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No way back
by Linas Kunigelis / November 24, 2003

“NBA? Are you kidding?"

Arvydas Sabonis laughed when asked a few weeks ago whether he was still pondering a return to the NBA. "Look at me," he said. "I am a man with no legs. And my body is falling apart”.

But the former Portland Trail Blazer was partly kidding himself. Just a few months ago this ‘man with no legs’ was still an important piece in the Blazers’ playoff run. The veteran center averaged 15.5 minutes on the floor and produced solid numbers -- 6.1 ppg and 4.3 rpg while shooting 47.6 percent from the field and 78.7 from the free-throw line.

It didn't come as a surprise that during the offseason this 7-foot-3 giant was still receiving offers from NBA teams.

“Really there were two options I was considering this summer -- either Zalgiris Kaunas or Blazers,” says Arvydas, who for 20 years in his native Lithuania is known simply as Sabas. “I could have stayed in Portland and play another year. Maybe two in the best case. But what for? There was no future there for me. They wanted to build a new team with younger players on the roster. I was too old for that. And then here, in Lithuania, I have a lot of thing to do for Zalgiris”.

Zalgiris from Kaunas is the team where more than two decades ago Sabas began his incredible basketball journey. And several years ago, when questions about future retirement started to fall on him, Sabas said that at the end of his career he would wear the Zalgiris green jersey with his legendary number 11 and play his final season for the team he partly owns.

“While my legs are still holding my body on, while I am still healthy, I want to help Kaunas’ team by playing, not by sitting on the bench,” Sabas says. “The most important thing is I still want to play basketball”.

And it is obvious that he still knows how, too. It took only six weeks to get his 38-year-old body in shape and now he is storming through European arenas. After three Euroleague games, Zalgiris is one of the top teams in its group with a 2-1 record. And amazingly, Arvydas Sabonis is still the best -- averaging 16.3 points, 13.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks and topping all Euroleague players in efficiency ratings.

Looking back, what are your best memories of your time in the NBA?

Arvydas Sabonis: A lot of things have happened. The first season (1996-1997) was interesting. By that time, I was 30 already. I was kind of a mature man, like ‘know everything, been everywhere’. Then I went to NBA and I suddenly felt like a real rookie. Everything was new, unknown -- new world, new people, and new basketball. It was like going to another planet.

I also remember the season when we played the Lakers in the Conference Finals. We were winning by 15 points before the fourth quarter in Game 7 and we blew it away. It was such a heartbreaking loss that many months after I still couldn’t think calm about that game. We had to win that game, go to NBA Finals and, who knows, probably we would have won the championship ring.

You have won almost everything as a basketball player: Olympic gold and bronze medals (twice), World and European championships, European club championship trophies... But now it looks like the NBA champion ring is the dream that you will never be able to achieve?

AS: Probably you, media guys, were dreaming about that ring more than I did myself (laughs). I am not a collector of that kind of stuff. I had a lot of dreams in the past. And when you achieve the one, you say yourself: 'okay, that’s it'. Now you can live a happy quiet life. But some time goes by and you start thinking again: 'maybe I should try that?' That’s how you set another goal for yourself and begin climbing again. And it goes like that -- from one goal to another.

Is there still a dream left for Sabonis?

AS: Of course, there is. But I won’t tell you (laughs).

Now every year more and more Europeans are coming to NBA. But when you went to play in NBA in the mid-90s, there weren't many European names in the league.

AS: It was very difficult for the guys who went there first. Drazen Petrovic, Sarunas Marciulionis, Toni Kukoc -- these are huge stars in Europe, but even those guys had to spent a lot of time on the bench at the beginning. But how can you prove you are good enough when you just sit on the bench? So for them it was real hard. They were the pioneers who paved the way for others. Then, year by year, more and more players were knocking on the NBA door. And then coaches, managers of the American clubs started to say 'these guys are as good as our Americans'.

You have spent seven years in the U.S. playing for the Blazers. Never thought about staying and living there once your career was over?

AS: I had a home in Portland. But it was too far from Lithuania. And that was not good for me. Neither
for my family. The younger generation thinks differently. Things are much simpler for them. They go to a new country and get used to a different lifestyle. Take Zydrunas Ilgauskas, for example. He went to America, quickly adapted and feels happy over there. Not me. Seven years went by and I still didn’t feel comfortable there.

Another reason was my family. Me and my wife spend a big part of the year in Spain because the kids go to school there. So when I play in Kaunas and Europe I can see them and be with them more time than I could do if I was playing 80-90 games in the NBA.

It hard to overestimate what impact you have made to Zalgiris and Lithuania basketball in general over the years. Lithuanian fans are even suggesting that a statue of Sabonis must be built in front of Kaunas Sports Hall… Like Michael Jordan in Chicago.

AS: Maybe they watched too many movies on TV -- probably that’s where that ideas are coming from (laughs).

And what are your goals for Zalgiris this season? Can you make some noise in the Euroleague?

AS: In Lithuania we have to win the champions title. That always is Zalgiris' goal. In Europe? It’s still a bit early to tell. First, it would be good to qualify for the second round. And then we will see.

Linas Kunigelis writes for Lithuanian basketball magazine "Krepsinis" and is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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