It’s not even halfway through 2016 and the year has already been a career one for Zaza Pachulia.
The 13-year NBA veteran was a full-time starter after a decade mostly coming off the bench, and averaged a career high in rebounds per game (9.4) for the playoff-bound Mavericks. He also nearly became an All-Star for the first time, for his production, passion and personality that’s very likable and easygoing. In fact, if Kobe Bryant, the leading vote-getter was listed in the backcourt, Pachulia would’ve been the starting center in Toronto, after support from Georgian president Giorgi Margvelashvili and even a song by Wyclef Jean.
Now, Pachulia, 32, is on the verge of a game-changing summer back in his home country of Georgia, with the goal to spark a youth basketball movement and provide the best local training ground. Starting June 26, he hosts his first summer camp at his new basketball academy in Tbilisi, the capital and largest city in Georgia. And the final stage of the center will be completed in August, including a basketball court that he purchased featuring the old floor of the Bucks, a team he played for twice in his career.
“I have three kids, but once I get there, I’m going to have over 300 kids,” Pachulia, who’s leaving for Georgia on Friday with his wife, Tika and three children—sons Davit, 7, and Saba, 6, and daughter Mariam, 3—told the NBPA this week. “I’m very excited honestly and I can’t wait to get there. It’s great to see Georgia having this kind of basketball facility where kids are going to have a chance to not only practice in a good environment, but also practice with great coaches and learn the right way, learn discipline, professionalism, the game of basketball, [its] history.”
When Pachulia sees the academy for the first time this week, it will have been 18 years since he was last there. That’s where he started playing basketball and trained as a teenager, when he grew to 6’8″ at 13 years old and was inspired by fellow Georgian Vladimir Stepania, the first countryman to make it to the NBA. When he was practicing with the Georgian under-16 national team, Stepania, who played six years in the league, stopped by one day and told him he had potential and to work on his post moves. Pachulia couldn’t sleep that night, thinking about his future.
At the time, the indoor conditions at the academy were so frigid that it felt like the outdoors.
“There were no windows, no electricity, terrible court conditions,” Pachulia said. “My last practice I had a hat on, I had a sweater, long sleeve. I had to dress warm because it was so cold. Literally we were practicing like it was outside.”
Finally in 2015, the Athletic Federation of Georgia, the governing body for athletics in the country, focused on upgrading the facility—along with other deteroating sports centers in Tbilisi—to prepare for last summer’s European Youth Olympic Festival in Tbilisi. The Federation decided to improve the basketball complex with four basketball courts, locker rooms, a weight room, restaurant and dorm-style living.
After the event, the Federation contacted Pachulia with a special honor: giving him the opportunity to make the basketball academy his own, which he gratefully accepted. “I was really privileged and honored to get a call from them,” he said. In year’s past since 2004, he had a camp each summer in a different location in Georgia for hundreds of kids, and he didn’t even charge them.
While Pachulia will continue those summer camps in various regions, the academy will serve as a central destination for year-round youth sports development—not just in basketball.
He envisions all kinds of athletes working out there, including gymnasts, wrestlers, rugby and soccer players, and even the Georgian national basketball team—based on an addition he’s spearheading. In the basement of the academy, he’s building an all-purpose training area that is tabbed to open in August, with an estimated 700-plus kids enrolled at the academy. That’s when Mavericks GM Donnie Nelson would like to have a team-organized youth camp there. And Pachulia has expressed in that, as well as returning to the team in free agency.
“It was a really fun year for me,” he said. “I really enjoyed it, the whole experience, starting from being teammates with Dirk [Nowitzki]. That was the highlight of my year. Playing for the city of Dallas was probably one of the nicest cities I have lived—beautiful, everything. [The fans are] so supportive of the team.”
During the construction of the academy, Pachulia has been motivated by two athletes: his former Bucks teammate Mo Williams, who has a basketball academy in Dallas, and former Olympic gold medal sprinter Michael Johnson, who has a performance center in McKinney, more than 30 miles north of Dallas. While Pachulia’s kids have been playing hoops at Williams’ gym, he started his strength and conditioning work this week at Johnson’s base.
“I had a good opportunity to meet [Johnson] today and what a great guy,” he said. “He’s got a really good thing going on with his performance centers all over the world, different countries. The training stuff is so good, they know what they’re doing, they have great experience. And he’s involved in the business so much. I trust that concept, and I feel the reason why is because I look at myself and the Zaza Pachulia Academy in Georgia. I want to make sure that my academy is the best because it has my name attached to it.”
Pachulia is also putting the finishing touches on the academy’s weight room, locker rooms and basketball courts. And get this: one of the four courts will be the actual old Bucks one from the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
He tried to buy the old Hawks court when he was playing there, but it didn’t work. However, when he joined the Bucks again in 2013—he was first there in 2004-05—he heard about the team’s future rebranding efforts, which included a court change. So he spoke with previous owner Herb Kohl and then new bosses Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry when they purchased the team in April 2014.
They all were moved by Pachulia’s vision about sending the court to Georgia to give back to his community. He also had to get the backing of the Bradley Center and NBA, as the league had to grant clearance for the court to move to a non-NBA venue. Both the arena and league’s decision worked in his favor, and he was able to purchase the court.
“I want to thank all of them,” said Pachulia, a serious entrepreneur who took executive business classes at Harvard Business School in 2012. “There are so many people, so many companies, so many groups that would like to have that court—the high schools, the colleges, the YMCA, you name it, throughout the country. Any NBA court. That’s why I got so lucky ending up getting it.”
As we speak, the Bucks court, which comes apart in 267 pieces, is on a cargo ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean heading to Europe. Every day, Pachulia tracks the whereabouts of the 40-foot container, which was managed and paid for by Action Floor Systems. After it docks in Europe, it will make another long haul to Tbilisi, arriving on June 19 and then roughly three days to assemble.
“When I think about it, I’m getting chills” he said. “It’s a legendary court where all these famous players dropped 40, 50, 60 points. All these amazing dunks and amazing games and overtimes happened there, playoff series. So I’m hoping how much of a great thing it is. It’s for the country, it’s for the Georgia national team, it’s for the kids.”
One piece of the court he kept back in Milwaukee for players to sign when they come to town. Then in a couple of years, he wants to bring it to Georgia and hang it on the wall of his academy. He also has the idea of decorating the three other courts themed to the three other teams he suited up for: the Hawks, Magic and Mavericks.
To celebrate the new court in late June, and academy overall, Pachulia will be joined by a fellow NBA player and coach (to be announced), and the league will donate gear for the kids, including hats, headbands, socks, towels, T-shirts, basketballs and practice apparel. The last time an NBA team was in Tbilisi was in 1988, when the Hawks embarked on a global basketball tour involving friendly competition against the Soviet Union.
Since the academy opened in November, which started with 350 kids, Pachulia said they have “improved so much.” The center includes a top basketball coach from Slovenia and Serbia, a country that he admires for how they developed one of the first established cores of Europe’s best players, notably Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic. In addition, the location has English courses, and a full-time trainer, doctor and psychologist.
Once Pachulia arrives this week, he’ll be hands-on with the business every day and interact with the athletes on and off the court. He has seen how famous European players, like Arvydas Sabonis, have developed their own academies in countries that are rich in basketball. He wants the same in Georgia, where his academy can produce NBA players. After Stepania made the NBA, Nikoloz Tskitishvili was the third, then Pachulia and after him was Tornike Shengelia.
That total number is “disappointing” to Pachulia. But, as the captain of the Georgian national team, he feels “a huge responsibility” to the youth basketball community. He recognizes that his country isn’t the strongest financially—that it’s been through tough times and training facilities were affected. The national team didn’t even qualify for the Olympics this summer.
But he’s aiming to change all of that.
“We do have good talent. If you look at it, Stepania is 7’0″, Tskitishvili is 7’0″, I’m 6’11. So we don’t have a problem with height honestly,” he said. “But hopefully with this academy we can talk about having three, four or five guys who are going to be in the draft one day. That would be amazing. That’s definitely my dream.”