Over the years, the EuroLeague has seen its fair share of incredible seasons from one player, but what Arvydas Sabonis managed twenty years ago belongs to the cream of the crop of exceptional performances.
The Lithuanian Olympian winner and world as well as European champion ended his seven-season NBA career in the spring of 2003. Although Sabonis didn’t manage to win anything in the dream league, he has 521 games with the Portland Trail Blazers under his belt, where he averaged 12 points and 7.3 rebounds in a game.
Sabonis certainly deserved something more than an NBA career, because he crossed the ocean only at the age of 30. It could have happened earlier, as he was drafted in the 1980s, but the opposition of the Soviet Union authorities did not allow him to go to North America as a young man. When the permit came in 1989, Sabonis put off going to the NBA because he feared he wasn’t physically ready for the league.
Sabonis’ NBA highlights:
The 221 cm tall and one of Europe’s best players of all time returned to his hometown Kaunas for the 2003/04 season to hang up his sneakers and do the last dance with his parent club Žalgiris. Of course, there was no doubt about the quality of Sabonis, who returned to Lithuania shortly before his 39th birthday, but it was unclear whether and how his body would hold up at the Old World’s top level.
Sabonis came, saw and shone
In the first round of the EuroLeague against Athens Panathinaikos Sabonis scored 15 points, grabbed nine rebounds, and had eight mistakes against him and Žalgiris won 80:74. There were still cheerleaders then, who said it was just one game and no fundamental conclusions should be drawn. The next two rounds, however, swept away all doubts!
Sabonis highlights against Panathinaikos:
Against Siena Montepaschi, Sabonis was on the court for almost 36 minutes, got 18 rebounds, scored 16 points, made five interceptions and had an efficiency rating of 34. In the battle with Bologna Fortitudo, he played for “only” 28 minutes but had 18 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks and an efficiency rating of 30 – well done, wouldn’t you agree?
It is also noteworthy that Sabonis not only shined individually but also improved the results of Žalgiris. If in the previous season, they didn’t get further than the group stage in the EuroLeague, then along came Sabonis and they did. It’s true that getting into the top 16 was a close call, as the top five from the three subgroups and the best sixth-place holder among all the groups made it further.
Both Žalgiris, AEK Athens of Greece, Partizan Belgrade of Serbia and Śląsk Wrocław of Poland had six wins and eight losses after 14 matches. However, Žalgiris had the best score difference of the quartet with +33.
Highlights of MVP Sabonis’ 2003/04 season:
If today the play-offs are held in the EuroLeague after the regular season, then 19 years ago the four participants of the final tournament were determined in intermediate groups. Žalgiris had to play against Valencia (Spain), Ülker (Turkey) and the powerfully assembled Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel). Three wins and three losses gave Žalgiris third place.
Sabonis also played powerfully in the intermediate group. At the age of 39, his efficiency rating in the first game against Ülker was 47, which only Shane Larkin (48), Dejan Milojevic (51) and Sabonis’ clubmate from that season Tanoka Beard (55) have managed to surpass in the EuroLeague. Sabonis concluded his EuroLeague career against eventual winner Maccabi, who was treated to 29 points.
Sabonis’ average numbers are staggering
In the regular season, Sabonis participated in 12 matches, missing only two games. He was excellent with the ball, a good shooter and a force under the basket who gave opponents a headache on defense. His average indicators were 15.9 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. Sabonis hit 64.3 percent of two-point shots, the efficiency rating was 26.4, and he spent almost 28 minutes on average on the court.
Sabonis’ efficiency remained broadly the same in the six intermediate group battles, with 18.2 points per game and 11.5 rebounds per game. The big improvement came in his three-point shooting, which he hit at 55.6 percent against Ülker, Maccabi and Valencia – it was just 21.7 in the regular season.
And if we sum up all of Sabonis’ 18 games, the statistics were as follows: 16.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.6 blocked shots and an efficiency rating of 26.3. Not bad for a 39-year-old, huh?
Sabonis’ name is still represented in the EuroLeague
The 2003/04 season was Sabonis’ last as a player. However, he has not abandoned his beloved basketball – he’s been the president of the Lithuanian Basketball Association, been part of the circle of owners of Žalgiris and is currently the honorary president of the club.
Domantas, one of his three sons, currently shines in the NBA with Sacramento Kings and Tautvydas Sabonis is present at every Žalgiris EuroLeague game. No, he is not a superfan of the club – although he might be – the 31-year-old former player is one of the three assistant coaches at the Kaunas club.
Domantas Sabonis’ highlights from last season:
Tautvydas, who acquired a basketball education in the ranks of the famous Spanish club Malaga Unicaja together with his brothers Domantas and Žygimantas, started as a youth coach in Žalgiris and joined the representative team in the summer of 2020. He has been under different head coaches – Martin Schiller, Jure Zdovc and the current head Kazys Maksvytis have coached the club during his time. This a mark of quality!