Basketball

From Breaking a School’s Basket to the NBA

Irakli Magradze
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Zaza Pachulia is a great man. Yes, he is very tall, but first and foremost, he is a great man. He left Georgia at the age of 14, at a time when few in the county were in the mood for playing basketball. Pachulia left for good and now only really visits his homeland in the summer. He left Georgia as an inexperienced teenager and now he plays for the NBA, is one of Europe's best centers and is the captain of, and an irreplaceable player in, the national team of Georgia. He has been a fan favorite wherever he has played – in Georgia, Turkey and America.

At the age of 15, Pachulia was already almost two meters tall and he could hardly go unnoticed. It is impossible not to acknowledge how hard he has worked to achieve success. And indeed, all his efforts bore fruit. In order to learn all about how he achieved success and to also talk to him about a range of interesting topics, we contacted the Big Z, as he has been dubbed by his fans in the State of Georgia, in Atlanta.

"I was 14 years old when I left for Turkey. I studied at Private Demirel College in Tbilisi. In fact, although I played basketball, school was always a priority for me. My parents always demanded top grades. When I did not deliver them, their punishment was to prevent me from going to training. I liked basketball so much that I tried very hard to avoid that punishment. Consequently, I always did well at school.

".... Selection matches for the European Championship were in progress and the Georgian national team was hosting the national team of Turkey. A delegation of Turkish guests visited Demirel College as a token of respect to their President Süleyman Demirel. It was an ordinary, friendly visit. When they were about to leave, the bell rang at the end of a lesson and we, students, went out into the yard. I have always been tall and was the tallest in my school and so it was impossible for anyone not to notice me. During the next lesson I was told to go and see the director of the college. As I was walking to his office I was wondering why the director wanted to see me, I was trying to recall whether I had done anything wrong.

"I could hardly imagine back then that, walking to the director's office I was taking the first steps of my career. The Turkish guests had asked the director about the tall boy they had seen in the yard during the break. The director had told them that, in addition to studying at Demirel College, I also played basketball. They seemed content to talk with me because, even though I was only 13 at that time, I was fluent in Turkish. After that talk, I remember we went out into the yard, which had a large football field and only one basket, which had been installed on my request. The members of the delegation asked me whether I could dribble to the basket and shoot the ball. I did so, but instead of just taking a shot, I dunked the ball with such force that the basket broke off. It seems the basket had not been installed well. In short, before leaving they bade me farewell and told me that they would contact me in a week.

"Within five days of that meeting the general manager, director and junior's coach of the Ulker Istanbul basketball team arrived in Tbilisi. The people whom I had met at my school were representatives of the Turkish national team and, upon returning home, they communicated the information about me to some local teams and not only Ulker, but some other teams also showed interest towards me. That's why the Ulker representatives from Istanbul hurried to Tbilisi to see me. They met my parents too.

"The management of Ulker invited us to Istanbul to see everything firsthand and, after that, to make the decision whether to stay in Tbilisi or to play in Istanbul. To tell the truth, back then I had no idea how developed basketball was in Turkey. We had no information in Georgia, nor were there any other athletes or basketball players that played in overseas teams. When we arrived in Istanbul, Ulker was a very good team indeed. However, it should be noted that before visiting the basketball court, my mother asked them to show her the school where I was supposed to continue my education. The Turks were surprised about that, but were very pleased at the same time. For me, a teenager that had just arrived from Tbilisi, the conditions there were indeed perfect. On 10 February I turned 14 and on 13 February I, together with my entire family, was already heading for Turkey."

Young Zaza arrived to play basketball in an entirely strange country. It was an unprecedented event in those times because there were very few Georgian athletes who had gone overseas; among basketball players only one, Vladimer Stepania, had done so. In 1997, Zaza Pachulia expanded the list of such athletes.

"To cut a long story short, at the age of 14, I was already playing in Turkey. I now think I probably spent more time on aircraft than I did at home, but back then I found it very difficult to adjust to the new environment. Even though Turkey is our neighboring country, the readjustment from one culture to another proved very difficult for me as a young boy. That 13-million strong city on the crossroads of Asia and Europe, with so many cars and bottlenecks.... Back then, everything was strange for me. I had a very busy schedule, my education combined with basketball left me with very little spare time. I spent several years like that..."

In 2003 Zaza Pachulia became the third Georgian to join the NBA. Even though he already had quite a lot of experience of playing in one of the best European clubs, he initially found it quite difficult to adapt to America.

"I felt I was growing daily, weekly, monthly and yearly. I had played for three years in Ulker on the professional level and, at the age of 19, I was put on the NBA draft, where I was one of the five youngest players. In the second round, I was drafted by Orlando Magic. Thereafter, as often happens, I had to participate in some spring league games in order to prove that I deserved to stay in America. The representatives of the team initially considered sending me to Europe for a while, but my performance made the leadership change their mind and I was granted a two-year contract. That is how my career in America started and has already been ten years that I have been here.

"When I arrived in the US, I knew no one, I had no friends. The only person I knew was my agent, who lived in New York, which is quite a long way from Orlando. Even though I had played in Europe and was more or less experienced, it still proved difficult.

"In 1998 my father passed away and I arrived in America with only my mother. The good thing was that I was admitted into a very good organization and a good team. Generally, there are no poor teams in the NBA, but at that time Orlando Magic was a very good team indeed. All the players were good - Tracy McGrady, Juwan Howard, to name but a few; Doc Rivers was the coach... I was lucky to be with good people who made it easier for me to adapt to American culture and their way of life. The most difficult aspect was that in Ulker we had between 30-35 games a year, whilst in America I had 90, and now I even play 100 games a year. You understand the difference, don't you?

"Soon after I arrived, when half the season had already been played, I remember asking my teammates when we would finish playing; they just laughed at me and told me that they were just getting in shape.
"Then the Charlotte Bobcats appeared as the 30th team in the NBA. When the league was expanded the Bobcats were given an expansion draft, according to which they had the right to choose certain players from various other teams, which had no other option but to sign them over. Charlotte chose me, but within an hour had traded me with the Milwaukee Bucks.

"This was very unexpected for me, I was very young back then; people liked me in Orlando and I was improving my skills there. In Europe I did not have any experience of such trading. I was accustomed to playing with a team to the end of the contract I had signed. In short, one way or another, I had to move to Milwaukee in the spring. I was already well adjusted to Orlando by that time and had even bought a house there, but I had no other choice.

"The situation in Milwaukee was also good, though the resettlement from Florida to Wisconsin was a radical change – from a hot climate to a cold climate. In fact, I had no fun in Milwaukee. Thank god I got acquainted with several families from Georgia there and was able to spend my free time with them. It was a small city which was constantly cold with almost no sun [he said, laughing].

"I was lucky to have had very good teammates there, I would especially single out Toni Kukoc, who helped me very much. This legendary Croat basketball player, who once played with Michael Jordan and, in addition to his native country, is held in great esteem in Italy and America, taught me a lot and opened my eyes to many things. Playing with Toni was such a pleasure. He was nicknamed 'the waiter' for his ability to serve up the perfect pass.

"Two years later, I became a free agent and in the summer I received an offer from Atlanta. Frankly speaking, I did not even expect that offer. Back then, Atlanta was one of poorest teams, they had won only 13 games the previous season."

Zaza Pachulia joined the Atlanta Hawks in 2005. At that time the team was in difficulties. Joe Johnson was also drafted alongside Pachulia and thereafter other basketball players started to arrive. Gradually the team started improving and showing results. Pachulia plays for the Atlanta Hawks to date and the team is now viewed as a serious force in the NBA.

"Even though Atlanta was a poor team at that time, I opted to play for it because I had a chance to become a player in the starting five. When I arrived there, there was only one other player in my position, but he passed away suddenly soon thereafter and I remained alone and became a starting player. This is how my career in Atlanta started and it has already been eight years now that I have lived here; I can say outright that Atlanta is my home. That seems natural, having played on the same court for eight years and having participated in 800 games in front of the same fans. It is in my character, and is also the rule of NBA, to have frequent contacts with the fans. I often visit schools, hospitals..."

Zaza Pachulia is known to Americans, not only because he plays well, is diligent and has an exotic name, but because in 2008, the Georgian athlete attracted general interest due to his getting into a brawl with one of NBA's stars, Kevin Garnett, in the middle of a game.

"I am very happy to be in a team that has regularly participated in the play-offs over the past few years. The play-offs are extremely interesting and great to watch. In 2008, we had a match with the Boston Celtics, the team that then went on to win the title. In general, the Celtics are famous for their aggressive style of basketball. The players of this team often swear on the court and verbally abuse their rivals. This is especially true for Kevin Garnett – this is not my discovery, it has been well known for years.

"In short, Garnett made a move and intentionally hit me in the face with his elbow. The thing is that he did it deliberately, otherwise, of course, I would not have reacted to that. And that's where my temper, perhaps, showed itself – I got very angry and we had a fight. There were also several such episodes in games I have played with the Georgian national team. I do not like yielding anything on the court, that's perhaps why such things happen."

That incident resonated among the media and sport fans. Such behavior coming from a European athlete came as a surprise to the Americans because they always look at athletes from the Old World a bit differently. Garnett is a renowned basketball player and many would not dare engage in a scuffle with him...

"The game was held here, in Atlanta. The incident resonated in such a positive way that I really did not expect. The NBA, of course, penalized me with quite a substantial sum; but that sum was nothing really. No sum can buy the love and appreciation of the fans that I gained after that episode. Their attitude towards me significantly changed. When off the court, I respect Kevin Garnett very much. He will stay in the history of basketball forever, he has achieved many records and he is a brilliant player overall.

"... At the onset of my career, I found it very difficult to play against Shaquille O'Neal. When he played for the Los Angeles Lakers it was virtually impossible to block him. Playing against Yao Ming was very difficult too because he was taller than me. Nor was it easy with Dwight Howard. But over the last two or three years, I have no longer had such feelings. Experience must have done its work.

"My sympathies towards basketball players change every year, depending on how successful a season is for this or that player. I very much liked Jason Kidd and Steve Nash, and dreamt of playing with them. When you play with such athletes, success is guaranteed. Unfortunately, both of them became older and can no longer reach those heights. My favorite today is Kevin Durant. Kevin is not only a brilliant player, but is also a very good person."

One can say that Zaza Pachulia, who wears the number 7 when playing for his country, has been a member of the Georgian national basketball team since childhood. Pachulia started playing when the national team was unsuccessful and has contributed to the revival that Georgian basketball has been experiencing in recent years.

"Guess what's interesting? When I look at my career with hindsight, I see many common elements between the Atlanta Hawks and the Georgian national team. When I joined the Hawks, it was a very poor team. I joined the team together with Joe Johnson; then several players were drafted and, at the end of the day, we gradually approached the point where we are today – a strong team. As regards the national team of Georgia, we started playing in the B Division, but made it into the top ten in the last European Championship. This is huge headway and I am happy that I contributed to that progress for both the Hawks and the national team of Georgia. The process goes on, it has not been completed yet and now, having gained more experience, I know better what I must do in the Hawks and in the national team of Georgia to make the fans happy."

An opinion circulating among fans and in unofficial circles is that the national team of Georgia has outstripped its coach, Igor Kokoshkov. Some believe that the national team now needs a more experienced coach than this Serbian specialist. Pachulia has his own take on that issue.

"I think that one cannot suit everyone's tastes, no matter how great the success achieved is. That is perhaps good, as criticism is necessary. However, the reality is that Kokoshkov managed to do something which no one has managed to achieve before. If you look at the period during which Igor has been our coach, the progress has been apparent year after year. This is something that must be credited. In fact, we have not backslid even a step over the recent period. Despite playing against such strong teams as Bosnia and Latvia, we still made it into the European Championship for the second time in a row.

"I do appreciate Kokoshkov's labors; what we, the basketball players, and the coach have achieved together. One should also take into account that, given the Georgian character, it is very difficult to train Georgians, especially for a foreigner. Frankly speaking, when I come to Georgia, even I find it difficult to get used to it, but I am a Georgian and so I manage to readjust. A different approach is needed for Georgians, we have a specific character. We all want to win, we all want to play and none of us likes to be sitting on a chair in reserve. We are ambitious people. All that needs to be balanced in such a way as to achieve success and win, otherwise everyone will give you abuse. In short, it is of course up to the Basketball Federation to decide who the coach should be, but it is impossible not to see the successful work of Kokoshkov."

In March, Zaza Pachulia sustained a serious injury and is now undertaking a course of rehabilitation. Initially, it was announced that the captain of the national team would be out for six months, which would automatically mean that the Georgian national team has to participate in the Eurobasket competition without its best player.

"The prospects regarding my injury are promising, but I do not want to raise hopes among anyone that I will be able to play in the European Championship. That will do no good either to me psychologically or to the Georgian national team. The progress is apparent; I can now walk without crutches and special shoes. Soon I will start a rehabilitation course, then will meet doctors and let's see what they say."

Today, a total of two Georgian basketball players play in the NBA – Tornike Shengelia is currently playing his debut season with the Brooklyn Nets.

"Tornike's father, Kakha Shengelia, is our family's close friend. I have known Tornike from childhood, we grew up together, are friends and I like him very much. I appreciate him as a basketball player and I think that he has a great future. What's most important, is that he is very hard working. When they see that you are hard working here, they necessarily give you a chance and it depends on how you use that chance. Tornike did that – he was given a chance and he used it. I am a great fan of his, I try to learn as much information about his achievements as I can and provide him with recommendations. Scouts and coaches are also very fond of Shengelia.

"For the first few years, a player just gets used to being in the NBA and I warned Tornike not to expect to play much during his first year. It is more important that Tornike is on the right track and that he will develop into a fully-fledged player in a few years."

"When asked what my home country is, I always say Georgia; and that's true," says Zaza Pachulia. Even though he lived in Georgia continuously for only 14 years, he dearly loves his homeland. However, he has lived in Atlanta for eight years now and has really got used to it.

"I moved to Atlanta in 2005. It took me several years to get used to the place, but when I got married that made my life easier. When my wife, Tika Alavidze, first arrived in Atlanta I could already easily show her around and help her get her bearings. It is good that Tika did not have to go through that period that I went through when I knew no one here. We have three children – Davit, Saba and Mariam, my daughter was born in July last year. Both Tika and the children feel very comfortable here. Georgia is, of course, our home, our native country, but I work here and hence Atlanta is our second home. The kids go to school, the boys play basketball. It is very pleasing when we, the Hawks' players, take our kids to play basketball together. The kids come to watch our matches, then we go to watch them play.

"I would really be very happy if one of my children goes on to play basketball, but I will definitely take after my parents and demand that my kids study well. I spare no efforts to provide my children with quality education. Basketball for them is just fun. Given that Tika danced in the Sukhishvili Georgian National Ballet, she has opened a dance studio and trains children there. We emigrants miss everything Georgian – the culture and traditions. Therefore, my wife does what she is good at. I would also like my kids learn Georgian dance."

Pachulia is a wise and foresighted person. He knows he cannot play basketball forever and actively thinks about his post-basketball life.

"I am very interested in business and for five years now I have been undertaking various programs at different schools. I was in Harvard last year; this year I am at Emory, the best college in the State of Georgia. I have several businesses, both in Tbilisi and in the State of Georgia, although it is still necessary for me to obtain an education. In general, every NBA player is the face of the association, its representative both during their active careers and afterwards. After I retire from basketball, I would like to be successful in business too."

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