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'85 NBA Draft Revisited: The Strange Phantom Drafting of Arvydas Sabonis

The Atlanta Hawks drafted Arvydas Sabonis in the fourth round of the 1985 Draft despite the fact he was not age eligible. Who was to blame?
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor's note: This week, VICE Sports takes a look at some of the quirkier stories from the historic 1985 NBA Draft on its 30th-year anniversary. You can read the entire series here.)

Well, you want to get weird, right? Then here's something weird for you, right smack dab in the cocaine arrhythmic heart of the 1980s, when the NBA was king, from the very moment it perhaps galvanized into the slickly entertaining show it currently remains, the 1985 draft, the lottery draft … hold on, asterisk, the rigged lottery draft, right?


Well, the weirdness is in the selections, not the envelopes or financial tentacles, and hinges less upon multi-million dollar machinations than the actual vagaries and brumal clouds kicked up by the Cold War, as the game of basketball red shifted into something international, flourishing behind the Iron Curtain, an entire galaxy of stars playing across all of the seven seas in sweat boxes and Soviet gyms and Spanish dappled sunlight.

Read More: '85 NBA Draft Revisited: Mr. Irrelevant

There's a small footnote hidden the in shadows of The Conspiracy, one of the greatest players in the history of the game passing through one of the greatest drafts in the history of the game like a ghost; Arvydas Sabonis, in his prime, selected by the Atlanta Hawks in the fourth round with the 77th selection. Imagine it! Wilkins, Webb, and Sabonis, Atlanta a dominant kingdom of the NBA's Decade, maybe even the O'Brien in the the Omni …

Sabonis was drafted and his selection was voided, ruled ineligible because he was not yet 21, surprising the Hawks, garnering proptosis-inducing eye-rolling in Europe, and heralding—albeit in absentia—the first real wave of international players to wash ashore, even if Sabonis would be a decade late in joining them.

Here's how an Iron Curtain, an organization's dedication to the worldwide game, and a willingness to roll the dice assembled—than disassembled—what could've been the amongst the game's greatest triads before they ever saw each other, much less a court.


Sabonis at the FIBA Basketball World Cup last year. Photo by ELVIRA URQUIJO A./EPA

"The years are running together in my mind, but I do know there were no rules at the time. I do know Sabonis was widely regarded as the greatest basketball player in the world at that time," Stan Kasten, then Hawks GM and current Los Angeles Dodgers president, said of his team's ill-fated selection.

The pick was made in a time of media and scouting opacity that is difficult to comprehend three decades after the fact; there were still, to paraphrase Conrad, blank spaces in the scout's maps, and none promised such riches—or showed, in crimson flashes, such tantalizing riches—as the Soviet Union. Atlanta was the first NBA team to recognize the potential of foreign players, taking the first and second ever international draftees in 1970, Mexican Manuel Raga and Italian Dino Meneghin, and their drafting of Sabonis in 1985, while considered a bit of a grasp, seeing as how the Soviet machine was loathe to let their superstars go, actually fit in well with the club's cosmopolitan leanings.

The draft gaffe was the result of confusion on both the domestic and foreign fronts for the Hawks and the league; what were the protocols for players who were not early candidates for the draft, i.e., did not go through the well-documented American collegiate system, and just how old, really, was Arvydas Sabonis?

Victor de la Serna, a journalist from Madrid, believes that, contrary to Kasten's memory, there actually was a protocol in place for non-declared international candidates. In fact, the Hawks had not only drafted international players before, but had gotten away with the very same violation which would find their 1985 pick voided: Meneghin was 20 when he was drafted, and although he never played in the NBA, the selection was never voided, per se. De la Serna believes that this was because the rules—which would require draftees to be over 21—had been installed sometime between 1970 and 1985.


"These guys [Raga and Meneghin] didn't even try out for the NBA, they were just taken," de la Serna said. "This was when the NBA draft had like nine or ten rounds, and they took such strange draft picks in the later rounds so nobody even paid attention to that. But, in 1985, the rules for foreign players are already being made, and also Sabonis was a very notable player, an obvious NBA candidate, so it did make some noise."

De la Serna and his continental cohorts were surprised by Atlanta's selection; Sabonis' being underage was common knowledge in the international basketball community.

"My guess on it was that somebody got Sabonis' birthdate wrong, and they thought he was 22, and he was not," de la Serna said. "He was born in 1964, so he was only 21 [actually, Sabonis would turn 21 in December of 1985] and when the NBA found out, they voided the draft pick."

Russ Granik, who was Executive Vice President of the Association at the time of the draft, backs de la Serna's assertion of the fatal ambiguity being on the Hawk's end.

"I think the uncertainty about Sabonis' eligibility in 1985 had less to do with any ambiguity in the rules and related more to establishing Sabonis' age with any confidence," Granik wrote in an email. "We didn't have a formal relationship with FIBA at that point, so teams were kind of on their own to make sure any prospective draftees were actually eligible."

Sabonis was a formidable player even in his later years. Photo by EPA

Kasten maintains that the NBA's rules for players in Sabonis' situation were the true cause of ambiguity. "I do not remember any question about his birthdate, which was less of an issue because it had already been certified through numerous international competitions," Kasten wrote via email.


Regardless, Kasten had rolled the dice; the idea of a big man of Sabonis' caliber, with exceptional passing and shooting ability and a knowledge of the game that was more akin to a point guard than center, was simply too tempting to pass up in the fourth round.

The decision to void came down pretty quickly, and Kasten recalls being a bit upset by it but letting it roll by.

"I don't think any of us had especially hard feelings about it," Kasten said, "because none of us knew what the rules were going to be; and frankly, up until that point, we couldn't even be sure how good players were until they played in the NBA. We just didn't know. I'm sure we took it stride; wasn't happy about it, but that's OK. It worked out."

No one seems to remember much about the actual process behind the decision to void the draft pick; various sources in the NBA recall it happening, but not much more than that. One suspects there is a piece of paper somewhere, a legal document, but if so, it may be lost. Brian McIntyre, the former Senior Communications advisor to David Stern, senior Vice President of Communications, and at the time of the 1985 draft, Director of Public Relations, had just recently been combing through the NBA's archives for a historical project. He recalled finding little on Sabonis' phantom selection. McIntyre jokingly suggested that if Granik could not remember the details, nobody would.

It would be tempting to see a second conspiracy in all this, draped in the jingoistic cloak of the Cold War. But the most likely candidate in this maddeningly indeterminate attempt to red shift a single asterisk into something bigger is the indifference of memory; the Hawks either missed on the scouting report or the NBA misremembers what rules it added when. (Now, here's a real potential conspiracy for the Stern watchers: If the Commish really was so bullish on the global game, why would the league void Sabonis' selection before even testing the waters in the USSR? A release, although practically impossible, would have been a coup, certainly one tempting enough to allow Kasten and company to title quixotically at the Kremlin over a few years for.)

The short, strange chapter was, in the end, a minor setback for both the Hawks and the unstoppable rise of the international player in the NBA, a rise Atlanta—and David Stern—remained at the vanguard of.

"Before the whole [international] era started, we were obviously at the forefront of it," Kasten said. "And then the wave came, right after that. Just a tremendous wave. Try and think of the NBA today without European players in it. You can't do it."