Arvydas Sabonis played just seven seasons in the NBA, spending that time with the Portland Trail Blazers. Like Yao Ming, who came later and lasted a bit longer, Sabonis remains beloved by stateside fans as much for his eccentricities as his talent (which was considerable in its own right). A lumbering Lithuanian with thick wristbands and knee braces the size of Muggsy Bogues, Sabonis showed rare savvy and finesse in the post to go with his massive 7-3 frame.
But what got Sabonis in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where on Friday he'll be officially inducted as a part of a 10-person class, was his international dominance. Sabonis spent the first 15 years of his pro career in Europe, playing for BC Zalgris in his native Kaunas, Lithuania, and later Spanish clubs CB Valladolid and Real Madrid. In these years he was named Europe's Player of the Year eight times.
Even that club success was overshadowed by Sabonis' mammoth impact on international competition at the Olympics and in continental championship. Most famously, Sabonis led the final Soviet team in Olympic history to the gold medal in 1988, beating the last amateur American team (starring David Robinson, Mitch Richmond and Danny Manning) in the semifinals and knocking off a stacked Yugoslavia team (led by Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac) for first place. That Soviet team was one of the best in international history, and Sabonis was clearly the best player on it.
After the U.S.S.R. broke up, Sabonis continued in international play, pushing Lithuania to huge success (and popularity). Lithuania became the second-biggest story in basketball at the 1992 Barcelona Game (after the Dream Team) being winning bronze; the nation repeated the feat in Atlanta in 1996. (In between, Lithuania took silver at EuroBasket 1995.)
Sabonis' talent, Lithuania's heart-bursting story of post-Cold War revival and an odd partnership with the Grateful Dead spurred the team's popularity, and eventually helped Sabonis transition to the NBA. (The Dead sponsored Lithuania in 1992, with the team wearing tie-dyed jerseys to the Olympics. It was a raging success, and they renewed the sponsorship in 1996. The band also raised money for Lithuanian charities in the process.)
Unfortunately for Blazers fans, Sabonis was 31 years old and clearly on the back-end of his career when he finally arrived in the NBA. He had productive seasons and helped the Blazers to the playoffs in each of his seven seasons -- this included the flirtation with the NBA Finals in 2000 -- before returning to Europe to close out his career.