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Former Blazers' center Sabonis set for Hall of Fame induction

It was in the dark of the night that Arvydas Sabonis sped through Lithuania, returning to his hometown of Kaunas, when Trail Blazers athletic trainer Jay Jensen began to understand the impact the huge center had made in European basketball.

Sabonis, who at the time was preparing for the sixth of his seven seasons with the Blazers, was recovering from another surgery — this time to remove bone spurs in his foot — and was performing his rehabilitation with Jensen in secret, so the Lithuanian government wouldn't pressure Sabonis into playing for the 2000 Olympic team.

After the two met in the coastal town of Palanga, Sabonis raced back to Kaunas in a black SUV, raising concern with his front-seat passenger, Jensen.

"We were driving back and we were hauling, just hauling," Jensen remembers. "So I said, 'Sabas, aren't you afraid you will get a ticket?"'

Jensen said Sabonis huffed.

"Jay, come on," he recalled Sabonis saying. "A ticket? What they going to do to me?"

Soon they were in Kaunas. Sabonis headed straight to the harbor and fixed his headlights on the bow of largest ship in the Lithuanian naval fleet. The headlights revealed the name of the ship: SABAS.

Jensen remembers the chuckle from Sabonis, who nodded at the ship, proud of the stature and respect given to him.

"That's kind of the way it is over there," Jensen said. "He is like the Michael Jordan of European basketball."

On Friday, Sabonis will receive one of the sport's ultimate signs of respect when he is inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. Former Blazers great Bill Walton will accompany and present Sabonis at the induction. Tradition calls for the incoming members of the Hall to pick a previous inductee to introduce them.

Jensen, the Blazers longtime athletic trainer who spent countless hours working on the feet, ankles and back of Sabonis during his seven seasons in Portland, will represent the Blazers at the ceremony in Springfield, Mass.

"I spoke to him after he was chosen and his response was typical Sabas," Jensen said. "He said, 'What did I do to deserve this? I don't know.' He was such a humble guy, but he is truly honored."

Sabonis on Aug. 18 will make his first appearance in Portland since he retired after the 2002-03 season during a 1p.m. celebration at Pioneer Courthouse Square.

"I think he is surprised it's such a big deal to people in Portland," Jensen said. "He really doesn't understand what he has done to deserve such an honor and such attention."

Sabonis won two Olympic medals — the gold for the 1988 Soviet Union and the bronze for the 1992 Lithuanian teams — and was the two-time European player of the year.

In 1986, he became the first international player to be drafted in the first round when the Blazers took him with the 24th overall pick. Because of political tension at the time and later because of injuries, Sabonis didn't come to Portland until 1995, when he was 31.

By then, he was limited by previous injuries, in particular a ruptured Achilles tendon and an arthritic foot. But he was still effective and artistic, averaging 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds in his first season. He started the final 21 games of the season, and the Blazers closed with an 18-3 record and made the playoffs as Sabonis averaged 17.6 points and 10.7 rebounds as a starter.

In the 1996 playoffs, he averaged 23.6 points and 10.2 rebounds, but the Blazers lost in five games to Utah in the opening round.

In seven seasons (1995-2001, 2002-03; the year gap occured when he returned to Europe to spend time with family) Sabonis averaged 12.0 points and 7.3 rebounds, all while amazing fans with his gigantic size (7-foot-3, 295 pounds) and delighting with his crafty behind-the-back passes.

Former Blazers executive Bucky Buckwalter, who led the charge in drafting Sabonis in 1986, said only Walton could rival Sabonis among passing big men who ever played.

"I think the people in Europe understand how great he was, but I think people in the United States saw maybe half of what he was once capable of doing," Buckwalter said. "United States fans never really saw the full package, that's for sure."

He was also tough, playing through constant pain, which eventually forced him to retire. By then, he was already a legend in Europe, and his place among Blazers favorites emphatically secured.

"He is one of our all-time greats," said Jensen, who has been with the Blazers for 22 seasons. "And he played every day of his career in pain, but he never complained. He was certainly one of the tough guys."

Note: There will be a VIP reception on the Club Level at the Rose Garden with Sabonis and other Blazers alumni on Aug. 18 at 6 p.m. A $50 ticket includes heavy appetizers, two drinks and a question-and-answer session with Sabonis and Blazers personalities. All proceeds to benefit the Make It Better Foundation. To buy tickets go to trailblazers.com/sabonis.