When it comes to the NBA playoffs, the Portland Trail Blazers have rolled over more often than a Suzuki Samurai. In the last 10 seasons, they've been given the bum's rush in the first round of the playoffs seven times. If the Blazers were a sitcom, they would finish somewhere behind My Two Dads.
Ah, but that was before they saw what a little glasnost can do for your front line.
You think glasnost ends with scientists and exchange students? Nyet on your life. Portland is thinking globally. The Blazers are entertaining their own high-level summit and his name is Arvydas Sabonis.
Sabonis, 23 and about the size of Communism Peak, might soon be visiting a city near you. The Soviet superczar is an honest 7'3�" (the Blazers measured him in April), 279-pound Big Red Machine. And, what with U.S.-Soviet relations at their chummiest these days, it's looking more and more like Portland will have him in time for next season. The Trail Blazers used their last pick of the first round of the 1986 draft to choose Sabonis, and since then they've asked congressmen, diplomats and even Ted Turner's broadcasting company to persuade the Soviet government to let the big man become the first Soviet citizen to play in the NBA.
In mid-April the Soviets agreed to let Sabonis go to Portland to get treatment for his injured right Achilles tendon. Last August, Sabonis ruptured it for the second time in three months while running up a flight of stairs to answer what must have been a very important phone call. But eight months of rehab in his native Lithuania wasn't doing much good—he wasn't able to run or jump—so the Soviets, thinking of the Summer Olympics in Seoul, let him pack for Portland, where he is the most famous Communist in residence since John Reed.
Sabonis brought along his microsurgeon, Dr. Kestutis Vitkus, who serves as translator, constant companion and Nerf hoops opponent. Together, says Sabonis, they've "enjoyed many luxuries," courtesy of the Trail Blazers, who are paying all their expenses. The luxuries include a plush Jeep Eagle Premier, a high-rise apartment with king-sized beds, a VCR and remote-control TV. "He is constantly "bock, bock, bock' with that little box," laments the doctor. "And I must translate each small bit." His favorite movie so far is Top Gun. And, of course, there are bananas.
"I brought them a bunch of bananas one morning, and they went crazy," says Blazers publicist Tim Renn. "They never get bananas in Lithuania, I guess. So now I bring them a bunch every day. My grocer must think I've got a gorilla in my apartment."
Well, nearly. In little more than a month in Portland, Sabonis has broken every Blazer lower-body strength record and approached every upper-body record. And he has never lifted weights. He also looks like a stud. Most 7-footers seem to have an excess of the dork chromosome, with their too-long arms and Lurch eyebrows and pea-heads. Not Marvelous Arvydas. You see him walking across an empty parking lot, you figure him for 6'4", 190. Meet him close-up and it's as if somebody put him through the 150% blow-up mode on the office Xerox.
Not only that, but he has got happy feet. "I am astonished by how well he can dance," says Vitkus. "He can dance like Michael Jackson." And he can cut a lane as well as a rug. One NBA general manager says Sabonis has "four times the athletic talent" of Utah's 7'4" obelisk, Mark Eaton.
There's more. His shooting touch is as smooth as Stolichnaya. He has a sweeping Maurice Lucas-like hook and a soft jumper. Because of the wider international lane, European big men generally stay out of it and thus do more outside shooting than their American counterparts. But Sabonis's range seems limitless. When the U.S.S.R. beat Yugoslavia in the 1986 World Cup in Madrid, Sabonis bombed in one of his team's three three-pointers in the final moments. One day in Portland, after watching a TV commercial for the NBA that featured a number of last-second miracle baskets, Sabonis spent 15 minutes hollering in English, "Three, two, one..." and heaving up hooks from long distance. He made an astonishing number of them. Of course, whether he can bust jumpers wearing a Michael Cooper overcoat is another question.