It’s no secret that Arvydas Sabonis‘ career was marred by injury and a lack of accomplishment on the biggest stages. After years of continuous professional and international play, his body had broken down to the point where he was almost unrecognizable as an NBA rookie in 1995 as the force who dominated a young David Robinson in the Olympics just seven years earlier. However, if there has been one thing that has carried stronger than Sabonis’ plethora of “what ifs” it has to be the dedication of his loving fanbase.
Thousands were on hand Thursday afternoon to celebrate one of Oregon’s most beloved professional sports heroes. Sabonis played for the Portland Trail Blazers from 1995-2000 and again from 2001-2002 as a member of one of the winningest eras in the Pinwheels’ history. Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland was jam-packed full of fans, young and old, who came to pay their respects to Sabonis. The 7-3 center was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last week, and at the rally the big Lithuanian made his first appearance in Oregon in over eight years.
The celebration kicked off with a thundering introduction as the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers, a drum core based out of Portland, marched Sabonis down through the crowd and to the stage. Mark Mason, the voice of the Blazers, introduced Arvydas by carrying out his favorite chant – the Lithuanian word Sabas loosely translated to fans as “power” – with the crowd.
“JÄ—ga! JÄ—ga! JÄ—ga!”
Mike Barrett, play-by-play announcer for the Blazers, played the role of MC at the event but took a moment to speak with Dime: “Sabonis was a cut of one, the greatest of his time [before injuries]. He did things we’d never seen anyone who came over from Europe do here in the NBA. He always saw the play before the play.”
When asked if he thought Sabonis’ career was one limited by injury, Barrett instead offered the brighter side: “He came back too early [after injuries playing international ball]. But that’s what they did back then, they pushed themselves. They played for their country and for their team. But you could say that in 1988 when Sabonis defeated the USA on one leg, that created the need for the Dream Team in 1992. I think other European players saw him dominating with one leg and thought ‘I can do it too.’ He paved the way.”
The city of Portland is no stranger to showing their affection for their sports icons, especially Trail Blazers. Team President Larry Miller told Dime: “It’s important for us to stay connected to the community. We always try to stay in touch with former players.” Indeed, former Blazer players Brian Grant and Antonio Harvey both work for the organization and were on hand to sign autographs and speak at the the event, alongside Chris Dudley. All three were teammates of Sabonis at one point in their career.
“My first year here in Portland, I didn’t think [Sabonis] could speak English,” said Grant, joking to the crowd. Grant went on to explain how he had come up lame after one practice and Sabonis merely asked, in his booming voice and thick accent, “You OK?”
Dudley added to the legend of a reserved Sabonis: “Every time the reporters would go over to Sabonis’ locker he’d look up at them and say ‘No. No English. No English.’”
“We spent a lot of time in the trainers together – my knees, his ankle – and after a while it was more than just ‘You OK?’” said Grant of his bonding experiences with Sabonis.