Warriors’ Zaza Pachulia carries on in father’s spirit
21 March, 2017
Warriors’ Zaza Pachulia carries on in father’s spirit
San Francisco Chronicle writes about famous Georgian basketball player Zaza Pachulia and the life he has gone through before achieving success.
‘Davit Pachulia was 39 when he left all he had known in his native Tbilisi, Georgia — his wife, his mother, his job driving buses — to move into a two-bedroom apartment in Istanbul with his teenage son.

The plan was as simple as it was difficult: Help Zaza, a lanky 14-year-old with NBA ambitions, acclimate to his new
life on the Turkish Basketball League’s junior circuit. During that spring of 1998, Davit was a fixture at games, practices and team dinners. One night, when Zaza was involved in an on-court spat, Davit nearly stormed the court.

“We were close before going to Turkey, but we got even closer over there,” Pachulia said recently. “It was only us, two Georgians taking on the big city.”

Both expected to live in Istanbul for years. But shortly after they returned to Tbilisi from Zaza’s first club season for summer break, Davit died during a routine doctor’s visit. Nearly two decades later, a key player in what he hopes will be a championship run with the Golden State Warriors, Pachulia still thinks of his father daily.

Reality has surpassed even the loftiest of goals that father and son discussed in that modest Istanbul apartment. Georgia’s only active NBA player, Pachulia is an icon to its 3.7 million residents. He starts at center alongside a cast of All-Stars. And now it is Pachulia whose two sons are staples at games, practices and team dinners.

“He’s having so much fun, but I know it can be hard at times,” said his wife, Tika Pachulia. “He wishes his dad was around to enjoy all this.”

On April 10, 1989, 5-year-old Zaza watched from his living-room window as neighbors hung black flags in mourning over their balconies. A day earlier, when an anti-Soviet hunger strike in Tbilisi had swelled into protests of several thousand people, Soviet tanks barreled through the demonstration, killing 19 and injuring

The tragedy was the boy’s introduction to the country’s conflict with Soviet Russia. When Georgia finally gained independence two years later, the country was forced to rebuild much of its infrastructure. Running water and electricity were suddenly luxuries.

Pachulia learned early that, to better his circumstances, he needed to focus on his studies. His parents paid $500 annually to enroll their only child in the Turkish-run Suleyman Demirel, one of two private schools in Tbilisi. Under their roof, anything less than a five on the grading system’s five-point scale warranted a grounding.

One evening when Zaza was 8, he overheard his parents arguing in their bedroom. Davit, a former Soviet judo champion, wanted his son to follow the athletic path he had taken. Marina, a power forward on the Soviet women’s basketball team, had other ideas. The next day, Marina showed Zaza two pictures: one of a tall, chiseled basketball player, the other of a wrestler with cauliflower ear.

“She won the battle,” Pachulia recalled with a chuckle. “It was so easy. It took her, like, three or four minutes.”
Zaza Pachulia, as a baby, in a family photo with his uncle (far left), mother (center) and father.
Photo: San Francisco Chronicle

One winter afternoon early in 1998, he was summoned to the principal’s office. Awaiting him was the head coach of the Turkish national basketball team. At the school scouting potential prospects, he had been struck by the 6-foot-6 14-year-old he had seen in the hallway hours earlier.

Pachulia aced a rudimentary tryout in the adjacent gymnasium. A few days later, an assistant general manager for Ülkerspor — one of the top club teams in Turkey — offered him a contract to join his junior team. Schooling, housing, meals — it would all be covered.

But his parents wouldn’t let him move more than 800 miles away without their supervision. Because the deal wasn’t enough to support the entire family, one parent needed to keep working in Tbilisi. Davit quit his job as a bus driver and moved with his son into a club-provided apartment in Istanbul.

Over the next five months, Davit became as much a part of the team as his son. Zaza peppered Davit with questions about everything from girls to shaving to growing up in the Soviet Union. Coaches appreciated Davit’s generosity, the way he seemed willing to give the shirt off his back to a player in need. Most days, while Zaza was at school, Davit studied Turkish so that he could take a job at the chocolate factory owned by Ülkerspor’s sponsor.

“He was about all the right things: family, honor, respect,” Zaza said. “He taught me how to be a man.”

Ninety minutes before the Warriors’ Feb. 23 home game against the Clippers, while working through his shooting routine, Pachulia glanced over at his two sons — 8-year-old Davit, namesake of the grandfather he never met, and 7-year-old Saba — on the team bench.

“Almost done,” he told them.

In the 14th season of an NBA career that has included five teams, Pachulia has learned to balance family life with his numerous other obligations. Davit and Saba spend days off from school heaving jumpers at Golden State’s practice facility in downtown Oakland. Being around their idols, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, is their reward for good grades.

Over the past four years, when the NBA came to a standstill, Pachulia has taken summer classes at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Emory University’s Goizueta Business School and Harvard Business School. Between shoot-around and his afternoon nap, he often participates in conference calls with business partners half a world away. His mother, who remains in Tbilisi, helps him run two hotels in Georgia’s historic capital.

For the past two years, Pachulia also has overseen his own basketball academy in Tbilisi. The program, which now boasts more than 500 members, is housed in the same complex where Zaza once honed his low-post moves on dilapidated courts. Because there was no heater in that old windowless gym, he often practiced wearing a hat and gloves.

Today, the facility features four basketball courts, locker rooms, a weight room, a restaurant and dorm-style living. One of the courts is the same hardwood Pachulia once played on at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee; he had the floor shipped home in 267 pieces.

“When my dad moved to Turkey with me, he shared in my NBA dream,” he said. “All of this, in a way, is for him.”

Returning from a practice with the Georgian junior national team on the afternoon of June 30, 1998 — just two weeks after returning to Tbilisi from Istanbul — Pachulia found no one home. Locked out, he played games with neighborhood friends for several hours until his mother got off work.

Marina knew right away something was wrong. Her mind racing, she borrowed a friend’s car and with Zaza in the passenger seat, weaved through traffic to a local hospital where Davit had an appointment earlier in the day. At the waiting area, she asked the receptionist whether there had been an incident that day.

“Yes,” the woman said, “a man named Pachulia.”

In his 15 years since retiring from judo competition, the 6-foot-6 Davit had packed on the pounds and begun smoking more than a pack of cigarettes a day. He was on medication after having survived two heart attacks. In that moment, fearing the worst, Marina’s knees buckled and she crumpled to the floor.

Davit, they later learned, had been walking to his doctor’s office on the third floor for his checkup when he suffered another heart attack. His cardiologist found Davit, his face blanched, gasping for air in the stairwell. It was too late. He died seven months shy of his 40th birthday.

Zaza was supposed to report back to Ülkerspor in three weeks, but all he could think about was caring for his despondent mother. He told her that he was going to quit basketball, that her health was the priority.

Eager to keep one of its most prized young players, Ülkerspor upped Pachulia’s salary enough for him to support his whole family in Turkey. Marina gave up her pediatric practice and moved to Istanbul.

“I was willing to give up my dream to help her get through that tough time,” Pachulia said, “but she wasn’t willing to let me.”

Within two years, Pachulia was thriving on Ülkerspor’s senior team. His workmanlike playing style caught the attention of scouts, and at age 19, he went to the Orlando Magic with the 42nd pick of the 2003 NBA Draft.

Of the five Georgians to have played in the league, Pachulia stands apart. His toughness, a trait forged in the frigid Tbilisi gyms of his youth, has earned him a reputation as one of the league’s low-post enforcers. Thanks largely to Georgians stuffing the online ballot box, Pachulia has come close to making an All-Star appearance each of the past two seasons, something not ordinarily expected of someone with career averages of 7.1 points and 6.0 rebounds.

Last summer, after rebuffing more lucrative offers, Pachulia signed a one-year, $2.9 million deal with Golden State for the chance to become the first Georgian-born player to win an NBA title. Perhaps even more than winning, though, he has relished the Warriors’ family-oriented environment.
Photo: San Francisco Chronicle

Early in the season, head coach Steve Kerr invited him to bring his two young sons to the team’s road games. It was a practice Kerr picked up from Gregg Popovich in San Antonio toward the end of his 15-year playing career. Now, when Davit and Saba join their dad on the occasional road trip, he is reminded of those five months he once shared with his own father in Istanbul.

“The day will come pretty soon when I’ll tell them that story,” Zaza said.’

By Connor Letourneau for San Francisco Chronicle

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