Trail-Blazing Is No Cinch at This Point for Sabonis
A glistening gym in a health club beside the meandering Willamette River is an unlikely spot to find glasnost and basketball being practiced on the same court.
Soviet great Arvidas Sabonis is there, receiving a lesson in remedial, low-post, NBA-style basketball. A Soviet surgeon, a Soviet trainer and three officials of the Portland Trail Blazers are assembled to coach, translate and observe. Sabonis is the prize catch of a previous NBA draft, should he ever be allowed to play basketball in this country. The Portland team personnel are his benefactors. Theirs is a match made in courtside controversy.
Why Sabonis really is here, no one knows for sure.
He says he is using the Trail Blazers’ sports medicine experts to try to rehabilitate a ruptured Achilles’ tendon in time for the Olympics, something that is considered almost impossible by those familiar with his injury. This information, so far either ignored or unacknowledged publicly by Soviet sports officials, deals a serious blow to the gold medal hopes of the Soviet Olympic team.
The Trail Blazers, who daringly selected Sabonis in the first round of the 1986 draft, say they are paying for his extended visit to help him get ready for an NBA season -- if not this coming one, then the next. They tread delicately on the sensitive issue of the Olympics. But their ultimate goal for this East-West experiment clearly is a shot at an NBA championship, not an Olympic gold medal for the Soviet Union.
Sabonis, who is 7-foot-3 inches, 279 pounds and, at age 23, probably still growing, came to America on April 28. He planned to stay a week, but Soviet sports officials changed their minds and his visa was extended six months. The Trail Blazers would like him to continue his rehabilitation through June, but he will go home when Soviet sports officials tell him to. The Trail Blazers say the visit will cost them about $50,000, “a worthwhile investment in our future,” said team president Harry Glickman.
After a year of negotiating with the Trail Blazers, Soviet sports officials, apparently concerned that Sabonis’ rehabilitation was not progressing well enough in their country, gave him a plane ticket to the United States. Joyous Trail Blazers officials met him at the airport and confusion has reigned ever since.
U.S. Olympic basketball coach John Thompson criticized the Trail Blazers for helping the Soviets get their star player ready. “We are in direct competition with them,” Thompson said. “To prepare Sabonis to play against us just isn’t right.”
Sabonis and Portland officials politely respond that Thompson has a right to say what he wants. But it doesn’t look as though Sabonis is going to the Olympics, anyway. He will be able to play competitively “within a six-month period,” said Trail Blazers team physician Robert Cook. No one is optimistic he will be ready for the Olympics, which begin slightly more than three months from now.
There is more to the Sabonis story than a spat over the Olympic basketball competition in Seoul, however. The slight crack in the Soviets’ usual closed-door sports philosophy has allowed U.S. observers to get a rare look, albeit a narrow one, at the world of Soviet sports.
This has given Western observers a chance to see the seemingly ineffective way the U.S.S.R. tried to rehabilitate one of its most prized athletes. It also has provided evidence that the Soviets might actually like the idea of their star playing in the NBA.
The National Hockey League also wants Soviet players to join some of its teams, but U.S.S.R. hockey players seem to be more capable of quickly assimilating into the NHL than Sabonis does into the NBA. Then again, Soviet hockey players have had more contact with Western hockey -- and play a style more similar to the North American game -- than do Soviet basketball players vis-a-vis the NBA.
If it isn’t Sabonis or the Soviet hockey stars, it’s a Soviet team handball tour stop in Washington or the Johns Hopkins baseball team’s trip to the Soviet Union. Sports exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union have been going on for several years. But, for the first time ever, a Soviet star might just be playing professionally in the United States. And soon.
Throughout the last month, Sabonis has steadfastly gone ahead with his new life in the rainy Northwest. He obtained an Oregon driver’s license, although it took him two tries. He shares a furnished apartment with his Soviet doctor and has become enamored with renting movies for the VCR. He has gone fishing, been flown to Chicago for a Lithuanian festival and has been out on two dates. He even has gotten sunburned, which is quite an achievement in Portland.
“We are like two crabs,” said Kestutis Vitkus, the microsurgeon who serves as Sabonis’ roommate, best friend and interpreter here.
“You mean lobsters?” asked Tim Renn, the Trail Blazers communications director and the Soviets’ tour guide.
“Yes, lobsters,” said Vitkus, embarrassed. “We were out on the balcony, barbecuing ourselves.”
A small physical therapy treatment room with a table too short for the patient is a strange place to find diplomacy at work. Sabonis is lying there on his stomach with electrodes attached to his ankles, power surging into him to try to heal his Achilles’ tendons. The machine he is hooked up to apparently is not available in the Soviet Union.
Sabonis -- who has suffered from tendinitis in both Achilles because he might still be growing, according to Vitkus -- first ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon at a practice May 23, 1987. On May 29, Vitkus, a top-flight microsurgeon in Lithuania, was called upon to perform the operation. It was the first time he ever operated on a “prominent sportsman,” he said.
Sabonis, who is from the Lithuanian town of Kaunas, closer to Scandinavia than Moscow, was progressing well until the night of Aug. 23, when he slipped and fell on the stairs in his home. He ruptured the tendon again and even tore open his skin. Vitkus was called in again to repair the injury and, this time, he said, he put pins inside Sabonis’ foot to pull the tendon back in place. For a while, the pins actually were sticking out of the bottom of his heel.
As Sabonis began his recovery, angry words came from Moscow. Tass scolded him for not showing “proper caution” and hinted that he might not be able to play anymore.
What went on in the months prior to his arrival in Portland is not entirely clear. He underwent rehabilitation, Vitkus said, but what that entailed is hard to gauge. When he arrived in Portland and stepped on a basketball court, it was clear to observers he had not spent much time shooting or working out.
“His rehabilitation had been ultraconservative,” Cook said. “They were not aggressive with it, although I certainly can’t criticize them because it was the second injury.”
“He was working out with weights and they have ultrasound equipment there,” said Bryan Casper, a physical therapist working with Sabonis at Cook’s clinic. “But they have really enjoyed the sophistication of our equipment. It’s been very beneficial to him to be here.”
Vitkus came to the United States with Sabonis in April, and a Soviet basketball trainer named Alexandras Kosauskas arrived about a week ago.
Vitkus, 36, a soft-spoken, bespectacled man who learned his English by reading medical journals, said he is “so astonished” to be here.
“Five years ago, I absolutely could not have come here (because of Soviet restrictions),” he said. “Last year, maybe it would happen. Everything is changing. There is no question I like that.”
Kosauskas, who speaks only Russian, said he has come to learn “what to do when Arvidas gets back to the Soviet Union.”
While taping Sabonis’ ankles, Kosauskas had to be shown by a therapist that he was not wrapping the tape tightly enough. Sabonis grew impatient as he watched.
Vitkus, meanwhile, said he has no record of Sabonis’ medical history. At some point, Sabonis “received injections” in his ankles, Vitkus said. “What kind and where, nobody knows.”
Was it cortisone?
“No one knows.”
The Trail Blazers don’t worry much about Sabonis’ past. What they are working on in the gym is his -- and their -- future.
Assistant coach Jack Schalow is trying to make a point. He is trying to show Sabonis that when he is playing low and someone is defending him high, he should go to the hoop, an elementary part of life in the NBA. But Sabonis doesn’t know it because he plays the high post in international basketball.
His shot of choice is the three-pointer, not the hook. His hero is Larry Bird. (“Paukstis,” he said, which is Russian for bird.) He has never seen a tape of Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell. And the speed displayed in the few NBA games he has seen in person or on television is “amazing,” he said.
Sabonis doesn’t know much English and Vitkus doesn’t know much basketball. So Schalow must interpret for Vitkus before the microsurgeon interprets for the basketball star.
Within minutes, Schalow is saying to Vitkus, “Tell him we know practicing one move at a time is boring, but that’s what he has to do to get strong to take it to the hole.”
Soon, Sabonis is being guarded low. “Now you shoot your hook,” Schalow says.
The Trail Blazers are far from discouraged. Team officials watch him shoot every day. They have discerned a soft touch through the rustiness.
“Look at him,” said Bucky Buckwalter, Trail Blazers vice president for basketball operations. “He looks 6-8 or 6-9, not 7-3. He is so beautifully proportioned. Look at his balance and coordination.”
Next spring, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) will vote on whether professionals can play for their national teams in international competition like the Olympics. If all goes as expected, FIBA will approve the plan. The Soviets are expected to allow Sabonis to play for Portland when this happens -- or even before, if they feel strong enough about the odds of FIBA approval. So it is conceivable that Sabonis, if he is healthy enough, could play in the NBA as soon as the upcoming season.
Why would the Soviets let Sabonis come, Vitkus is asked.
“It is every basketball player’s dream, everywhere in the world, to play in the NBA,” Vitkus said. “It would be a huge prestige factor for the Soviet Union if he does it. It is the greatest thing in the world to play in the NBA.”
There also might be some money involved. A large percentage of the salary that Sabonis or any prospective Soviet NHL player receives would go back to Soviet sports federations. Sabonis could command $1 million a year.
Yet he certainly would be able to keep some of the money, perhaps from the incentive clauses he would have written into a contract.
And what would he like to buy?
Sabonis thought for a moment, then answered in Russian.
“A new leg.”