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`WHAT IFS' ABOUND WHEN CONTEMPLATING SABONIS

IT MUST BE a bittersweet sight for many to see Arvydas Sabonis on an NBA court these days. Always the question, what if . . . ?

What if the Iron Curtain had crumbled sooner? What if he hadn't ruptured an Achilles tendon? What if he hadn't fallen down a flight of stairs? What if he had come to the NBA a decade ago, when he was first invited? What if he wasn't on the downside of his career?The NBA eagerly awaited Sabonis' arrival from the Soviet Union for so long that after a while he seemed more Russian myth than man. Most Americans had never seen him play, but his reputation preceded him. He was just about forgotten when he finally showed up in America this season, better late than never.

At last Arvydas Sabonis is here, all 7-foot-3, 290 pounds of him, and he is playing nearly equal to his considerable legend, which is too much for most NBA teams to handle, including the Utah Jazz.

Talk about your bad luck. The Jazz draw Portland, the sixth seed in the first round of the playoffs, and they're practically licking their chops when who shows up but the Russian version of Mark Eaton - with an offensive game.

Sabonis, a 31-year-old Rookie of the Year candidate, has averaged 26 points and 10.3 rebounds in four playoff games against the Jazz and rallied the Trail Blazers to a 2-2 tie. The series will be decided Sunday in Salt Lake City.

The Jazz were hoping that Sabonis' wife, Ingrida, would have that baby before then - the thinking being that he might elect to miss Game 5 in Salt Lake. Ingrida followed the plan, giving birth to a boy early Friday morning. The Blazers came to town on Friday, and Sabonis was expected to join them on Saturday.

Which must be a relief to the Blazers. Where would they be without him? They snoozed through most the season. The only real entertainment the team provided was a feud between guard Rod Strickland and Coach P.J. Carlesimo.

Sabonis was a reserve the first 60 games, playing an average of about half a game. Carlesimo wanted to bring him along slowly to see how his body would handle the rigors of a long NBA season. He started Sabonis in 20 of the last 22 regular-season games. Maybe he's sorry he waited so long. The Blazers were 17-3 in those games. They were 26-34 when Sabonis made the starting lineup and 44-38 by season's end.

Sabonis seems to be just getting warmed up. In the playoffs, he has scored 25, 27, 26 and 26 points, respectively.

"I've said it all along," says Jazz center Antoine Carr. "I knew he was a very good player. I saw him play when I was playing in Europe. And he was even better then."

So we've heard. Sabonis was a national hero and child prodigy. He started for the Soviet national team at 17, and thus began a brilliant national and international career. He shot from three-point range like a guard. He rebounded. He had the hands of a wide receiver. He had the uncanny court awareness and the passing ability of Bird and Magic. And he was huge. Not just tall, but broad, plus proportioned, coordinated and agile.

The Blazers drafted him in 1986, but the communist Soviet government was still in poewr and he could leave the country. Sabonis continued to star international play, but then the injuries came. In 1987, he ruptured his right achilles tendon. Three months later, he fell down a flight of stairs and ruptured the tendon again. Then there was tendinitis in his knees.

The Trail Blazers brought Sabonis to Portland in 1988 to help his rehabilitation, and it appeared he might join the team. Several polticians personally lobbied Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for Sabonis' jump to the NBA. But then Sabonis, still doubting his health and lured by rich European offers, surprised everyone by announcing he would return to the Soviet Union. He helped the Soviets beat the U.S. and win the gold medal at the 1988 Olympic Games, which also marked the last time Americans sent amateurs to the Olympics.

Lithuania gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but by then Sabonis was under contract with a European team. When the contract expired last year, Sabonis signed a five-year, $12 million deal with Portland.

"I decided it was now or never," he says. "I thought if I didn't try, it would always come back in my mind: Could I have done it?"

Sadly, the NBA will never see Sabonis at his best. He has never regained his pre-injury mobility. "He's not as fluid, and he's slower now," says Carr.

But he can still shoot and pass. His teammates say they have to be alert or they'll catch a Sabonis pass with their face.

How good could he have been? "People ask that a lot," says Carlesimo. " . . .

"He's a great, great big man, but without the injury? Had he played here for a long time and not had injuries, there's absolutely no limit to how good he could have been."