Even in Lithuanian it sounded like a fish story. Through his interpreter Arvydas Sabonis, the Portland Trail Blazers' 31-year-old rookie center, was telling about the one that got away. For 45 minutes on the Columbia River he had gone one-on-one with a stubborn sturgeon, Sabonis was saying, but after winning the battle he had to throw the seven-foot fish back because, at close to 300 pounds, it exceeded the legal weight limit.
Sabonis's estimate of the size of his catch carried some credibility because he is of roughly the same dimensions himself. But he must have felt the need to verify his story, because he disappeared for a moment into another room of his cavernous home in the Portland suburbs and returned with a photograph of the sturgeon in question, which looked every bit as massive and menacing as Sabonis had described it. He loosed a brief thunderclap of a laugh and then used his first English words of the conversation: "Like shark, no?"
The same might be said of Sabonis himself. He is huge, cunning and capable of great devastation. Like shark, yes. At 7'3" and 279 pounds, he is a scoring threat from three-point range and a master passer. "He's an oversized Globetrotter from overseas," says Blazers backup point guard Rumeal Robinson. Sabas, as he is known to his teammates, is a sleight-of-hand artist with his behind-the-back, touch, wraparound and no-look passes. "When he has the ball," says Portland forward Harvey Grant, "cut to the basket and, whatever you do, keep your hands up, or he'll make you look bad."
Lately Sabonis has been one of the main reasons Portland has looked so good. After the Blazers' 81-79 win over the Vancouver Grizzlies on Sunday, they were an NBA-best 16-2 since March 8, which, not coincidentally, was the date that coach P.J. Carlesimo inserted Sabonis into the starting lineup. It has been a remarkable resurgence for a team that only six weeks ago was on the brink of collapse under the weight of its internal problems, including locker room scuffles between teammates and a personality clash between point guard Rod Strickland and Carlesimo. After demanding to be traded, Strickland left the Blazers without permission on Feb. 22 and missed six games (SI, March 11).
When Strickland returned on March 4, he met with Carlesimo and agreed to put aside his differences with the coach, at least for the rest of this season. A team meeting followed at which Carlesimo challenged his players not to become the first Trail Blazers to miss the playoffs in 14 years. "We didn't want to wind up in the draft lottery," says Portland president and general manager Bob Whitsitt. "That's like the Bermuda Triangle. Teams get in it and never get out."
Instead the Blazers, 42-36 at week's end and assured of a spot in the playoffs (had the season ended on Sunday, they would have been the Western Conference's sixth seed), not only prolonged the NBA's longest current streak of postseason appearances but also became the fashionable choice to pull a first-round upset. "I like the way we're playing, and I wish the playoffs started today," Carlesimo said last week, "but as far as this talk about our being the team no one wants to play, I don't think San Antonio or Utah [the Blazers' possible first-round opponents] are losing any sleep over us."
Perhaps they should be. Sabonis, who was named the NBA's Player of the Week for March 25-31, averaged 17.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in only 24.8 minutes per contest during Portland's 18-game run. His 21 points and 15 rebounds in 23 minutes against the Dallas Mavericks in the Blazers' 114-99 victory on April 11 was a typically efficient performance. But he wasn't the only reason Portland turned it around. "Could we have done it without Sabas? No," says Carlesimo. "Could we have done it without Strick coming back? No. Could we have done it without improving our free throw shooting or our defense? No." In that 18-game stretch the Blazers allowed opponents a miserly 90.4 points per game. "It's been a combination of things all coming together at the right time," concludes Carlesimo, "a little improvement in a lot of areas."
Strickland performed at close to his usual high standards, playing through the pain of a groin injury that has nagged him since before the All-Star break in February. "People don't really appreciate the sacrifice Rod's making," says Carlesimo. "There have been a lot of nights when a half hour before the game we've been asking, 'Rod, can you go?' " Strickland's answer was always affirmative, although there were games during which it was a struggle for him just to run up and down the court. Against the Mavericks, Strickland was in such pain that he had to take a midgame whirlpool treatment to loosen the muscle, but he returned to finish with 17 points and eight assists. Nevertheless, the Trail Blazers' recent success had no effect on Strickland's desire to be traded after this season. When the subject was brought up last week, he slowly and resolutely shook his head. "Nope," he said. "That hasn't changed. I'm happy with the way we're playing. Winning makes a lot of things seem better, but it doesn't change everything."
As for Portland's free throw shooting, it improved from a horrid 64.3% before the 18-game run to a respectable 70.8% during it, a phenomenon for which Carlesimo has no explanation other than the law of averages. Some observers say that the Blazers benefited as well from Carlesimo's mellowing on the sidelines. "People I respect have said that to me, that I'm treating guys nicer, but I don't see any change," he says. "I think it's more that when you go 14-2, 15-2, everybody loves everybody."
Everybody seems to love Sabonis, who has quickly become the most popular Trail Blazer among Portland fans after almost a decade in which he was little more than a concept. Following the 1986 draft, when the Blazers chose him with the last pick of the first round, he was playing brilliantly in the Soviet Union. But Sabonis, unable to get through the Iron Curtain, was rarely seen by American fans.