“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Arvydas Sabonis – The Lithuanian Legend
At the 1983 EuroBasket in Nantes, France, I came across Arvydas Sabonis in a nearby mall. At that time, he was the young center of the USSR team. It was his second competition at a senior level because, with his enormous talent, he basically skipped the junior period in his career. After having played at the FIBA European Championship for Cadets in 1981 in Greece, where the USSR was crowned champion behind his 17 points per game, Sabonis was already a great talent. One year later, while his generational peers – Sarunas Marciulionis, Valery Tikhonenko, Jose Biriukov, Igors Miglinieks and others – played in the FIBA European Championship for Junior Men, Sabonis was at the World Cup 1982 in Colombia with the seniors, alongside Sergei Tarakanov, Valdis Valters, Vladimir Tkachenko, Anatoly Myshkin, Aleksandar Belosteny, Sergejus Jovaisa and Valdemaras Chomicius. Sabonis was less than 18 years old at the time, having been born on December 19, 1964, in Kaunas, Lithuania. The USSR became world champion by beating the USA 95-94 with Sabonis going scoreless, even though his talent had helped his team reach the title game. For instance, he scored 28 points against the hosts, Colombia.
Let me go back to my encounter with Sabonis. We had a cup of coffee, he was very kind. We talked only a little, but enough for me to put together a short interview with the future superstar of world basketball. From our conversation, I only remember a single sentence: “I will never play for CSKA Moscow.” When I was back home, looking through the pages of the Borba newspaper, of which I was sports chief then, I could not find the interview with Sabonis. When I asked my co-workers what had happened, they told me: “We didn’t have much space those days, and since he is an unknown player…”
Shortly thereafter, interviews with Sabonis were world exclusives. My newspaper peers had made the typical mistake of a coach who fires a young player from a club because he has “no talent” – and then he becomes a superstar. Years later, fortunately, I had the chance to know Arvydas a little better, to make several interviews with him and to talk several more times in a casual way. Most of all, though, I enjoyed his game.
Arvydas Sabonis was one of a kind. In my almost 50 years following basketball, I have never seen a player like him. There were taller players, more celebrated players, but never did someone with his height (2.20 meters) have that much talent. I couldn’t even mention what aspect of the game was his strongest point: rebounds, shooting, assists, court vision, leadership. He was a natural-born talent, a giant born to play basketball and do big things in this sport.
If I had to compare Sabonis to someone I can only think about Kresimir Cosic, the great Croatian center of Zadar and the Yugoslav national team. Even though both played center, they didn’t look like each other physically, but their games had many similar attributes. Cosic was a visionary, the first big man to ever play at all positions. He had great court vision, went to the perimeter to deliver assists like a playmaker, and mainly understood basketball like nobody else. His main weapon was his basketball IQ. Sabonis was like his pupil, but with even a few more qualities in him: he was 10 centimeters taller, had a stronger body and a better long-range shot. Both changed basketball, were icons of their respective eras, and led their club teams and national teams to the top. The only time they interacted in a big competition was at that 1983 EuroBasket in Nantes, but Yugoslavia and the USSR never played each other there so we didn’t have the chance to see, even if in a symbolic way, any duel between the two greatest centers of all time in European basketball. Cosic was 35 then and Sabas just 19 years old.
After Nantes, where the USSR finished third after losing to Spain by 95-94 in the semis, Sabonis played the 1993 U19 World Cup in Palma de Mallorca and didn’t win the gold medal there, either, because the young Americans were better in the title game with an 82-78 win. But Sabonis’s 18.5-point average confirmed that a new star was born.
After missing the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles due to the USSR boycott, Sabas was back on the big stage at the 1985 EuroBasket in Stuttgart, where the USSR’s domination was overwhelming and he was chosen MVP. In the final, Czechoslovakia fell 120-89 with 23 points and 15 rebounds from Sabonis. His scoring average was 20 points. The all-tournament team included Valdis Valters (USSR), Drazen Petrovic (Yugoslavia), Detlef Schrempf (West Germany), Fernando Martin (Spain) and Arvydas Sabonis (USSR). Some starting five! That same year, on March 19, his club team, Zalgiris Kaunas, reached its first European final. It was the Saporta Cup against FC Barcelona in Grenoble and Zalgiris lost 77-73 despite Rimas Kurtinaitis’s 36 points. Sabonis had one of his usual double-doubles, 14 points and 16 rebounds.
The following year, Zalgiris, as the USSR domestic champion, represented the country in the EuroLeague and reached the title game, where it had to square off against Cibona Zagreb, the defending champ that had beaten Real Madrid the previous year in Athens. The game was played in Budapest on April 3 and didn’t end well for Sabas. His team lost 94-82 after referees Costas Rigas of Greece and Vittorio Fiorito of Italy disqualified Sabonis, who until that point had 27 points and 14 rebounds. In the first minute of the fourth quarter, Sabonis punched Mihovil Nakic in the face as his answer to a provocation. Sabonis’s European dream at the club level would have to wait.
The second disappointment that year happened at the 1986 World Cup in Spain. After coming back from 9 points down against Yugoslavia in the semifinals, the USSR was the favorite to win the title game against the USA, but lost 87-85 against a good American team led by David Robinson, Rony Seikaly, Sean Elliott, Brian Shaw and the excellent playmaker Tyrone Bogues, who stood only 1.60 meters.
In the middle of the 1980s, Sabonis started to suffer injuries, which would become his biggest enemies throughout his career. Ankles, knees and especially his tendons started to suffer the consequences of such an effort made by such a big man. After missing almost all of 1987, he was back for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. His start was not that promising, however, as the USSR lost in the first game against Yugoslavia, 92-79. But after beating the USA in the semis 82-74 with his 13 points and 11 boards, the Soviets prevailed in the final against Yugoslavia 83-76 thanks to 20 points and 15 rebounds from Sabonis. His dream was fulfilled. Also, after several political changes during the Perestroika era of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, the doors were opened for the best players of the country to show their talent in other places.
At the 1989 EuroBasket in Zagreb, Sabonis and his Lithuanian teammates (Marciulionis, Chomicius and Kurtinaitis) would win the last medal (bronze) for a multi-nation USSR with Ukrainians Alexander Volkov and Belosteny, Latvian Gundars Vetra, Estonian Tiit Sokk, and Russians Tikhonenko and Valery Goborov. At the 1990 World Cup in Buenos Aires, the Lithuanian players would already not be around, as their dream of playing for Lithuania was coming soon.
As a kind of prize for the 1988 Olympic gold, the best USSR players obtained legal permits to leave the country. Sabonis went to Spain to play with Forum Valladolid. The surprise was big: one of the best players in the world was signing for a humble team in Spain. The reason was that the biggest teams in Europe were not that confident in Sabas’s physical condition. Also, the Valladolid president, Gonzalo Gonzalo, had the good judgment and the help of sponsors to gather one million dollars and take a risk. He hit the jackpot.
Sabonis was not in top form when he arrived, because of the injuries, but a great job done by the medical services of the club made a sports miracle easier. In his debut, a friendly game against Real Madrid, he scored 27 points and pulled down 10 boards despite his team’s loss (95-81), but he made it clear that Spain was in for a real treat with a new superstar. In the following three seasons, he would play 37, 37 and 36 games, averaging 23.6 points, 13.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists, taking Valladolid to the playoffs for three straight years and in 1992-93 to the Korac Cup semifinals, where the team lost to a strong Il Messaggero Roma team, with Dino Radja, Roberto Premier and Rick Mahorn.
EuroLeague crown with Madrid
In the summer of 1992, after three brilliant seasons in Valladolid, two important things happened in the life of Sabas. First, he signed with Real Madrid for three seasons. Second, he won the bronze medal with Lithuania, already an independent country, at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Sabonis’s averages in Barcelona were 23.9 points, 13 rebounds and 1.8 assists. He was 28 years old and in his prime. He was a dominant player, one of the few who could win games on his own.
With his arrival at Real Madrid, Sabonis’s main goal was winning the European crown. But before doing that in 1995, he suffered another disappointment. At the 1993 Final Four in Athens, Real Madrid lost, unexpectedly, against Limoges – the eventual surprise champ – by 62-52 in the semis. The arrival of Zeljko Obradovic to the bench of Real Madrid would be the start of a great collaboration between a player and a coach that evolved into a great friendship between two men who have given a lot to basketball. Obradovic has no doubt in pointing to Sabas as an undisputed member of the starting five among all the players he has ever coached, while Arvydas always says that Zeljko is the best coach he ever had.
On April 13, 1995, in Zaragoza, Spain, the basketball giant Arvydas Sabonis fulfilled his dream: winning the EuroLeague crown and also being named MVP of the Final Four in the process. In the semis, Real Madrid got revenge against Limoges with a 62-42 victory, while in the title game, the Spanish team defeated Olympiacos Piraeus with Eddie Johnson, Alexander Volkov, Dragan Tarlac, Milan Tomic, Panagiotis Fasoulas and Giorgos Sigalas by the score of 73-61. The Lithuanian Legend had 23 points and 7 rebounds.
Before leaving for the NBA to fulfill his last dream, Sabonis took part in the 1995 EuroBasket in Athens, where Lithuania reached the final and lost 96-90 to Yugoslavia with Vlade Divac, Aleksander Djordjevic, Predrag Danilovic, Zarko Paspalj, Dejan Bodiroga, Zoran Savic and company in the best final I have ever seen. At 31 years old, Sabonis was leaving the Spanish League after 235 games and averages of 20.3 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 33 minutes on court, to take the next important step in his career: signing for the Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA. The club also fulfilled its dream of bringing Sabas to the USA almost a decade after having chosen him in the 1986 draft with pick number 24.
At 31, when some players retire, Sabonis showed the world that he still knew how to do a lot of things. Never did such a veteran rookie attract as much media attention as he did, but Sabas justified it all. He won Player of the Week awards, was part of the all-rookie team, was Best Sixth Man, and was Rookie of the Year runner-up. In seven NBA seasons averaging more than 24 minutes per game, he averaged 12 points (32% on threes) and 7.3 rebounds. The projection to 36 minutes was 17.9 points and 10.9 boards. Everybody was just wondering what he would have done had he arrived to the NBA seven or eight years earlier.
After fulfilling all of his dreams, at 39 years old, Sabonis decided to have his biggest wish granted: dressing again in the jersey of his Zalgiris. He literally played for his own team, since he had just bought most of the stock in the club. He signed for the club of his heart and immediately became a EuroLeague star again: in the 2003-04 season, he was named MVP of the regular season and the Top 16, playing 28 minutes per game with 16.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 26.3 index rating averages. At 40 years old.
In Lithuania, he remains a national idol. He has been president of the Lithuanian basketball since 2011, the same year that was chosen for the Naismith Hall of Fame. One year earlier, he had become a member of the FIBA Hall of Fame, as well. His three sons play basketball, with one of them, Donatas, having followed his father into the EuroLeague and the NBA. But they have a great handicap: the Sabonis name is a great burden in the basketball world.
Arvydas Sabonis, truly one of a kind.