Why you should care
Because it’s never too late to hit your stride.
Clad in a white Portland Trail Blazers jersey, Arvydas Sabonis looked out of place among his peers — a man among boys. At 7-foot-3, he towered over most of the youngsters around him, including 19-year-old Kevin Garnett, who looked just as bright-eyed and excited as the others hoping to make their mark at the 1996 NBA Rookie Game.
All of them had something to prove. Except Sabonis. At 31, the Lithuanian center already had a legacy as big as his imposing frame. He was a veteran of two medal-winning Olympic teams and a superstar in Europe. He was also a rookie in the NBA. There Sabonis stood, with battle-scarred knees, alongside future NBA stars. He played four minutes, hitting one of his famous 3-pointers and recording eight points and three rebounds.
He was a ‘Most Interesting Man in the World’ type of guy.
Mike Dunleavy Sr.
Plenty of stellar rookies have graced the NBA, but no one over the age of 30 has joined the league and dominated the way Sabonis did. He would go on to play only 23 minutes per game, but the floor was his for those 23 minutes. It wasn’t just his size or wingspan; it was his vision and intelligence, and his consistency with 3-pointers. “He was one of the most talented players that I’ve ever coached,” says former Trail Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. “He was one of the best passing big men of all time and had this ability to shoot with 3-point range and score in the low post with a variety of moves.”
Big men of such caliber are rare, and they usually end up playing in the NBA long before their 30th birthday. But for as big and good as Sabonis was, the politics around him were bigger. In a world dominated by the Cold War, he was the face of international basketball. As such, he was kept away from the NBA during his best basketball years — his skills hidden behind the Iron Curtain, despite efforts by the Trail Blazers to bring him on at a younger age.
Sabonis, who was unavailable to comment for this story, was originally drafted by the Trail Blazers in 1986, when he was on his way to Soviet stardom. The team, led by vice president of basketball operations Morris “Bucky” Buckwalter, made the unusual move of selecting Sabonis with the last pick of the first round. No international player had ever been selected that high. Portland fans, upset at what they considered a waste of a selection, voiced their distaste for an unknown player whose name they couldn’t pronounce, while the Soviets were dead set against letting their best player leave.
They knew they were dealing with a so-called evil empire, Buckwalter says, so they did their best through diplomatic means. “We went to the Department of State.… We went to their federation and talked about compensation. We talked about a thousand different ways, but none of that worked.” The Trail Blazers remained in touch with Sabonis and even helped him recover from the first of several serious injuries he suffered. They had to wait nine years to cash in on their controversial draft pick, but it eventually paid off, and instead of a young prospect, they netted a consummate professional.
Sabonis’ larger-than-life personality helped him adapt quickly to the American way of life. The Soviet superstar loved classic Western movies, so when he arrived in Portland, Oregon, his new team presented him with a cowboy hat, Levi’s and chaps. “He was the wildest-looking cowboy you ever saw,” Buckwalter says. “He was a ‘Most Interesting Man in the World’ type of guy,” adds Dunleavy.
Sabonis shone in his rookie season, averaging 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds. No other rookie over 30 has ever come close to those numbers. Still, the numbers could have been even better. All the recognition Sabonis gathered abroad came at a high price, including Achilles tendon and knee injuries. As a result, NBA fans saw only a watered-down version of the athlete. “I can say without any question that without the injuries he would’ve been one of the top three players that ever came through the Trail Blazer franchise,” says Buckwalter.
There was no doubt that Sabonis was a great addition to the NBA at age 31, but what if he had joined sooner? “If people here would’ve seen him at a different time in his career, they would have considered him one of the great NBA centers of all time,” Dunleavy says.
Sabonis played until age 38, becoming a fan favorite and an enigmatic legend. The great Lithuanian passer reached the Western Conference Finals on two occasions, but never quite clinched an NBA title. He now runs a basketball school in his home country.
Though his NBA career ended 13 years ago, the Sabonis legend is far from over. His 6-foot-10 son Domantas was the 11th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft for the Orlando Magic. The 20-year-old, who was swiftly traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, will launch his own rookie career once he finishes representing Lithuania in the Summer Olympics.