Big man Pachulia has Georgia on his mind in NBA Finals
By Frank Pingue
June 6 (Reuters) - So strong was Zaza Pachulia's desire to become the first player from the nation of Georgia to win an NBA title that he rebuffed more lucrative offers to join the Golden State Warriors.
The move looks like it might pay off as the center now stands just two wins shy of becoming a champion in a league more used to standout players from the southern U.S. state of the same name.
Basketball rivals soccer and rugby for the top spot on Georgia's sports hierarchy and Pachulia, the NBA's only active player from the former Soviet republic, is among the most adored athletes in the Caucasian nation.
And that popularity will only increase if Golden State, who lead the reigning champion Cleveland Cavaliers 2-0 in the NBA Finals, close out the best-of-seven series in the coming days.
"Georgia is a very small country, compared to the U.S., only 3.5 million people, but a lot of basketball," Pachulia, 33, told reporters on Tuesday in Cleveland.
"Basketball is in our DNA. It's been here for years, for years and years and generations. We have pretty successful players throughout history. Basketball's definitely a very important Georgian sport."
Last year Pachulia, tired of never having even reached a conference final, turned down richer contracts in favour of joining a talent-rich Golden State team he knew would give him his best shot at winning a maiden NBA title in his 14th season.
With the Georgian big man on board, the Warriors have cruised to the league's best record and enjoyed a 14-0 start to the postseason.
Pachulia has been a key factor in their success, providing a hard-nosed toughness inside and plenty of energy while focusing on rebounding, defending the paint and setting screens for his higher-profile team mates.
He has represented the Georgian national team nearly every offseason for years and also been very active in promoting the game back home, where many will be watching when the series resumes in Cleveland on Wednesday.
"I know that my country has my back and they have supported me throughout the years, and especially this time in my career I have a chance to do something special for my country and become a world champ," said Pachulia.
"They're anxiously watching and supporting and cheering for our team, so I'm really lucky and feel very privileged to represent my country." (Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Nick Mulvenney)