To the folks back home, Soviet basketball star Arvydas Sabonis has become an American playboy with a lifestyle that mocks Marxist philosophy. By U.S. standards, however, he is a working stiff trying to recover from an injury to get back on the job.
Stories are circulating in the Soviet Union that Sabonis, the Portland Trail Blazers' first-round draft choice in 1986 who is in the United States for rehabilitation of his injured right Achilles tendon, has fallen victim to the capitalist system, Trail Blazers spokesman John Lashway said. He has been portrayed there as an American playboy, living it up at the NBA team's expense, Lashway said.Sabonis does have his own car and apartment, luxuries by Soviet standards, and he's had a couple of dates. But Trail Blazers officials point out he's far from a playboy.
"That kind of criticism is so far from the truth," said Tim Renn, Trail Blazers director of communications. "With the program he's on now, he is so tired when he gets home at night he just goes to sleep. I don't think he's been out three nights in the last month."
Sabonis is a star center on the Soviet National Team, who the Trail Blazers hope to sign to an NBA contract. He has demonstrated a strong work ethic and has even refused some offers of accomodations by the Trail Blazers. Sabonis has a queen-size bed and Renn said he refused an offer of a larger bed.
"He said not to do it, that this bed was fine," Renn said. "I told him we were used to doing things like that for players. He said, `No thanks."'
He's also turned down rides to the grocery store, preferring to walk the 24 blocks to and from the store for food, Renn said.
Reports in the Soviet Union of Sanonis' "luxurious" lifetyle draw surprise from Trail Blazers officials, but they really see red over rumors that Sabonis has a drinking problem.
"A lot of people in basketball said he had a drinking problem," Renn said. "We heard that from several people and even heard that he re-injured his Achilles when he fell while drunk.
"You can't hear that stuff all the time without watching for it. I don't snoop around, but I've spent a lot of time at his apartment and all I ever see is fruit juice. Those stories are just not true."
Dr. Kestutis Vitkus, Sabonis' traveling companion and interpreter who shares an apartment with the Soviet star and is involved in the rehabilitation therapy, does say that Sabonis has little trouble getting dates, despite the language barrier.
"He communicates with girls himself," Vitkus said. "I don't help him there."
But Sabonis works out hard six days a week, leaving him little time for a social life, and takes English lessons three days a week, Vitkus said.
"He just wants to play" basketball, Vitkus said.
On Sunday, Sabonis' day off, he like to fish. He's caught a 14-pound salmon and is looking forward to hunting coyote, although it probably won't rival his enjoyment of hunting wild pigs back home.
Portland backup center Lester Fonville, who works out regularly with Sabonis, said the Soviet star is developing the skills necessary to play in the NBA.
"He's a real great guy," Fonville said. "He has a lot of skills that can carry him a long way, if he uses them the right way. He has to learn to get down in the paint. He can't go out and shoot those 40-footers. He shoots from way out."
Sabonis, 7-foot-3, 280 pounds, does have the size and strength to become a tough NBA frontline player, Fonville said.
Sabonis said he likes living in the United States, chiefly because Portland's residents have received him warmly.