Atlanta Hawks center Zaza Pachulia was amazed when he heard his home country, Georgia, would participate in EuroBasket 2011 and he was excited to participate in this special event, but after the first day of competition it’s obvious that Georgia has enough potential to be more than just a participant and even get out of Group D.
Pachulia, who scored 16 points and grabbed three boards, leaded Georgia against Belgium to their first EuroBasket win in front of 1,000 Georgian fans. Even Georgia president Mikheil Saakashvili came to Klaipeda to show his support to Pachulia and his teammates, who now have a shot to surprise Europe by doing something big this summer.
The leader of the Georgian national team, Pachulia talked with RealGM about his first days in EuroBasket, European basketball, Georgia, the Atlanta Hawks and the NBA lockout.
RealGM: You grabbed your first win in EuroBasket fairly easily. What are your impressions about this game against Belgium?
Pachulia: First of all, let me say it’s a big honor to be here. I feel privileged and excited to be part of this team. I think in the game we came with the energy. From the first minute, we controlled the whole game. We won this match as a team. We played well on defense and we shared the ball offensively as well. It was a great game for us.
RealGM: Do you think Belgium is the weakest team on the group and other games will be tougher for Georgians?
Pachulia: I think there are no weak teams in this tournament. It’s the European Championship and all teams are tough. Anything can happen.
RealGM: I saw Mikheil Saakashvili, president of Georgia, was here in Klaipeda to see your team playing. Did he come to the locker room to congratulate you and your teammates?
Pachulia: He’s a huge fan of basketball. He use to play basketball in school and college, and he really like sports. When the team is successful, he always supports Georgia. That’s a great honor and great thing for us, when you know he’s cheering for you and supports you. Every time we have an important game and if he’s available, he’s always here.
RealGM: Do you feel more fortunate to be able to compete in EuoBasket while other NBA players struggle to find real competition?
Pachulia: I started my career in Europe and I played there four years before I moved to the NBA. I can say that I love European basketball. It’s team basketball. Of course, NBA is NBA, but European basketball is great too. It’s a great experience for me as well. I played in the NBA for eight years and know I play in European Championship. I remember when I was in European Championship division B, and I was the only NBA player there and I really wanted to play in EuroBasket. And now we’re here. I want to use every game, gain more experience and be part of this tournament.
RealGM: Do you think people in the U.S. pay more attention to European basketball now as NBA is in lockout? For example, NBA fans can see a lot of EuroBasket games on ESPN.
Pachulia: Yes, I heard they are showing some games. Basketball is loved everywhere because it’s a great sport. I think they’ll watch EuroBasket because of NBA lockout or maybe because there are a lot of NBA players.
RealGM: We are used to seeing you playing really tough with the Hawks and it seems you play the same style here in Europe.
Pachulia: It’s my nature. That’s what coaches teach me and that’s how you can be successful. You have to play hard every game. In the NBA, I’m a role player, I have my role and I try to execute that. But it’s my nature so why don’t use that.
RealGM: Do you feel as a leader in Georgia national team? Do you feel famous and do you get much attention there?
Pachulia: Ask Georgians. All I can say, I feel love from them. I know my country is behind me. It doesn’t matter where I am, in the NBA or here.
RealGM: Talking about NBA, did you talk with your teammates in Hawks since the start of lockout?
Pachulia: We always keep in touch; even if I’m in European and they are in the U.S. I know Al Horford is also playing for his national team. I wished him good luck. We played together for six years and we feel like a family. We are great friends off the court. Even if it’s a lockout, we can keep in touch with each other.
RealGM: You probably know that Elton Brand organized a camp for the 76ers players. Did you think about that and did you discuss this with your teammates?
Pachulia: I didn’t think about it because I’m so busy here in EuroBasket. But when it’s over, I’m going back to Atlanta and I’ll see my teammates and we will do something. I like this idea. You don’t know when the season starts and you have to be ready. I’m glad I can be here, play basketball and stay in good shape. We love this game. It should be a fun workout together and it would be an advantage in the future once the season starts.
RealGM: We hear about players moving over here in Europe everyday. What is your opinion about that? Do you think about coming back to Europe?
Pachulia: I think NBA players who are free agents have a better chance to come play in Europe. For those who have contracts, it’s not that easy. Honestly, right now I’m just focused on EuroBasket. Once it ends, I’ll think about it.
RealGM: I guess you heard your former teammate Jeremy Richardson signed a deal in Georgia with BC Army. Are you involved in this?
Pachulia: He’s a great player. They asked me about him, what type of player he is and I told them the truth. All I know about that team is that they are serious and they want to win and play in European league. Good luck for them.
RealGM: What are your impressions about this EuroBasket if we talk about organization and living conditions?
Pachulia: We love it. Team dinner, team lunch. This is European tradition and we love it. Basketball in Lithuania is huge people here love this game. It’s great to play, where basketball is loved like this. History, traditions… It’s great.
RealGM: I think there was about a thousand Georgia supporters today. Did you expect to have so many fans here?
Pachulia: I did. Talking has been going on. Those people deserve to see us winning and I’m proud to play for my country.