This Sunday, basketball's most luminous talent will form an aurora borealis in Toronto at the 65th NBA All-Star Game, with starting lineups that include Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant. Despite the best efforts of his fans, including a head of state and a world-famous rapper, Zaza Pachulia will not be among them.
The Dallas Mavericks center missed the All-Star cut just narrowly. Buoyed by the support of Giorgi Margvelashvili, the president of his native Georgia, a pleading song from Wyclef Jean, and heavy international ballot-stuffing, Pachulia finished fourth among Western Conference big men; Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs edged him out by only 14,000 votes. Had Bryant, the leading vote-getter overall, been categorized as a guard instead of a frontcourt player, Pachulia would have earned a starting spot.
"I'm not disappointed," Pachulia told VICE Sports. "That was an amazing feeling. It wasn't only one day of voting. That thing was going for days, over and over. It's great when your whole country is behind you."
The campaign carried the whiff of a viral joke, especially in the wake of the NHL's John Scott imbroglio. Just to be clear, Pachulia does not deserve a roster spot by any objective basketball standard—and truthfully, neither does Bryant, who is shooting 35 percent from the floor for the 11-44 Los Angeles Lakers. In both cases, though, the flood of votes, whether from Kobestan or Eurasia, came from appreciation.
At 32 years of age, Pachulia is having the finest season of his 13-year career. He is a 6'11'', 270-pound bruiser who gleefully jostles with fellow behemoths in the paint, but he is also a cagey passer and an effective low-volume, opportunistic scorer. In a league of lithe babyfaces, Pachulia is unquestionably an adult. He has a large head, permanent five-o'clock shadow, and a physique that resembles a sack of rocks. "I love his toughness and the purity with which he plays," said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle. "There are many instances where he comes out of a pile with the ball, almost like a rugby scrum. His aura and his approach to the game have rubbed off on the team. You want guys like that."
This year, Pachulia is fifth in the NBA in total rebounds and averages 10.7 per game, good for seventh in the league. He is averaging a double-double, and midway through the season has already bested his career high with 22 games of at least ten points and ten rebounds. His marks in advanced metrics like PER, Win Shares, and Box Plus Minus are all career highs.
"Everything starts with opportunity," Pachulia said in his Eastern European baritone. "They put me in the right position, and the rest of it is I have to contribute and do the things I'm capable to do."
Dallas was supposed to struggle this season, and Pachulia is a major reason the team is bobbing along in sixth place in the treacherous Western Conference. By on/off splits, he has helped on both sides of the ball; only Dirk Nowitzki has provided a more positive impact when on the court.
"Even though Zaza played his career in Atlanta and Milwaukee, I've been a fan of his for a while," said Nowitzki, who traveled to Germany during the All-Star break. "He has been a big addition for us. He gives us veteran leadership and works as hard as anyone. He is all about the team."
Zaza's presence in Dallas was initially an afterthought. When the Mavericks were abandoned at the altar during the offseason by center DeAndre Jordan, who opted to remain with the Los Angeles Clippers, the team acquired Pachulia from the Milwaukee Bucks for a paltry second-round pick. The move was seen as a stopgap measure; he was a large lump of flesh to heave into the yawning void at the team's center position. But did the Mavericks know something no one else did? "The honest answer is that we got lucky," said Dallas owner Mark Cuban. "Fear the noggin."
With Pachulia in the middle instead of Jordan, the Maverick couldn't orchestrate an offense around alley-oops that would wrench opponents' souls from their chest cavities. "They're completely different types of players, so we adjusted our strategy accordingly," said Carlisle. "Zaza is a very good passer and screener. He can shoot the ball. He is a true playmaker from the center position. That's unique. We haven't really had that here in my eight years."
Over a career spent in Orlando, Atlanta, and two stints in Milwaukee, Pachulia has earned a reputation for chippiness. He has literally butted heads with Jason Richardson and Kevin Garnett. In last year's playoffs, he was ejected for elbowing the Chicago Bulls' Nikola Mirotic. "Maybe that play was really dirty and maybe he tried to push me," Mirotic said after the game. "He knows better than me." A few weeks ago, Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat complained to officials about Pachulia's loving embrace: "I know Valentine's Day is coming up, but why is Zaza hugging me so much?"
Pachulia denies the accusation that he's a dirty player. "Dirty is when you're trying to hurt other people," he said. "But if you're trying to get under skin of somebody or playing physical against certain players because they don't like it, that's part of the game. That's a really good strength if you can do it and frustrate an opponent. If you're setting a good screen and getting your point guard open, I don't think it's dirty. Or if you're boxing out. That's how it's supposed to be."
Pachulia's love of physical play appears to be genetic. Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, with the given first name of Zaur, he had a mother who was a professional basketball player and a father who wrestled. Life was not easy under Soviet rule, nor after 1991, when Georgia became an independent state. Pachulia called his homeland's independence the "greatest thing that happened to Georgia in history" but likened the fledgling nation's tumult to the challenge of leaving a business to found a start-up.
"My parents tried to keep me away from the war and the hatred," he said, referring to the civil unrest of the early '90s. "It wasn't easy to get independence and exit from the Soviet Union. So many people died because of that. This is something you can respect."
Like most kids of the era, young Pachulia was a fan of Michael Jordan, but he rarely saw him play. "This generation is so much luckier because they have a chance to watch so many games," he said. "Games weren't on TV. And if it was on TV, we didn't have electricity. Now, you have the internet or you can record games because of the time difference of six, seven, eight, nine hours. You can get your beauty sleep, wake up, have a recording of the game."
Pachulia sprouted to 6'8'' in his teens, but Georgia was not an ideal place to cultivate basketball talent. In winter, the unheated gyms were freezing cold. At 14, he signed with Ulker, a Turkish team, and moved to Istanbul. "It was one of the best things that happened to me in my career," he said. "I don't think if I stayed in Georgia, I could have came to NBA. The circumstances wasn't right for me to practice and get better. Probably I would have quit at an early age."
Pachulia arrived stateside in 2003, after being drafted by the Magic with the 48th pick. Despite spending his professional career abroad, he has continued to play regularly for the Georgian national team, which explains the enthusiasm his countrymen showed in All-Star voting.
While Pachulia has always been a solid role player—the most points he has ever averaged was 12.2 per game in 2006-07—he seems to have found a niche in Dallas (he is, however, an unrestricted free agent after this season). The Mavericks are a close-knit, seasoned bunch, and one that still carries the pride of winning a championship in 2011.
"He fits in perfect, because he's old, too," said Carlisle. "From a personality standpoint, the guy is beloved everywhere he's been. You never hear anything bad about him. And as good a guy as I thought he was, he's probably better."
Georgians may be disappointed by Pachulia's absence during this weekend's festivities, but the Mavericks aren't exactly in mourning. "You know, the All-Star break has come at a good time," said Carlisle. "He needs the rest."