In today's NBA, a sweet-shooting big man is becoming more and more a standard. Some might credit Dirk Nowitzki or Nikola Jokic for that remarkable evolution, depending on what generation of NBA fans you are from. However, the truth is that European legend Arvydas Sabonis was the first to epitomize the role of a hybrid center in the NBA.
How come only a few can remember him? It was because of a series of unfortunate events, to say the least.
Politics and confusion
Back in the 80s, Lithuania's Sabonis was widely considered the best center in Europe, maybe even the entire world. He was a full-time pro-European league player but has also flown to the U.S. now and then.
At the time, NBA scouts didn't have enough information about European standouts, and no organization was fully aware of what Sabonis could do. Among all the NBA teams, only the Atlanta Hawks managed to have a good look at the Lithuanian star. Still, it was evident that Atlanta had little knowledge of Sabonis' arsenal, having drafted the Euro star only with the 77th overall pick in the 1985 draft.
Apart from the lack of concrete information, politics was also intervening. Back then, the Cold War obliged the Soviet Union to strictly halt any contact and connection with Western countries, causing delays in completing the Sabonis' NBA deal. Hence, the conflict also made communication difficult, resulting in misinformation and confusion among Sabonis' entourage.
To give you a better picture of how things have been confusing for Sabonis at the time, here's what he had to say about it years after he had already joined the Portland Trail Blazers.
"After Portland picked me, someone told me that I was drafted before as well. We didn't have much information back then," Sabonis said via Basket News.
After it was all said and done, the Hawks failed to sign Sabonis. With the NBA's handbook at the time stating, "if the club drafts a player and he does not join the team for the upcoming season, he will be put back in the draft pool for next year," Sabonis' switch to the NBA was botched.
Series of injuries
In 1989, the Cold War was subsiding, and things were beginning to loosen up between the USSR and the West. However, Sabonis, who was only in his 20s then, was already pretty banged up.
Given his unconventional playing style for a big man, Sabonis incurred many injuries, mostly from 1986 to 1987. First, he suffered an ankle injury while preparing for the 1986 World Cup in Spain. After months of rehab, but still not fully healed, he came home and played pro basketball for his hometown team, Zalgiris.
Amid the season, Sabonis hurt his right Achilles tendon. Still not fully recovered, he continued to play for the 1987 USSR League Final. Because of a lack of time to recuperate, Sabonis completely tore his Achilles while preparing for the European Championship months later.
Just when you thought that Sabonis had already reached a crescendo, he tore the same Achilles tendon once again after accidentally falling off the stairs in a hotel in the middle of his rehabilitation.
At this point, all signs pointed to a long break. However, after a year, Sabonis, technically still not fully recovered, was injected by the USSR into its Olympic team 1988 Seoul Olympics, where he played as a starting center.
Logically, we could say that it was a risky move for the USSR, but the result could've erased all the negativities as the Sabonis-led USSR ended up beating Team USA in the semis. The team did not derail as they defeated Yugoslavia in the finals, handing Sabonis his first and lone Olympic gold medal.
As expected, Sabonis' decision to play while still aiding injuries soon took a toll on him. Before the 90s began, the European star had already developed chronic knee ailments and various ankle and groin issues. That has significantly curbed Sabonis' overall game, but he was still regarded as arguably the best center the world has ever seen.
Portland lost the race
Following an arduous journey in his homeland, Sabonis rekindled his move to join the NBA. In the summer after the 1988/89 NBA season, the Blazers' front office was again tailing Sabonis.
Determined not to miss out on the talented big man, Portland pulled off a persuasive move to ensure that the Sabonis deal would be smooth this time. The offer was said to be a two-year deal for $1 million, and the negotiation was spearheaded by Lithuanian-American diplomat Valdas Adamku, who later became the President of Lithuania.
However, as Adamkus awaited his transfer flight to Lithuania in Moscow, he learned that the Spanish basketball team Forum Valladolid had already presented an offer to Sabonis. And he had already signed it.
"He [Valladolid President Gonzalo Gonzalo] straight up told me - here's the contract, go ahead," Sabonis recounted.
A legend in Spain
Sabonis spent three years in Spain and became one of the most celebrated players in the country. In 1992, his contract with Valladolid expired, but the mark he left on Spanish basketball saw him being offered $1.5 million by a bigger market team- Real Madrid.
With Sabonis also loving his time in Spain, he agreed to sign with Real Madrid and spent three more years in Spain. His body had already endured career-ending injuries at this point, but he still proved that he's a cut above the rest, having copped the 1995 EuroLeague Championship with Final Four MVP.
Finally in the NBA
After six years in Spain, Sabonis knew there was nothing else to prove but to stand out in the American league. In 1995, then Blazers executive Bob Whitsitt was wondering what the real deal with Sabonis was and why such a talented player was still not on his team.
Whitsitt traveled to Madrid to see first-hand if Sabonis was still the player the world was raving about for years. He wasn't proven wrong.
Finally, the Blazers managed to seal a deal with Sabonis, who was 31 years old at the time. In terms of skills, the Lithuanian was still lethal, but given his insane history of injuries, Portland's medical team wanted to ensure that he was fit for the NBA. The results left them in awe.
"Arvydas could qualify for a handicapped parking spot, based on the X-ray alone," the Blazers' team physician quipped.
Nevertheless, Sabonis still delivered. In his debut season with the Blazers, he logged an impressive tally of 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. He became one of the pillars of the Portland team that contended in the Western Conference in the mid-90s to early 2000s.
Sadly, the league saw just the residual of Sabonis' greatness.
"If Sabonis would've been here in his prime, he would speed up the evolution of where the three-point game is right now, especially in terms of bigs stepping out and being able to shoot out there," Former NBA guard Brian Shaw said of Sabonis.
"[Sabonis] He had the size, the skill, the strength, and everything to be able to play," NBA Hall of Famer Kevin McHale assessed. "The evolution that you see now would started a bit earlier."
We just couldn't help but think that if a worn-out Sabonis in his 30s could put up decent numbers in the NBA, what more could he have done if he had arrived in the league a few years earlier and healthy. He would be among the most dominant big men in the NBA and maybe even a legitimate MVP candidate.