanian it sounded like a fish story. Through his
interpreter Arvydas Sabonis, the Portland Trail Blazers'
31-year-old rookie center, was telling about the one that got
away. For 45 minutes on the Columbia River he had gone
one-on-one with a stubborn sturgeon, Sabonis was saying, but
after winning the battle he had to throw the seven-foot fish
back because, at close to 300 pounds, it exceeded the legal
Sabonis's estimate of the size of his catch carried some
credibility because he is of roughly the same dimensions
himself. But he must have felt the need to verify his story,
because he disappeared for a moment into another room of his
cavernous home in the Portland suburbs and returned with a
photograph of the sturgeon in question, which looked every bit
as massive and menacing as Sabonis had described it. He loosed a
brief thunderclap of a laugh and then used his first English
words of the conversation: "Like shark, no?"
The same might be said of Sabonis himself. He is huge, cunning
and capable of great devastation. Like shark, yes. At 7'3" and
279 pounds, he is a scoring threat from three-point range and a
master passer. "He's an oversized Globetrotter from overseas,"
says Blazers backup point guard Rumeal Robinson. Sabas, as he is
known to his teammates, is a sleight-of-hand artist with his
behind-the-back, touch, wraparound and no-look passes. "When he
has the ball," says Portland forward Harvey Grant, "cut to the
basket and, whatever you do, keep your hands up, or he'll make
you look bad."
Lately Sabonis has been one of the main reasons Portland has
looked so good. After the Blazers' 81-79 win over the Vancouver
Grizzlies on Sunday, they were an NBA-best 16-2 since March 8,
which, not coincidentally, was the date that coach P.J.
Carlesimo inserted Sabonis into the starting lineup. It has been
a remarkable resurgence for a team that only six weeks ago was
on the brink of collapse under the weight of its internal
problems, including locker room scuffles between teammates and a
personality clash between point guard Rod Strickland and
Carlesimo. After demanding to be traded, Strickland left the
Blazers without permission on Feb. 22 and missed six games (SI,
April 21, 1996
When Strickland returned on March 4, he met with Carlesimo and
agreed to put aside his differences with the coach, at least for
the rest of this season. A team meeting followed at which
Carlesimo challenged his players not to become the first Trail
Blazers to miss the playoffs in 14 years. "We didn't want to
wind up in the draft lottery," says Portland president and
general manager Bob Whitsitt. "That's like the Bermuda Triangle.
Teams get in it and never get out."
Instead the Blazers, 42-36 at week's end and assured of a spot
in the playoffs (had the season ended on Sunday, they would have
been the Western Conference's sixth seed), not only prolonged
the NBA's longest current streak of postseason appearances but
also became the fashionable choice to pull a first-round upset.
"I like the way we're playing, and I wish the playoffs started
today," Carlesimo said last week, "but as far as this talk about
our being the team no one wants to play, I don't think San
Antonio or Utah [the Blazers' possible first-round opponents]
are losing any sleep over us."
Perhaps they should be. Sabonis, who was named the NBA's Player
of the Week for March 25-31, averaged 17.6 points, 10.6 rebounds
and 1.7 blocks in only 24.8 minutes per contest during
Portland's 18-game run. His 21 points and 15 rebounds in 23
minutes against the Dallas Mavericks in the Blazers' 114-99
victory on April 11 was a typically efficient performance. But
he wasn't the only reason Portland turned it around. "Could we
have done it without Sabas? No," says Carlesimo. "Could we have
done it without Strick coming back? No. Could we have done it
without improving our free throw shooting or our defense? No."
In that 18-game stretch the Blazers allowed opponents a miserly
90.4 points per game. "It's been a combination of things all
coming together at the right time," concludes Carlesimo, "a
little improvement in a lot of areas."
Strickland performed at close to his usual high standards,
playing through the pain of a groin injury that has nagged him
since before the All-Star break in February. "People don't
really appreciate the sacrifice Rod's making," says Carlesimo.
"There have been a lot of nights when a half hour before the
game we've been asking, 'Rod, can you go?'" Strickland's answer
was always affirmative, although there were games during which
it was a struggle for him just to run up and down the court.
Against the Mavericks, Strickland was in such pain that he had
to take a midgame whirlpool treatment to loosen the muscle, but
he returned to finish with 17 points and eight assists.
Nevertheless, the Trail Blazers' recent success had no effect on
Strickland's desire to be traded after this season. When the
subject was brought up last week, he slowly and resolutely shook
his head. "Nope," he said. "That hasn't changed. I'm happy with
the way we're playing. Winning makes a lot of things seem
better, but it doesn't change everything."
As for Portland's free throw shooting, it improved from a horrid
64.3% before the 18-game run to a respectable 70.8% during it, a
phenomenon for which Carlesimo has no explanation other than the
law of averages. Some observers say that the Blazers benefited
as well from Carlesimo's mellowing on the sidelines. "People I
respect have said that to me, that I'm treating guys nicer, but
I don't see any change," he says. "I think it's more that when
you go 14-2, 15-2, everybody loves everybody."
Everybody seems to love Sabonis, who has quickly become the most
popular Trail Blazer among Portland fans after almost a decade
in which he was little more than a concept. Following the 1986
draft, when the Blazers chose him with the last pick of the
first round, he was playing brilliantly in the Soviet Union. But
Sabonis, unable to get through the Iron Curtain, was rarely seen
by American fans.
He was just 17 when he became a starter on the Soviet national
team that toured the U.S. in the fall of 1982, during which it
split a pair of games with Indiana University and narrowly lost
to a University of Virginia team that featured Ralph Sampson. "I
thought he was as good a prospect as I had ever seen," Indiana
coach Bob Knight later said. "He was stronger than Bill Walton.
I couldn't get over what potential he had. Such a great raw
In the '80s Sabonis starred for Lithuania's Zalgiris Kaunas
team, which he led to three consecutive Soviet Union titles, and
for the Soviet national team. But injuries began to diminish
some of Sabonis's skills. While playing for Zalgiris Kaunas in
1987, he ruptured his right Achilles tendon. Only three months
later, when he fell while climbing a flight of stairs to answer
the phone, he ruptured the tendon again before it had fully
healed. Tendinitis in his knees followed, and before long
Sabonis was not only wearing a heavy ankle brace for the
Achilles but also encasing his knees and feet in ice after games.
Despite his injuries Sabonis maintained his status as one of the
best European players ever. After he helped lead the U.S.S.R. to
a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics, Soviet coach Aleksandr
Gomelsky suggested that it might be time for Sabonis to test
himself in the NBA. Sabonis took Gomelsky into the locker room,
rolled down his socks to reveal the scars and discoloration
below his calves and asked, "Do you think I can play in the NBA
Still, Sabonis flirted with the possibility of signing with the
Blazers, briefly moving to Portland so the team's medical staff
could oversee his recovery from his Achilles tendon operations.
But his own doubts about his health and the lure of lucrative
deals overseas persuaded him to return to Europe. When Lithuania
gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Sabonis
was playing in Spain. Then, when a three-year deal with Real
Madrid expired after last season, he signed a five-year, $12
million contract with the Blazers. "I decided it was now for the
NBA or never," he says. "Everyone wants to play in the NBA, and
I thought that if I didn't try, it would always come back to me
in my mind: Could I have done it? Could I have done it?"
There's no longer any doubt in anyone's mind that he can play in
the NBA, even though he is not nearly as agile as he was in his
prime. "The pain is always there," he says of his scarred legs.
"If I didn't feel it, I would think maybe I was dead." In fact,
he will draw votes for both the Sixth Man and the Rookie of the
Year awards. His insertion into the starting lineup has hurt his
chances of winning the former--since he will have come off the
bench in more games than he started, he would still be
eligible--and his status as a 31-year-old European legend makes
it hard to think of him as a rookie. But Sabonis is picking up
supporters for Rookie of the Year, including coaches Bill Fitch
of the Los Angeles Clippers and George Karl of the Seattle
SuperSonics. "There's no question," Karl says. "It's not even
close. He has helped his team rebuild an attitude. His starting
and his passing and his presence have given that team a
confidence it didn't have earlier in the year."
What might Sabonis have achieved if he had entered the NBA in
his prime? Los Angeles Lakers center Vlade Divac, a Serbian who
played against Sabonis in Europe, has said that Sabonis could
have been as good as the New York Knicks' Patrick Ewing, the
Houston Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon or the Orlando Magic's
Shaquille O'Neal. Sabonis smiles slightly when told of this
assessment. "I have thought about it, but I have not worried
about it," he says. "I only know that it is better that I am
here now than not at all."
Sabonis's uncertain condition was the reason Chris Dudley
started 59 of the first 60 games of the season for the Blazers
and Sabonis came off the bench, most often to play the second
and fourth quarters. "We wanted to see how his body would hold
up," Carlesimo says. "When it became clear he could handle 20 to
24 minutes, we decided we could try stretching him out a little
bit, but you still won't see him go past 28 to 30 minutes very
often, if at all."
Although he usually wears the expression of a weary veteran,
Sabonis has taken care to display the deference of a rookie.
When asked about the Strickland-Carlesimo issue, he says, "I am
a first-year player, so I should not comment." Even though he
understands English quite well (he's also fluent in Polish and
Spanish, in addition to Lithuanian and Russian), he prefers to
speak through an interpreter during interviews for fear of using
the wrong English word or phrase and saying something that could
be misconstrued. He has also muted his game somewhat, excising
the theatrics that were a part of his style in Europe, where he
was known for playing to the crowd with his gestures and making
the overly flashy pass. The new, toned-down style may be part of
Sabonis's broader maturation. He once had a reputation for
enjoying the postgame parties almost as much as the games.
Legend has it that in Lithuania his countrymen would go into a
liquor store and instead of asking for vodka, request "a
Sabonis." At the 1992 Olympics, after helping Lithuania win the
bronze medal in the afternoon, he celebrated with such abandon
that he missed the medal presentation in the evening.
But these days Sabonis goes home to his wife, Ingrida, a former
model and actress, and his two sons, Zygimantas, 5, and
Tautvydas, 4. Ingrida is expecting a third child in late April
or early May--"just about the time the playoffs start," Sabonis
says. "I am sure she will be kind enough to have the baby on an
Six weeks ago the possibility of the birth's interfering with a
Portland postseason game seemed remote, but the Blazers now
expect to be busy well into May. "If people think we're just
going to be in and out in a hurry, that's O.K.," Strickland
says. "We'll just lay low and then surprise them." Like sharks,