http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/6867508/arvydas-sabonis-long-strange-tripBob Whitsitt could never get a straight answer on Arvydas Sabonis. In 1994, Whitsitt arrived in Portland and was tasked with remodeling an aging Trail Blazers roster. Nobody in the organization knew Sabonis' level of interest in coming to Portland. He had become a mythical figure — out of sight, but seldom out of mind. The Blazers first drafted Sabonis with the 24th pick in the 1986 draft, but he declined to come over to play in the United States. Although most involved speculated that the reason was political, nobody could quite define the exact motive. In the eight years between being drafted and Whitsitt's arrival in Portland, Sabonis had transformed from prodigy to a full-fledged international star. That much was evident. After scouting him for a year, Whitsitt finally pinned Sabonis down for dinner in Madrid, the latest stop in a meandering life that started in Kaunas, Lithuania.
Sixteen years later, Whitsitt remembered how the dinner had started late — real late — wreaking havoc on his circadian rhythm. More important, Whitsitt remembered marveling at Sabonis' hands. They were huge, Whitsitt recalled, but they also served food in the same delicate manner with which a surgeon would handle a scalpel.
"If you get the chance, pay attention to those hands," Whitsitt told me over the phone. "Hopefully, he doesn't crush your hands with a handshake, but he could if he wanted to."
In professional basketball, shorter players are just as likely to draw as many double takes as the taller ones. Tall is average. Of the players I've seen in person, only two amazed me by their sheer size alone: Shaquille O'Neal and Yao Ming. Now there's Sabonis. At 7 feet, 3 inches, he is the tallest member of the Hall of Fame. But unlike Yao, who, despite his broad shoulders, still stands a bit skeletal, or Shaq, who ballooned as his career progressed, Sabonis' body is still roughly proportionate to a normal-sized man. I'd be surprised if he weighed much more than he did in his playing days.
Sabonis suffered the big-man's curse. It is the irony of the game that often some of the bodies built for basketball are ultimately too delicate to handle how the sport pounds the feet, ankles, and knees. The bigger the body, the greater the chance that a tiny abnormality can halt a brilliant career and crumble it like a misplaced Jenga block. Bill Walton and Yao Ming are among those whose sparkling careers were derailed by debilitating injuries. But at least the NBA's audience witnessed them, appreciated the development of greatness even if the peak was abbreviated. With Sabonis, we are left only with a dabble of YouTube clips filmed long before YouTube was created. "I am no longer a locomotive, only a small trolley," Sabonis once told the Oregonian after he arrived in Portland.
Before him now, I wondered if Sabonis' legend would be greater in the United States if he had never arrived at all.