Why Arvydas Sabonis didn't come to the NBA earlier?

2022-04-29 08:00

The NBA world did not have a chance to witness prime Arvydas Sabonis, yet his peers considered him to be one of the best big men in basketball history. Imagine a 7 ft 3 center with unique court vision, deep shooting range, unguardable post-game, and elite athleticism.

Bill Walton once described Sabonis as "a 7 ft 3 in Larry Bird'', while Kevin Garnett recently recalled him as his favorite European player ever, who "let Americans know they weren't the only ones who could hoop."

Naturally, the question arises: why didn't Arvydas Sabonis come to the NBA earlier?

Iron Curtain

Arvydas Sabonis

Arvydas  Sabonis
Position: C
Age: 57
Height: 220 cm
Weight: 138 kg
Birth place: Kaunas, Lithuania

The Western world got its first glimpse of Arvydas Sabonis' greatness back in 1982 when the 17-year-old Lithuanian faced the future No. 1 NBA draft pick Ralph Sampson in a friendly match between the Soviet Union & the University of Virginia.

Even though Sabonis traveled to the US to showcase his talents from time to time, most NBA teams didn't have scouts overseas and were lacking information on European talents. That's why the Atlanta Hawks, who were one of few teams that had scouting in Europe, drafted him only with the 77th overall pick in 1985.

Credit RIA Novosti – Scanpix

However, the selection was voided because, at the time, the NBA had a rule that stated, "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."

To understand why Sabonis couldn't join the Hawks, we need to briefly remind ourselves of the history of the Cold War. At that time, the Soviet Union had blocked itself and its satellite states from any contact with the West and its allied countries, giving birth to the Iron Curtain.

It was inconceivable that someone would leave the USSR and move to a Western country to live and work there. The Soviet government applied restrictions not only to the general public but also to the top athletes, scientists, and artists of the country.

Not only was Sabonis unable to join the NBA at the time, but he also didn't even know that the Hawks had drafted him. He only found out about it after the Blazers selected him, as he recalled later.

"After Portland picked me, someone told me that I was drafted before as well. We didn't have much information back then."

Credit RIA Novosti – Scanpix

The Hawks pick of Sabonis being voided stirred up the NBA. Firstly, Atlanta's front office made a lot of noise about the situation and arguably made the NBA change its rules. The teams were now able to keep players' rights for an unlimited time.

Secondly, it shined a light on the Lithuanian gem, and other NBA clubs caught up on Sabonis' potential. Hence, he got drafted in the first round by the Portland Trail Blazers next year.

The Iron Curtain was lifted in 1989, giving opportunities for the USSR players to finally join the Western teams. Perhaps the greatest example of using this opportunity was Sabonis' countryman Sarunas Marciulionis, who was the first European to truly blossom in the NBA.

The question still remains: why even after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Sabonis did not follow in Marciulionis' footsteps and join the NBA?

Credit LKL.lt

Achilles Tears

Arvydas Sabonis, at his peak, was something else. Although he was exceptionally tall, Sabonis had the agility of a forward. "A quicker Bill Walton," as former Dallas Mavericks' GM Donnie Nelson put it. Unfortunately, his prime didn't last long, as Sabonis suffered very serious injuries early in his career.

The period from 1986 to 1987 was, without a doubt, the most devastating in his career. First, the 21-year-old Sabonis had an ankle injury in preparation for the 1986 World Cup in Spain.

A few months later, he returned to play for his hometown team Zalgiris, where against Cibona Zagreb, he pulled his right Achilles tendon. Again, not fully recovered, he came back in the 1987 USSR League Final in March to help Zalgiris beat CSKA Moscow.

Credit RIA Novosti – Scanpix

Two months later, in preparation for the European Championship, Sabonis tore his Achilles completely, in theory causing him to miss at least the first half of next season. And to make things go from horrible to disastrous, during the off-season, a recovering Sabonis accidentally fell off the stairs at a hotel and tore the same Achilles tendon again.

The USSR had a lot of pride in its athletic achievements, and you could say Sabonis was a victim of it. Up until his Achilles tear, he played for the Soviet national team every summer and every championship.

"No" was not an answer at that time for the Soviets. His love for his hometown team Zalgiris Kaunas did not help either.

Credit RIA Novosti – Scanpix

The rehab from his Achilles tear was going slowly. Over a year later, Sabonis was still not fully recovered. Yet the USSR surprised everyone by announcing that the Lithuanian will be playing in the 1988 Seoul Olympics even though the player was telling the public that there was no way he will be able to play in the tournament.

Still, Sabonis was invited to watch the team's practices and became the passive spectator. However, eventually, he turned into the starting center for the USSR at the Olympics.

USSR rushed Sabonis to make his debut in the Olympics, which resulted in beating Team USA with David Robinson in the semis and winning his first and only Olympic gold medal against Yugoslavia.

Credit Facebook.com

Is it possible that not taking that summer off sped up his decline even more? No one can tell, though he got injured again the following season playing for Zalgiris Kaunas.

Eventually, he developed chronic knee pain, ankle, and groin issues that significantly limited his mobility and explosiveness. Yet even after all these injuries, he remained one of the best players in Europe and perhaps the whole world. Now, the only thing stopping Sabonis from joining the NBA was Sabonis himself…

Safety Net

After the fall of the Iron Curtain and having recovered from Achilles injuries, Arvydas Sabonis finally had the chance to start a new chapter in America.

At the end of the 1989 season, the Portland Trail Blazers' front office started pursuing Sabonis. They offered the big man a potential two-year deal, paying 1M dollars a season.

Portland's way of presenting the offer was quite original. They asked the Lithuanian-American Valdas Adamkus, who later became the President of Lithuania, to personally hand Sabonis the contract in his homeland.

During his special task, Adamkus was waiting in Moscow for his transfer flight to Lithuania when he heard the news that Sabonis had already signed with a Spanish team Forum Valladolid.

Credit Fotodiena.lt/J.Auškelis

The hope that he could convince Sabonis to change his mind was still alive. Unfortunately, it was too late. While the Blazers' contract offer traveled across the Atlantic, the Valladolid President Gonzalo Gonzalo won the race and was already in Sabonis' homeland.

"He straight up told me - here's the contract, go ahead," Sabonis remembered. The Lithuanian finalized the deal at 1M dollars a season, of which he would get 700K.

Financially, the Blazers' contract was quite similar to Valladolid, so why did Sabonis sign with the Spaniards anyways? Was it just a matter of being first to make the offer? Well, not really.

Many years later, Sabonis revealed that he didn't feel physically ready for the NBA after all his injuries, where the level of athleticism was much higher. In addition, there were still doubts in Sabonis' head concerning his departure from the USSR if he waited too long for another offer. In a bit of a rush, he took the safer route.

Credit RIA Novosti – Scanpix

By the summer of 1992, his contract with Valladolid was up, and surely it was finally the time to make the leap to the NBA, right? Not just yet… Sabonis had established his dominance in Spain and became the most-wanted name in the European market.

The Spanish giants Real Madrid offered him 1.5 million dollars a year, while Blazers did not present Sabonis with any specific offers. Having spent 3 years there, Sabonis also fell in love with Spain and decided to stay there for three more years, signing with Real Madrid.

His tenure at Real Madrid showed that even after all these injuries, Sabonis was still the best player in Europe. The best proof of that was the 1995 EuroLeague Championship with Final Four MVP, to top it off.

The Oldest Rookie

Sabonis' eventual arrival to Portland had a lot to do with the Trail Blazers' front office changes. In 1995, the Blazers had hired a new executive, Bob Whitsitt, who was going through the list of players drafted prior and asked his colleagues why Sabonis wasn't in Portland yet. Whitsitt did not hesitate and traveled to Madrid to see the Lithuanian play.

What he saw when spectating Sabonis' game only proved what he knew already - Sabonis was still an NBA-caliber player.

Sabonis had conquered European basketball, winning all major trophies while being the best player on the best team in Europe. The only challenge he could find now was in the NBA, so he finally decided it was time to join the strongest league in the world.

Knowing his injury history, the Blazers wanted to make sure Sabonis was healthy to play in the NBA.

The medical check-up results shocked them: "Arvydas could qualify for a handicapped parking spot, based on the X-ray alone," the Blazers' team physician jokingly concluded. It was surprising how successful Sabonis was, despite his awfully worn-out body.

Credit Õhtuleht – Scanpix

Nevertheless, the Blazers signed Sabonis to a three-year 8M dollar deal. That season, the oldest rookie debuted with 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds in only 24 minutes per game.

His averages ramped up to 23.6 points and 10.2 rebounds in the playoffs. Not bad for a guy who could legally be considered handicapped. If a 31-year-old limping Sabonis could put up such numbers, we can only imagine what could have been if he had come to the NBA much earlier.

Credit nba.com

Despite not winning the NBA championship, Sabonis had a successful seven-year stint with the Blazers, making deep playoff runs and being one of the most important pieces of the team.

Even though his NBA peers did not have a chance to face up against his prime version, they were still in awe of his skillset. Arvydas Sabonis is, perhaps, the biggest "What if…" in basketball history.

Full story (with unseen footage):

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