Some consider the pre-1986 Arvydas Sabonis the most dominant center of that basketball era, even more dominant than the legendary giants’ Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Patrick Ewing. That Sabonis was a very different player from the one we got to see with the Portland Trail Blazers one decade later after the very peak of his distinguished career.
One of the prime examples of the 20-year old center’s superiority was at full display at the 1985 EuroBasket tournament (European championship) in West Germany. The USSR hasn’t competed in the 1984 L.A. Olympics competition due to the Soviet Olympic boycott.
From the very start of tournament, the 7’3″ Lithuanian giant was on a mission of proving ‘who is the best’ and had dominated the competition in every way imaginable. The European Dream Team of that era, the USSR national team, dominated the competition by posting a 7-1 overall record, with its only loss coming from the 1984 L.A. Olympics finalist – Spain.
During the entire tournament, no one was capable of stopping Sabonis. Being paired with the experienced 7’0″ center Alexander Belostenny, Sabas was having a dreamlike joyride at the power forward position. In the semifinal game, USSR faced the highly regarded Italian national team, one of the favorites to reach the Olympic final in Los Angeles just one year earlier.
Two sides squared off on June 14th, 1985, in Stuttgart’s Hanns-Martin-Schleyer-Halle, in front of 6,130 spectators and USSR dominated the game from early, eventually winning by 112-96.
Faced with the deep Italian front-court, which also featured the ‘twin towers’ of the Italian powerhouse Scavolini Pesaro Walter Magnifico and Ario Costa, Sabonis showcased all of his incredible skills.
On offense, his skills, size, and strength were too much to handle for Italian interior defense. Whenever he wanted, he stepped out of the paint and knocked down perimeter jumpers. Sabonis was equally effective on defense as he grabbed boards and blocked opponent’s shots at will.
It’s no wonder that several NCAA and NBA teams showed great interest in Sabonis already at this stage. But, at the time, it was a ‘blind street’ because Sabonis was not permitted to leave USSR and was thus on the close watch by the secret service whenever he traveled outside the USSR.
The Lithuanian giant finished the competition with 20.1 points per game and was voted to the 1985 EuroBasket All-tournament team alongside USSR teammate Valdis Valters, Drazen Petrovic (Yugoslavia), Detlef Schrempf (Germany) and Fernando Martin (Spain).
Interestingly, Martin, Petrovic, and Sabonis all later played for the Portland Trail Blazers. The USSR national team had convincingly won the gold medal in the 1985 EuroBasket.