Happy returns for Lithuania's sporting giant

  • 2004-12-15
  • By Matthias Kolb
VILNIUS - Few people can celebrate their 40th birthday having achieved what Lithuanian basketball legend Arvydas Sabonis has managed to. He is the proud father of four children, married to a former Miss Vilnius, the president of top basketball side Zalgiris Kaunas and without doubt the most revered sporting idol in Lithuania.

Sabonis is currently out of sporting action because of an injured knee, but that won't stop him celebrating when he turns 40 on Dec. 19. The 220-cm. tall sporting giant no longer plays in the Lithuanian Basketball League as he is now concentrating solely on helping his beloved Zalgiris try to progress in the Euroleague competition. Last season, at the age of 39, Sabas - as his fans call him - won the "Most Valuable Player" award both in the LKL and Euroleague.

Off the court, Sabonis remains very active: He became president and co-owner of Zalgiris, when he returned to the club that launched his career in 2003. Sabonis had always promised to finish off his playing days with Zalgiris and in order to keep his promise he turned down a $7.2 million offer from the NBA team, the Portland Trail Blazers.

Sabonis recently acquired two playing facilities in Kaunas - one for the club and one for the Arvydas Sabonis Basketball School, which he founded in 1994. About 700 kids between seven and 18 years of age train there with the help of some 35 professional coaches. The curricula also include English language classes and computer skills.

Sabonis is also planning to construct a modern 10,000-seat arena in Kaunas and was an important member of the official delegation that presented Lithuania's application to host Eurobasket 2007. He welcomed FIBA's decision that the Baltic country will stage the tournament in 2011: "It is important for a small country like ours to be given the opportunity to host a European Championship," Sabonis said after the news broke last week.

For Euroleague's CEO Jordi Bertomeu, Arvydas Sabonis is "one of the best European players ever" and NBA's Chinese star Yao Ming (Houston Rockets) calls him one of his foremost role models.

But Lithuanians love this giant for more than just his sporting success. "The people adore him, because he is honest," explains Regina Mundryte, a basketball expert for the daily Lietuvos Rytas. "Sabonis does not say many words, but his words are strong."

Without any doubt, Sabonis' achievement is extraordinary. With Zalgiris, he won the Soviet championship three times in a row (1985-1987) by beating CSKA Moscow. At the Seoul Olympics in 1988 he impressed the international media through his performances as center for the gold-winning U.S.S.R. team - and by wearing a "Lietuva" shirt in public and hanging a Lithuanian flag out of the window of his hotel room.

Later, Sabonis played in Spain, where he won three national championships, and led the Lithuanian national team to win Olympic bronze medals in 1992 and 1996.

In 1995, Sabas became the oldest rookie in NBA history. He grabbed more than 3,000 rebounds for the Portland Trailblazers and was celebrated by American fans for his hook-shots. The best Web sites about Sabonis (www.sabonis.com and www.sabonis.4t.com) are actually hosted by Americans.

Back in Lithuania, some people even want Sabonis to become a representative for the city of Kaunas. Mayor Arvydas Garbaravicius recently said [in an interview with The Baltic Times] that he wants foreign people to know Lithuania's second city "by Zalgiris and by Sabonis."

But there is still one crucial question: How long will Sabas continue to play? "We don't know," admits Zalgiris' Vice President Gediminas Navikauskas, who thinks that the player-president will make a decision in January as to whether or not he will finally retire.

In 2003, Sabonis gave a vague hint about his decision in one of his rare interviews: "I am not fully autonomous in my decisions: my kids have to approve them, too."

Regardless, Sabonis will definitely devote his life to in one way or another to basketball. And, who knows, perhaps Zalgiris' fans will one day be able to sing "Sabonis is god" again: all three of his sons, who are aged between 8 and 13, play basketball and they might just follow in their father's enormous footsteps.