NBA star Sabonis plays center for the Portland Trailblazers. In the 1980s Sabonis played for Kaunas Zalgiris, former champions of the Soviet Union. Zalgiris, by beating its main rival, the Moscow Soviet Army club, always stirred patriotic feelings and even street demonstrations with Lithuanian national songs in the 1980s.
Sabonis and three other Lithuanians were the backbone of the USSR team in the Seoul Olympics in 1988, where the team won gold. However, Sabonis says that he loves the bronze medals of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and Atlanta Olympics in 1996, when he played for his own independent country, much more. In Barcelona only the United States and Croatia placed ahead of Lithuania. In Atlanta the United States took the gold and Yugoslavia the silver.
After Zalgiris, Sabonis played in Madrid Real and helped lead them to Spanish championship. Later, he moved to the Portland, the only club that provided a serious challenge to this year's NBA champion, the Los Angeles Lakers.
No wonder Sabonis is glorified by most of his compatriots. Even Kaunas Mayor Vytautas Sustauskas, fighter for the rights of beggars, said that he does not sleep when an NBA game in which Sabonis is playing is shown late into the night. Sustauskas told reporters this when visiting the Lithu-anian Olympic Committee headquarters in Vilnius.
Sabonis is the co-owner of Kaunas Zalgiris, which spreads the name of his hometown Kaunas throughout Europe. Kaunas has won the European Cup, beating all the strongest clubs of the continent in 1999.
Even Sabonis' family photos in newspapers look like pictures from a fairy tale. Sabonis has four children. His wife Ingrida is Lithu-anian, which is rather unusual because Lithuanian basketball stars have had a tendency to marry American women in recent times.
For example, Zydrunas Ilgauskas from the Cleveland Cavaliers is engaged to marry an American this year. Even three players of the Lithu-anian national team live with Italian-Americans. Arturas Karni-so-vas and Mindaugas Timinskas have Italian-American wives while Sa-runas Jasikevicius lives with an Italian-American girlfriend. So, Sabonis's choice to marry Miss Vilnius '88 was rather original.
In the Soviet times, Sabonis received an offer to stay in the West and play in NBA. He refused because it would mean that he would not be able to visit Lithuania.
Jasikevicius, now a player for Spain's Barcelona club, once told journalists how he used to tease Americans while he studied politics at one of universities in the United States. Lakers' center Shaquille O'Neal would be a loser in comparison to Sabonis had Sabonis come to NBA 10 years ago, Jasikevicius said.
Indeed, Sabonis joined NBA five years ago at the age of 30, already plagued by numerous injuries in both legs. When playing for Kaunas Zalgiris, he was much faster than now.
Every year Sabonis visits Kacergine, a small town near Kaunas, and meets with children who spend their vacation in the summer camp 'Merkurijus.' Sabonis, who usually runs from journalists like mosquitoes, held a press conference for children in 'Merkurijus.' Students tossed questions at him. Some of the questions were in Russian because some kids were from the Kaliningrad district of Russia. Sabonis answered them in their language.
"I'm fluent in Lithu-anian, Russian and Spanish. I also know some English," Sabonis said. He also informed kids that he is "very old," already 35 years old.
"What kind of food do you like?" asked one youngster.
Sabonis's answer was typical for an average Lithu-anian man. "I eat everything. I eat as much food as I see in front of me. I like everything that is cooked from potatoes or with them, like cepelinai or saltibarsciai," Sabonis answered.
Cepelinai are blimp-shaped potato dumplings stuffed with meat or curd. Saltibarsciai is a cold soup prepared from beetroots and sour cream with hot boiled potatoes on the side.
"What country do you like the most?" was another question.
"Japan. It is a nice country. People are very small there. Food is very healthy there. And after having eaten their meal, I wanted to go to sleep. But I got hungry on my way from table to bed," Sabonis said.
Sabonis also said that every year during his summer vacation he likes to go fishing in Scandinavia for a couple of days.
In wintertime he plays basketball. "I haven't seen a real winter in 11 years," said Sabonis who played in Spain for six years and has now been in Portland for five years already.
He comes to Lithuania only in the summer during the breaks between basketball seasons. Sabonis has a villa in Spain, but he prefers to spend time in his own hotel, Pusu Paunksmeje, in the Lithuanian sea-resort of Palanga.
"What school do your children go to?" a boy shouted as the next question.
"To a Montessori-style school. There is no Lithu-anian language school in Portland. So they are going to an English language school," Sabonis said.
"Who is your best friend on the Portland Trailblazers?" shouted another boy.
Sabonis answered that he most often talked to German player Detlef Schrempf, who played for Portland last season. However, after some thinking Sabonis changed his mind. "Well, my best friend on the Portland Trailblazers is the doctor of this team," Sabonis said laughing.
This August, Jay Jensen advised him not to play for the Lithuanian national team in Sydney Olympics. Sabonis said that, probably, he would follow Jensen's advice.
At the same time, Sabonis said that he would be glad to play in Sydney. He has never been to Australia.