This was a week of first impressions for KristapsPorzingis, the 19-year-old Latvian who just became the future of one of the most popular, if least successful franchises in basketball. Kristaps would be getting his first impressions of New York, a city he had only visited once before, and Knicks fans would be getting to know the 7’1” forward who had dominated NBA draft rumors for the past several months. But first, the Knicks actually had to draft Kristaps, and this was far from a sure thing, even as the team zeroed in on his selection. Even if Kristaps (known by “Kris” to his family) was mentally preparing for a selection by New York, he wasn’t showing it.
When Maxim arrived at the Times Square Westin during the early afternoon last Thursday, another towering Latvian, Kristaps' brother Janis, greeted us. Janis shrugged when looking at all the commotion across the lobby, filled with players and agents and family members all trying to take in the final few hours before their fates were sealed—which NBA team would pay millions of dollars for the services of their son/nephew/client/third cousin? Janis was over all of this. He just wanted for Kristaps to be mentally prepared for whatever may come next.
On opening his hotel room door, one thing became clear. This room was far too small for Kristaps, who towered over his sizeable brother. With a baby face and immediately apparent eagerness, Kristaps appeared every bit as excited as anyone would be when they’re about to be drafted by an NBA team after growing up in a country most Americans would be hard-pressed to find on a map. Still, with an evening ahead of him yawning with possibility, Kristaps tried to keep his head on straight.
“I’m expecting to be in one place or another, but you gotta be ready whenever. I can go much lower than I was supposed to go,” he told Maxim. “A lot of stuff can happen. So you’ve gotta be mentally ready for that. And even if you think you’re drafted by this team, in two minutes you can be traded to another team. You can never really relax until you’ve signed that contract with your team. I’m hoping for the best but am prepared for the worst. “
Latvia is not what a lot of people think of when it comes to basketball (again, not a lot of people think about Latvia, which is a shame! It's gorgeous), but the small Baltic nation is crazy for the sport, Porzingis explained.
“Basketball is pretty big in Latvia. I would say it’s the number-one sport right now. A lot of people are following, especially because of me right now. I think it’s gonna be a big event in Latvia, and a lot of people will definitely be following.”
Kristaps speaks fluent English, which he credits to watching a lot of American television growing up. His parents, who were basketball players in Latvia, had made the trip to New York City, as well as a third brother who was sitting on the bed, tossing around a Bluetooth speaker that was playing A$AP Rocky’s “Problems." Kristaps began singing along as our interview ended — he needed a few minutes to rest before putting on his draft day suit. He was especially proud of his suit, which had the Latvian flag sewn into the lining.
Here was a man with no apparent flaws, a prospect entirely made of potential, eager to begin work for whatever team was going to select him. He was ready.
Three hours later and Kristaps had a lot of problems. After being picked by the Knicks, he was met with a thunderous chorus of boos, cascading down from every corner of the Barclays Center. For a 19-year-old basketball prodigy, there could have been a better introduction to his new team (like support). But Knicks fans are very aware of the liabilities associated with European players—for every Dirk Nowitzki or Pau Gasol, there’s at least ten Darko Milicic’s or Andrea Bargnani’s. The level of competition in the United States is so elevated that European players often find it hard to acclimate. In the face of this uneven history, Kristaps remained undeterred. For the past four years he explained, he had been facing stiff competition in the Spanish basketball league.
“Obviously there are more physical players in the states – in the NBA, who are athletic too. But there’s a lot of tough guys in the ACB [Spanish] League too with a lot of experience, and the players can have good careers in the NBA too and then go back to Europe and still make a lot of money. So, in the ACB, that was pretty good too, and I think for me, as a 19 year old, that was a pretty good season.”
After being run through the post-draft ringer, including selfies, Reddit AMA’s, interviews with television stations on at least four continents, and a press conference focusing on his chilly reception by Knicks fans, Porzingis was finally reunited with his family, ready to begin the long journey to prove all the haters wrong.
“I’ll try to adjust as much as I can and do all the jobs that the coach wants me to do,” Porzingis told Maxim stretching out his arms before him as if they were still growing. “Obviously I’m getting stronger, so I’ll just work as hard as I can and just be there for whenever my moment comes.”
Photos by Ambrose Eng