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INSIDE THE NBA
He is a figure from a reel of grainy documentary footage spliced into a modern highlight tape. While other players gyrate and jam around him, Trail Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis lumbers down the floor to unleash a classic hook shot or a feathery finger roll. At those moments he seems to be superimposed on the game, as if by some technological trick, like Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner in that commercial.
The 7'3", 292-pound Sabonis seems even more anachronistic when he delivers his pinpoint assists to reckless young talents such as Isaiah Rider and Rasheed Wallace, who don't appreciate that they have as their teammate one of the most gifted players in history. "Arvydas and [Bill] Walton are the two best passing big men ever," says Portland coach Mike Dunleavy. "No one else is close."
Despite his ailing knees and back and the chronic pain in his right heel, Sabonis, 33, is enjoying the best stretch of his three-year NBA career. At week's end he had achieved double-doubles in seven of his last 10 games, raising his averages for the season to 16.4 points and 10.2 boards in 32.4 minutes a night (up from 25.5 in 1996-97). He had hit 81.6% of his free throws, connected on 26.9% of his three-pointers and provided at least one moment of delicious creativity each night that sent fans rocketing out of their seats. Against the Knicks on March 9 at Madison Square Garden, his breathtaking move was a no-look behind-the-head lob to the startled 19-year-old Jermaine O'Neal, who would have had an easy layup if he hadn't dropped the pass.
Sabonis has grown accustomed to such misplays, just as he has come to expect one of the Blazers' upstarts to wave him off when he is entrenched in the post, despite the advantages in size, skill and savvy he usually has there. In a March 17 game against the Cavaliers, Sabonis uncharacteristically barked at his teammates for not feeding him the ball. Afterward Rider haughtily said, "He gets enough touches."
Portland's new point guard, Damon Stoudamire, disagrees. "We should utilize him on every play," he says of Sabonis. "The guy is an unbelievable weapon."
Sabonis developed his no-look passes and his shooting touch on the courts of Kaunas, Lithuania. He loved to play guard, but when he was nine years oldand almost 6 feet tallhis coach sent him down to the blocks. "The reason I love to pass," he says, "is I know the feeling of waiting and waiting for the ball and no one giving it to you."
The Blazers drafted Sabonis in 1986, but nine years later, when he finally went to Portland, the nucleus of the team with which he was supposed to win a titleClyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey and Terry Porterwas gone. In its place have come a succession of youngsters whose up-and-down performances have disappointed Sabonis. "I think, sometimes, when these young players win the money, they have what they need, so they no longer play like they could," he says. "I've always loved to play, whether I was getting a lot of money or not."
Sabonis will exercise the escape clause in his contract this summer and become a free agent. Portland is expected to double his $3.1 million salary, and he would like to play there for three more years. Yet the pain in his heel is constant, and it will one day force him to call it quits. "When I see the ball in the air," Sabonis says, "sometimes in my mind I think I can still jump up and grab it."
Issue date: March 30, 1998
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