Talking with Zaza Pachulia
17 November, 2011
Talking with Zaza Pachulia

 

Dear GJ readers, for the next three issues our columnist  Khatia Esartia who writes the column ‘From Georgia to Georgia’ will present you with interviews of some very interesting persons who happen to be Georgian and live in another Georgia. We hope you enjoy these interviews.

 

Standing next to Zaza Pachulia, you might think yourself invisible. At six foot eleven, Pachulia is just the right built for an NBA player and he is just tall enough not to notice those who are only five feet off the ground. Pachulia, who plays center for Atlanta Hawks of the NBA, is a superb basketball player and an aggressive opponent on the court,  but what makes Pachulia a much beloved athlete by his fans, is not his height and built, but rather his acknowledgment and appreciation of all those around him. You might think yourself invisible, but Pachulia has the ability to make you feel like a superstar. It is this ability to put his fans at ease that makes him so affable to everyone he meets off the court. On the court, thankfully, he is anything but sweet.

Knowing all of this and having met Pachulia prior to the interview, I was still a bit nervous about talking candidly with him. Forget his intimidating height; his accomplishments alone were enough to inspire awe. Pachulia has had a very impressive resume. At young age of fourteen Pachulia had left his native Georgia and moved to Istanbul to play professionally for Ulkerspor. At nineteen he was scouted and drafted by Orlando Magic during the NBA 2003 draft. He played for Charlotte Bobcats and Milwaukee Bucks before he landed in Georgia with Atlanta Hawks. He has been playing for Hawks since 2005 and only recently took a break during the NBA lockout to go back to Istanbul and play for Galatasaray of the Turkish basketball League. As I said, these accomplishments alone were pretty intimidating and I wanted to do a good job of taking an interview from someone who has been interviewed on more than one occasion and on more than one continent.

For the meeting I came to visit Pachulia at his home in Atlanta. Pachulia, to add to his talents, turned out to be a perspicacious host. Noticing that I was not at ease at all, he invited me to a quick meal with his family and a glass of champagne. I thought of refusing, but I have learned a something about Georgian hospitality; it is not just for show. When Georgians offer you food, you take it and say thank you. I was still so nervous that I took a sip of the champagne, chiding myself for being unprofessional and wondering how on earth Pachulia got champagne to taste like apple.

Pachulia watched me take a sip, and asked me if I liked it, all the while searching for any sign of cognizance on my face.

Not wanting to be rude I replied, yes, of course. What was I going to say, ‘sorry I think your champagne tastes like apple juice?’ Well, it turns out I should have, for it was apple juice.  I’ve been had.

Ever the jokester, Pachulia thought to put me at ease by playing a joke on me. It worked. I was no longer intimidated. If anything, my brain was now too busy to feel fear and was busy thinking up plans to get even.  I asked Pachulia if practical joking was something of a habit for him.

Z.P- “When I was younger, when I started to play professionally so young, at fourteen, I didn’t have time to just play around with friends, to be silly.”

K.E- “Have you ever played any jokes on your fans?”

Z.P- “My tradition, I play four or five games, in the summer for the Georgian National team, after every tournament I take off my shoes and throw them into the stands. Some people take off their shirts, I give up my shoes. Now my fans, they know I am a big guy, but they don’t realize just how big my shoes can be until there is flying at them. (chuckles) I think I’ve bruised people.”

K.E.-“Speaking of fans, do you find any difference between American fans and Georgian fans?”

Z.P- “Oh definitely, playing in Georgia is very different. I love my country, the energy the fans have here, the love they show, is like nowhere else. I have played before 25,000 people during playoff games, finals, but it is so much different when you go home and play in front of your people. So much energy, you don’t feel that energy anywhere else.”

K.E- “Do you feel more pressure being the leader of the National Team?”

Z.P- “There’s more pressure, but in a good way. It’s the kind of pressure gives you the mental strength that bolsters you to play well. I like it.”

Pachulia has been playing for the Georgian National Team since he was sixteen years old. He has a picture in this office of the second game he had ever played, as a virtual unknown, with the National Team. It was what he calls ‘a really good start to a career’. The National Team had played against Belarus and won by five points, Pachulia scoring 22 points in the game. That day after the final whistle Georgian fans walked onto the court and carried out sixteen year old Pachulia on their shoulders. It was one of the biggest moments in Pachulia’s professional career. It was the moment he realized he didn’t want to let that energy go. He decided then to be a part of that force any chance he got, and he has been playing for the National Team ever since.

Before Pachulia became a basketball superstar he was fan himself.

K.E. - “How did you choose to play basketball? Was there someone in your life who inspired you to play basketball?”

Z.P. - “Yes, my mother was a professional basketball player. She was a big influence. But before I got to basketball, my parents put me through all sorts of other sports and activities. I played soccer since that was and still is the most popular sport in Europe and Georgia especially. Dancing, swimming, piano! My parents tired  to get me interested in arts, sports and education of course.  But everything I did, I was always gravitating towards basketball.”

During one soccer practice coach noticed Pachulia’s propensity to pick the ball up with his hands. Factoring in that Pachulia was also the tallest boy in school coach turned to Pachulia’s parents and told them to let him play basketball. But it wasn’t his height that got him to the coveted spot amongst the greatest basketball stars of our time. In Zaza’s own words, ‘it was patience, seriously hard work and luck.’ Of course being ridiculously tall didn’t hurt either.

K.E. - “How did you cope with school and basketball at the same time?”

Z.P. - “I started to play at the age of nine and I was already seriously in love with the game. But my parents let me understand from the very beginning that education was very important. When I was in school in Tbilisi, if I got a 4 (B grade) then my punishment was not being allowed on a basketball court until I brought the grade up. Not being able to play - it killed me, and I worked hard to make sure I didn’t miss any practices.”  In five years, from age nine to fourteen, Pachulia had missed only three practices. Because of his hard work a scout from Turkey came to see him and invited him to visit Istanbul. After that a lot happened very quickly for Pachulia. At fourteen he left for Turkey and two years later he was playing professionally for the Georgian National Team. In-between these great adventures a tragic turn took place. Pachulia lost his father.

Z.P- “It was a big deal, we were a close family and we lost the leader of the family. It was hard to imagine that I would take my father’s place. I had to give up being a kid who could afford to play around and be silly and become very serious about basketball very quickly.”

K.E. – “You seem to be making up for it the jokes now. (I was referring to the apple juice incident. Pachulia looked sheepish.) Do you think you missed out on anything by not being a silly kid?”

Z. P – “From one angle it made me more mature, I learned life quickly. It made it easier for me to deal with elders. They didn’t think of me as a kid, they treated me as prospect, as an athlete, they thought of me positively. When I was nineteen I was mentally ready to come to the NBA. Somebody asked me if I knew how hard it was to achieve life’s goals and I said, yes, I know it takes time, dedication and patience. What’s harder, I was told, is figuring out how to keep it. It is very hard to get to be one of the 400 NBA players. Average player lasts for four to five years. I’ve been playing for 8 years.”

K.E. – “Is there any sage advice you might like to give young and upcoming hopefuls?”

Z.P- “You can always set goals for yourself. Work hard. You cannot, you must not slack off. You have to work at everything you want. Being a hard worker put me in a situation that let me to something better each step of the way. So I’d say, you need hard work and luck, and then everything else will come. Having a God given talent is not a given. Nothing is given, if you are smart and you have confidence and dedication you can succeeded.”

K.E – “Speaking of dedication and youngsters, where did you practice basketball when you were a young beginner in Tbilisi?”

Z.P- “The name of the basketball practice is ZazaT. It feels really good, to be a name to represent these kids. It also makes me feel responsible for the kids. I send them uniforms and things kids will like from the NBA. It makes me happy to see them happy.”

K.E- “Do you ever have time to work with them?”

Z. P- “That is one of my goals in the future. It is impossible right now because when they are practicing, we are playing for the NBA, and when the season is over I only get two weeks or so to go to Georgia for pleasure, other times I am playing with the Georgian National Team. Georgia loves basketball, but we don’t have a basketball school, or good conditions for kids to study. I believe we as a nation that loves basketball need to educate our trainers and future players better. We need to stay connected with the rest of the basketball world and learn new techniques of teaching, new strategies, new plays. The biggest problem kids encounter in their growth as athletes is their coaches, inability to change their strategies when everyone and everything else has changed. One of the things I can do after my NBA run, is to open a good basketball school, not only to have a gym and trainers but also to educate kids as well. We will see, it will have to take some time.”

K.E- “What do you foresee for the near future? Do you think the NBA lockout will end soon?”

Z.P- “It has been a tough summer for the NBA. Lot of people is without jobs and as players we are not able to play the game that we love. There have been numerous meetings and discussions between NBA and Players’ Union but as of today there is still no agreement and we are still locked out. That’s heartbreaking. We are already missing November’s games and it might go farther. I am privileged to find the team in Turkey during this lockout. I have the agreement for 1 year with Galatasaray with the option that I can/will leave the team as soon as NBA and the Union make the agreement and games continue. So I will be in Turkey waiting and playing.”

K.E- “ Are there any players you have noticed from Georgia who have impressed you?”

Z.P- “My cousin, Becka Burjanadze. He is seventeen and he is playing for Spain. I just watched his game. Tornike Shengelaia is a gifted player. I was fortunate to play with his dad when I was sixteen, and now I am playing with his son. We have good players who play in Europe – Manuchar Markoishvili, Victor Sanikidze who is always crowd’s favorite, Giorgi Shermadini’s a good player- he is a center position, like me, George Tsintsadze  who is a point guard. They are all very good players.”

K.E- “You mentioned family member who is also in basketball. Would you want your kids to play?”

Z.P- “I would take the road my parents took – education first. No matter what you do, become a successful athlete, doctor, lawyer, literally anyone you wan to be, you need an education to make it happen. Besides it isn’t given that they are going to be as tall as their dad or as adept at basketball. I care that they are healthy and smart. Other than that, if they have a talent and I see desire to play basketball, I will push them to be better than me. That is after all every parents dream.”

K.E- What about you? Had you not become an NBA star, what other profession would you have chosen?

Z.P- “Actually, I am doing it as we speak. I should say I am learning it. I am in hospitality business. I have been using summer time to take courses at Emory University. I just received my Certificate of Business Leadership. This certificate is my starting point, and now I am trying to build a base for my next career, because no matter how much it pains me, I won’t be able to play basketball forever. But you know, as I study, I find lots of similarities in business and basketball. You need a lot of things to reach the goal. If you are not lucky, one injury and you are out. As in business anything can go wrong and you need many things for your business not to falter. But anything is possible with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work. I am a big believer in hard work.”

Pachulia has been in the hospitality business for a little while now. He has a hotel near Charden street in Tbilisi called Hotel ZP and he co-owns a very popular Buckhead bar and restaurant in Atlanta called Bottle Bar.

K.E- Thank you for your time, Zaza! Before we go, I want to ask you a side question. Since you are in the hospitality business, can you tell me, if it is not a secret, what is your favorite place to visit in Georgia?

Z.P- My favorite place in Georgia is Racha. My parents took me there every summer when I was a kid. Racha is famous for its nature, history, hospitality, traditions, Khvanchkara wine and natural mineral water coming from the ground. For all these reason’s (the wine aspect I came to appreciate later in life), Racha has gotten my attention and I have loved it every time I have gone for a visit.

I thanked Pachulia for the interview and got up to leave. I had gone there not knowing what to except from a famous basketball star and I had walked away impressed by his candid demeanor and his genuine alacrity for continuing education and self improvement. Also I had a sudden urge to book a flight to Racha. Zaza Pachulia has a  confidence in him that is not often found in people as young as him. This confidence will serve him well on all his future endeavors. As long as he lays off the apple juice jokes.