On Saturday, Lithuanian Basketball Commissioner Arvydas Sabonis watched on as Zalgiris comfortably beat Panathinaikos 76-51 at the Zalgirio Arena in Kaunas in the semi-finals of the Akropolis Cup. The Lithuanian side led from start to finish, with Sabonis smiling from ear-to-ear at the end.
Sabonis not only watched from the stands, but he also watched on from the rafters, as he became the first Zalgiris player to ever have his jersey retired. The number 11 vest will forever be hung from the Zalgirio Arena ceiling.
Sabonis’ story is humble, born in 1964; a young Sabonis grew up in Kaunas in the old Soviet Union. He started playing in his teen years at 13 and professionally made his debut in 1981 with the Kaunas outfit. But that was only just the beginning.
In 1992, a newly-independent Lithuania, who had four players from the broken down Soviet Union 1988 Olympic gold medal winning team suited up for the Barcelona Games, knowing that in fairness, they would merely be making up the numbers as the USA romped to the top of the podium.
Aside from the Dream Team though, there was a particular player that represented Lithuania in the Catalan city in the summer of ’92, the 7-foot-3 Sabonis, who was one of the four Lithuanians that competed and won gold at the Seoul Olympics in ’88.
At the time, Sabonis played in the ACB for Real Madrid, having decided to stay in Europe following his Draft pick in 1986 to the Portland Trailblazers. Back when Sabonis led his Lithuanians to a well-earned bronze medal in Barcelona, little did people think that the Kaunas-born big man would go on to become of basketball’s greatest centers.
After leading Real Madrid to Euroleague glory and winning the Final Four MVP in 1995 Sabonis decided that the time was right to move to Oregon, and he ended up staying in Portland for seven seasons. Leading them to numerous Playoff appearances and earning the nickname of the 7’3” Larry Bird by Bill Walton, due to his unique court vision, shooting range, rugged in-game mentality, and versatility.
Sabonis made other players around him better plus he inspired a future generation of centers, coming out of the Baltic nation, namely Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who went on to become Cleveland Cavaliers’ all-time leader in games played and blocked shots and more recently Jonas Valanciunas, who currently plays for the Toronto Raptors.
After retiring in 2005 with his hometown club Zalgiris, Sabonis had racked up accomplishments that would force a headteacher to order more than just one trophy cabinet. In 1991, Sabonis became one of FIBA’s 50 Greatest Players but it would be six years after the Lithuanian’s retirement that his greatest honour would be bestowed upon him.
In April 2011, Sabonis was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, further cementing his legacy as Lithuania’s greatest ever basketball player. And who can argue that?
There have been greats that have bled the green, yellow and red of the Lithuanian flag and have travelled the globe representing the proud Baltic state. Sarunas Marciulionis, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Jonas Kazlauskas, Sarunas Jasikevcius and Darius Songalia will always be considered greats.
But none will be considered as great as Arvydas Sabonis.