ESPN Films' 30 for 30 recently featured “Of Miracles and Men,” a film about the plight of the 1980 Soviet Olympic Ice Hockey Team, which was in a class by itself until the USA pulled off an upset at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. Eight years later, at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea, the shoe was on the other foot.
The Soviet Union, in its last Summer Olympics as the Soviet Union (it would also compete under that name in the '88 Winter Games), upended the U.S. in basketball, 82-76. Coincidentally, this win was also in the semifinals. It was the first time the U.S. lost in Olympic Basketball before the gold-medal game, and only the second loss in Olympic competition — the other was the controversial 1972 gold-medal game in Munich, Germany, also against the USSR.
Starring for the Soviets in that 1988 game was 23-year-old Arvydas Sabonis, who scored 13 points and grabbed 13 rebounds against David Robinson and the U.S. Sabonis averaged 13.3 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.7 blocks and .7 steals in that Olympics. The Russians would go on to easily win the gold medal, beating Yugoslavia 76-63, with Sabonis going for 20 and 15, with three blocks.
Sabonis was a marvel who, in 1981, earned the praise of “best young player in the world” from a pretty good judge, Indiana head coach Bob Knight, who would be head coach of the U.S. team at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. In addition to size, Arvydas had toughness and the inside game of a center, as well as the ball-handling and passing skills of a guard, and the outside shot of a small forward. Unfortunately, the Cold War prevented Sabonis from coming to the NBA, despite his being selected by Atlanta in the fourth round in 1985 (the pick was voided).
The following year, Portland chose him in the first round. He would eventually get to the NBA, in 1995, at age 31, but by then he had been slowed by two ruptured Achilles' and various leg injuries. Nonetheless, in seven seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers he showed tremendous skill, and made basketball purists wonder what he might have done, had he been able to play in the NBA in his prime.
That same curiosity will not be aimed at his son, Domantas, as such questions about him already have answers.
The second-generation Sabonis, who starred for his native Lithuania in the 2012 FIBA U-16 and 2013 and '14 FIBA U-18 European Championships — leading the U-18s in rebounding both times — is showing tremendous talent as a freshman center for No. 2/3 Gonzaga.
At 6-foot-10 and 231 pounds, Domantas was the West Coast Conference Player of the Week for the week ending Feb. 2, recording two double-doubles against Portland (Jan. 29; 13 points, 11 rebounds) and Memphis (Jan. 31; 13 points, 11 rebounds), which gave him a team-leading four double-doubles on the season (no Bulldog has more than two). He went into the weekend averaging 9.9 points and 7.2 rebounds, ranking fifth in the WCC, while shooting an absurd 70.2 percent — the 'Zags lead the nation in shooting, with .530 — with streaks of making 11 and 13 straight field goal attempts. On the boards, Sabonis has dominated. He led or shared the team’s rebounding lead in 10 straight games, a streak that ended Feb. 7. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that he has done all this coming off the bench (he has made but one start) in 21.8 minutes, sixth on the team.
About the only thing Domantas doesn’t do like his dad is shoot the three. He hasn’t taken one this season. Arvydas shot nearly 33.0 percent (136-for-415).
However, Domantas is taking full advantage of something his dad never had: an opportunity to play in Division I college basketball in the U.S., with an open door to the next level. He has played a big role for the 'Zags, who are knocking at the door to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.
Ideally, the younger Sabonis will have three more years to develop, during which time he will make an appearance with Gonzaga at next season's Armed Forces Classic, to be played Nov. 13 at Marine Corps Base Camp Smedley D. Butler in Okinawa, Japan. It will be a great showcase for Domantas, and in some ways ironic, considering the military tension that was present when Arvydas was growing up.
The political differences that once deprived the world of seeing Arvydas play during his prime, in America, the land of opportunity, no longer exist for his son.