Gonzaga's Domas Sabonis Taking the Basketball Path His Father Couldn't

Meri-Jo Borzilleri@mjoboSpecial to Bleacher ReportMarch 25, 2015

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SEATTLE — International basketball legend Arvydas Sabonis doesn't give his youngest son much basketball advice. What he gives, Domas Sabonis takes to heart.

"He tells me to be aggressive and don't be afraid to try new things," Domas says.

For Domas, 18, the latter has very notably meant walking a different path than his father and older brothers took in their basketball careers, making a tough decision to leave professional basketball in Europe and pursue American college basketball at Gonzaga.

The Zags' upcoming Sweet 16 appearance is sweet validation of that decision.

Last summer, Domas turned down a reported $630,000 contract to play basketball for top-notch European club Unicaja Malaga in Spain, near where his parents decided to raise their family.

The club, Domas said, had taken care of him ever since he started playing at age six for its youth team.

To pursue an NCAA career, he left friends. Left coaches. Left comfort. Left home.

"It was really hard," Domas said. "I basically grew up there. That's where I started basketball. Everyone was like my family, because they knew me from [when I was] little. They all treated me very good. All my friends and everything. All my brothers played there, too. It was a pretty tough decision."

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"It was what was best for me."

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Domas said it was the NCAA tournament, along with the basketball movies from America he watched, that drew him here.

"All the emotion, all the games, all the hype for it and everything really had me (energized) to come here," he said. "I really wanted to have that experience. Big games, arenas full, everyone watching you."

The natural next question: Didn't he have that in Europe?

"I know," he said, a little sheepishly. "I was born in America. Maybe that has something to do with it."

Domas was born May 3, 1996, as his dad played in the first round of the NBA playoffs with the Portland Trail Blazers. He's the only one of Arvydas' three sons and one daughter to be born in America.

Arvydas—a favorite for U.S. fans, two-time bronze medalist for Lithuania and gold medalist for the Soviet Union and member of both the FIBA and Naismith Hall of Fames—is not only the most famous athlete in Lithuania, he is also the country's most famous person, according to Sports Illustrated.

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 2:  Arvydas Sabonis #11 of the Portland Trail Blazers boxes out for rebound position against the Philadelphia 76ers on March 2, 1997 at the The Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon.  NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and agrees th
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He just turned 50, and when you are Arvydas Sabonis, a milestone birthday comes with a documentary.

Arvydas sees most of Domas' games via computer. Older brother Tuti set it up so his parents can watch Internet broadcasts of Gonzaga games on their TV. Domas provided some gear—Bulldogs shirt for mom, Gonzaga hoodie (size 5XXL) for dad—and they watch games in the middle of the night.

Arvydas retired from the NBA in 2003 after seven seasons in Portland, but he is still spoken of with reverence in his home country, even in his own family. Tuti, like his brothers, grew up playing basketball and still plays pro ball—he signed with Malaga's second-division team—in Spain.

Domas inherited some of his father's size, but he's not larger than life as Arvydas was. If Arvydas was a mountain of a man at 7'3" and 292 pounds—in an era when 7-footers in the NBA were less common than today—Domas is more Douglas fir, long and tightly built at 6'10" and 231 pounds.

Still, "He doesn't look like a freshman," Gonzaga senior guard Kevin Pangos said. "He doesn't play like a freshman."

Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said Domas has "a man's strength to him."

"In practice, oh man, sometimes you have to just get out of the way, or you'll get hurt," said 6'5", 202-pound junior forward Kyle Dranginis, who is also envious of Domas' ability to grow a beard. "He's a really tough player."

Teammates Josh Perkins and Przemek Karnowski have been showing Sabonis the ropes, introducing the new guy to things like American slang and Chipotle, where they eat three or four times a week. Other customs came up, too.

"In Europe, teammates were a lot more touchy-feely," Perkins said, laughing. "When he first got here, it was like, 'Come on, you can't do that.' Like the hugging and all that. We were like, 'Ummm.' It just took a while to get used to. Now we know that that's the tradition. We love it, and we really embrace it."

All of them appreciate his transformation from mild-mannered frosh to fiery force when he enters games. A dunk is usually followed by a roar and Hulk pose, directed to the Bulldogs bench.

SEATTLE, WA - MARCH 22:  Domantas Sabonis #11 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrates against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the second half of the game during the third round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KeyArena on March 22, 2015 in Seattle, Washing
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

"This is a pretty stoic team," coach Mark Few said. "Domas is our fire guy…He's a pretty adept passer, most of the time. He's getting more and more confident with his ability to score. But the best thing he brings us is just that energy and passion."

Domas, left-handed and wearing No. 11, doesn't look much like his dad. He was too young to see him play in person. But for Tuti, the resemblance is clear.

"When you spend a lot of time with both of them, you can tell they're very, very similar," Tuti said. "They're both really shy—don't really talk a lot. Then on the basketball court, it's just the little gestures. It's just the flick pass. It's just how he swears in Lithuanian, like my dad did. It's how he grabs his shirt or how he throws the whole full-court pass.

"All those little things that he does, I see my dad."

For Tuti, Domas represents the road not taken. Tuti wanted to play college basketball in the U.S. but "chickened out," he said, leery of the move to a big country where he knew no one.

Instead, he ran the point on Domas' recruitment, determined to spare his younger brother the regret that haunts him.

Other schools—such as Oregon, Arizona State, Texas A&M and Duke—made runs at Sabonis, but Gonzaga international recruiting guru Tommy Lloyd had the jump on all of them. Lloyd, a 14-year assistant coach, is the engine behind Gonzaga's overseas-recruiting program, known for landing college talent and developing NBA players such as Kelly Olynyk and Ronny Turiaf.

It was that part of the program that attracted Domas, looking for not only the NCAA tournament experience but also the hoops development that came with it. Unlike Kentucky's John Calipari and his drive-through prepping of NBA rookies, Few and Co. prefer to slow-bake their pro prospects.

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That appealed to Domas, who said he expects to stay at Gonzaga for four years.

Lloyd said Domas wanted to play more minutes than he would get on his club and "wanted the opportunity to really work hard on his game outside of practice, which is hard to do in Europe because of a lack of facilities and other stuff."

Domas said his mother wanted to see him get a college degree, but he and Tuti still had to convince their father of the move.

Arvydas was skeptical that the American college system could provide the kind of competition and development that grown men could in European pro leagues. Tuti knew where his dad was coming from, because playing for your club and your country was what Arvydas had known.

Arvydas was the product of a Soviet system that did not allow him the freedom to play in America in college or in his prime. Basketball aficionados still lament that Sabonis didn't come to the U.S. until he was 30 and hobbled by injuries. Even then, Sabonis delivered.

"The passes that he gave and the way he just read the (game), demonstrating that an old guy with so many injuries can destroy people like Shaq," Tuti said. "Now I look at the videos, and now I'm older, and I really understand basketball, and I love everything about it; it makes me feel like that Domas has a little bits of that.

"He'll get better and he'll understand more and I'm just hoping the best for him."

The SI story tells of LSU coach Dale Brown's obsessive recruiting of Sabonis in the 1980s, failed efforts that involved communications to Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, businessman Armand Hammer and various embassies.

BARCELONA, SPAIN- AUGUST 6: Arvydas Sabonis #11 of Lithuania boxes out against David Robinson #5 of the United States during the 1992 Olympics on August 6, 1992 at the Palau Municipal d'Esports de badalona in Barcelona, Spain. The United States defeated L
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

But Domas, with Tuti's urging, persisted in telling their father that America was the place for him.

Domas, who's fluent in Lithuanian, English and Spanish, seems to have been looking for something else, too—a chance to experience a basketball life with peers. He gets some of that playing for Lithuania's age-group national teams and is embracing the challenge of campus life.

"At first, it was harder," he said. "The classes, practice, getting everything together. The whole staff, the team, they've been really great with me. They help me out every day."

Other than getting assurances from Few and Lloyd that Domas would be free to continue playing for Lithuanian national teams, Arvydas kept out of his son's college recruitment.

Lloyd, who grew up in Kelso, Washington, was a huge fan of Arvydas in his Trail Blazers days, when he was a kid and his family owned season tickets. He said he never spoke with or emailed Sabonis during the entire recruitment process. He met him just once, last fall in New York City when Gonzaga played a Thanksgiving tournament. Domas was already enrolled in school.

In the New York Marriott Marquis hotel, the Sabonises, for the first time, got to meet Few and Lloyd, the men to whom they entrusted their youngest son's basketball future.

"He's obviously (still) tall, but he's really thin now," said Lloyd. "He lost all the extra weight he played with. He was wearing skinny jeans and a nice tight sweater. He looks great.

"They wanted to meet us face-to-face. More than anything, they wanted to thank us. It was very nice. They're super people. And that was it."

Jessica Hill/Associated Press

The Sabonises brought them gifts: a coffee-table book on Lithuania, scarves. But the real gift wasn't lost on Lloyd.

"He wasn't allowed to make his own decision for a significant part of his life," Lloyd said. "So that was the one gift he was giving his son."

Busy running Lithuania's basketball federation, along with a hotel managed by him and his wife, Ingrida, Arvydas did not make it to Seattle to watch Domas play Sunday, but watching on TV, he saw his gift's returns, presumably while dressed in a Gonzaga sweatshirt.

The Bulldogs' 87-68 thumping of Iowa provided a look at Gonzaga's offense at full bore. The Zags, led by silky veteran Kyle Wiltjer and sharpshooting senior guard Kevin Pangos, made a stunning 61.5 percent of their field-goal attempts (32-of-52), adding to their nation-leading mark (52.6 percent).

But it was Domas who provided the exclamation point to a team that had failed to advance past this point the past five years.

The left-hander finished a breakout game with 18 points and nine rebounds in 27 minutes as a reserve.

Defensively, he helped limit 6'9", 228-pound Aaron White—a likely NBA draft pick and Big Ten All-American—to just one rebound and a manageable 19 points. Sabonis' work inside—and spelling a fatigued Wiltjer, who collected two early fouls—opened up the floor for Gonzaga.

SEATTLE, WA - MARCH 22:  Domantas Sabonis #11 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs fights for the rebound against Aaron White #30 of the Iowa Hawkeyes in the second half of the game during the third round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KeyArena on Mar
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Against UCLA, the Zags will be looking for more of the same from Sabonis, their leader in rebounding (7.1 per game) and field-goal accuracy (67.5 percent). He usually comes off the bench for Karnowski, a punishing 7'1", 288-pound junior center from Poland. On Sunday, Few tag-teamed Sabonis with the hot-handed Wiltjer and relished the whiplash on Iowa's inside game.

"You get a little lightning and thunder," Few said. "Domas comes in and banks on them and gets some rebounds around the basket, and it's a good one-two combination."

After Sunday's victory, a happy Sabonis answered questions in the cramped locker room about his game and how he got here and if the reality of March Madness measured up to his dreams. Yes, he said.

After the questions were over, he had a call to make to his dad.

"I want to see if he is going to come to Houston," he said.

Meri-Jo Borzilleri is a freelance writer based in Bellingham, Washington. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.