He sat in the front row of seats, just behind and off to the right of the Raptors bench like any other fan. He went basically unbothered as Toronto's win over the Houston Rockets unfolded at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday afternoon, a giant of a man crammed into a tiny arena seat just enjoying some NBA basketball. That lack of fanfare was a bit surprising because the big man in the small seat might just be one of the top handful of players to ever grace a court. Just ask Jonas Valanciunas what Arvydas Sabonis means to him. "Everybody loves him, he is our legend, our living legend," Valanciunas said of the Lithuanian sports icon. "It's amazing to have that kind of man from our country." You would have to search far and wide to find one athlete in one sport who has meant so much to a game in his country as Sabonis means for basketball in Lithuania. For years he was forced to play in Russia when that country occupied Lithuania up until the early-1990s, but he was a beacon for his countrymen. When Lithuania gained its independence from Russia, it was Sabonis who led a team from a small, burgeoning country to its greatest sports moment — an overtime victory over its former occupiers in the bronze-medal game of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. It made Sabonis and his teammates symbols in a basketball-mad country, gave young players a reference point they will never forget. "We gained independence and everybody hated Russia at that time," said Valanciunas. "Beating Russia was something incredible, everybody was celebrating, everybody was so happy, high emotionally. It was the greatest moment in our country, ever."
Toronto Raptors' Jonas Valanciunas thrilled to see Arvydas Sabonis at Air Canada Centre
Toronto Star | Dec 17