Unless you are a big time fan of the NBA (and were in the 80’s and 90’s as well), there is little chance you know the name Arvydas Sabonis. But, whether you know the name or not, Sabonis was perhaps the best basketball player on the planet during his prime. Problem is, various factors kept him from playing in the NBA until he was well past his prime.
Sabonis was born in the Lithuanian area of the Soviet Union and didn’t actually take up the sport of basketball until he was 13 years old. And at 15, and after only playing ball for two years, he became a member of the Soviet national junior team. He began his professional career at the age of 17 with BC Zalgiris and won three consecutive Soviet Legaue titles with them and also reached the 1986 Euroleague finals with them.
He was selected by the Hawks in the 1985 Draft, but the fact that he was under 21 disqualified him from playing in the NBA. The following year he suffered a horrific Achilles injury but was STILL selected in the first round of the 1986 NBA Draft by the Trail Blazers. But again, he was unable to join the NBA because Soviet officials wouldn’t allow it. This was because, at the time, Sabonis was far and away the best player in Europe.
During his European basketball career, he was named the best European basketball player in the world 6 times and also found success in the Olympics, winning a gold medal for the Soviet Union and two bronze medals for Lithuania (once the Soviet Union fell). Unfortunately for Sabonis, an extremely robust schedule and almost no rest in the mid to late 80s led to some serious health concerns.
He had countless lower body and leg injuries, which weren’t given enough time to heal. He was so crucial to every team he played for and teams often overplayed him, even with injuries. Despite this, he still dominated in Europe and, in 1994, he finally came over to the NBA. But when the Blazers team doctor looked at his history and x-rays, he made a claim that Sabonis could actually qualify as being handicapped based on his injuries. Even with this knowledge, the Blazers still brought him in and he enjoyed career averages of 12 ppg, 7 rpg and 2 apg during his 7 years with the Blazers.
And while those averages may not look like much, you have to understand the situation he faced once he got into the NBA. By the time he suited up for the Blazers, he was not only 31 years old, but had also had upwards of five major leg injuries that weren’t allowed time to heal. He was also overplayed and burnt out for the better part of a decade. When you take that into consideration, he did pretty damn well.
Many basketball media members believe that if he would have come here when he was originally drafted as a 20 or 21 year old, he could have easily gone down as a top 5 center of all time as he could pass, shoot and dominate the paint.