Pistons’ Zaza Pachulia Pays It Forward with European Basketball Academy
The summer of 2018 was a major departure from offseasons past for Zaza Pachulia—and not just due to his move out of the Bay Area. Following back-to-back NBA title runs with the Golden State Warriors, the 34-year-old big man signed a one-year deal to spend his 16th season with the Detroit Pistons.
Despite prior reservations about the Motor City's cold climate, Zaza and his family are settling in just fine, thanks to the warmth of its people and the quality of its cuisine.
“I've gotta tell you, this city is way better than we thought and way better than a lot of people are thinking and the reputation they got in the league within the players,” Zaza tells CloseUp360.
His move to the Midwest aside, Zaza was freer than usual to enjoy his summer. With his service to the Republic of Georgia's national basketball team behind him, Zaza traded in practices and FIBA competitions for time spent with friends and family vacations.
Where he previously only had time for offseason trips to US-adjacent destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean, this summer, Zaza had the leeway to take his family across the Atlantic to explore Europe—and the Pachulias enjoyed every moment of it.
They went to Greece, Italy and Turkey before capping their travels in his homeland of Georgia, where Zaza found out he would be knighted by Prime Minister, Mamuka Bakhtadze.
“He just got named as Prime Minister weeks before and one of the first things he did was to honor me,” Zaza says. “It's a huge honor to me and I'm very, very thankful.”
Though he's become a beloved figure in Georgia for representing the basketball-crazed Eurasian nation on the sport's biggest stage, Zaza's knighthood came in recognition of what he's done to give back to his home country.
The Zaza Pachulia Basketball Academy offers a one-of-a-kind opportunity to kids with dreams of playing basketball. Its primary objectives are to promote the development of the sport in Georgia, groom the next generation of players for the national team and improve the infrastructure within the game.
Georgians take pride in their basketball roots. From generation to generation, it has been one of the most popular sports among its citizens.
Zaza Pachulia high-fives kids at his basketball academy in Tbilisi, Georgia. (Courtesy of Zaza Pachulia)
Zaza fell in love with the game early in his life. While his father, David, was a judo wrestler, his mother, Marina, played on the Soviet Union's women's basketball team. She took her son to watch ball clubs from all over the USSR when they came to play in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia and the Pachulias’ hometown.
“My mom helped me a lot, taking me to every single game, putting us in the good seats,” Zaza says. “Sometimes I had to sit on the stairs since the arena was always packed and always full. But I didn't care about it where I was sitting. As long as I could watch the game as a kid, it was amazing to me.”
Just as Zaza was inspired by those experiences, he wants to pass down his enthusiasm for the game to the next wave of Georgians.
Back in 2015, Tbilisi was pegged to host the European Youth Summer Olympic Festival. To prepare for the event, the Georgian government had the Olympic committee renovate its establishments, in addition to building new ones over the span of a year.
Despite great turnout at the games, which lasted from July 26 to August 1 of that year, one concern remained: What would happen to all of the updated arenas?
“After it ended, there were a bunch of gyms and facilities basically available, and the government had to make a decision [about] what they were going to do with it,” Zaza recalls.
Zaza on a court he helped to renovate at his academy. (Courtesy of Zaza Pachulia)
That's when Zaza got calls from Irakli Garibashvili, the former Prime Minister of Georgia, and Tariel Khechikashvili, the country's former Minister of Sports. They had read about Zaza's post-career plans to open a basketball academy in order to share his experience with his country's youth.
They offered him the chance to realize his dream by founding his academy at one of the renovated facilities. Zaza was thankful, but needed a few days to mull it over.
“It's not easy,” Zaza says. “Obviously, it sounds good and it sounds like a great opportunity. But my approach to everything is either I've gotta do it the right way or I'm not going to do it at all.”
Once he realized the kind of impact his dream would have on Georgia’s community, especially in youth sports, the choice was a no-brainer.
On November 1, 2015, the Zaza Pachulia Basketball Academy was born.
The facility, based in Tbilisi, features four full basketball courts, including the old floor from the Bradley Center, where he played for the Milwaukee Bucks during the 2014-15 season—and which he had shipped overseas with help from Wisconsin-based Action Floors.
In an upgraded basement lies a brand new, 13,000 square-foot strength and conditioning area with fresh equipment and more additions to be made in the near future. Though primarily used by his basketball students and coaches, athletes in any sport are welcome to train there.
This past summer, Zaza got his work in at his own facility while visiting the academy's kids. It was "a win-win for both of us," he says: The students were excited to work out with him, and their youthful energy motivated the seasoned veteran to get in shape.
Around 20 motivational quotes from legendary players and coaches line the walls of Zaza's academy. (Courtesy of Zaza Pachulia)
Throughout the gym, the walls are scrawled with quotes about professionalism, all in English). Close to 20 were pulled from Mind Gym: An Athlete's Guide to Inner Excellence, a book Zaza received from Jason Kidd, his old coach with the Bucks.
The inscriptions are meant to inspire kids and encourage them to learn English—which they do in language classes at the academy—so they can communicate with outsiders, including potential recruiters.
“If you're trying to be a worldwide athlete, you need to talk in English,” Zaza says. “Your path and how you start playing basketball and how you end up being in the U.S., you need to be talking English. So they have all the tools that they need, and then it's up to them how much time and effort they're gonna put in.”
Attendance at the academy has grown rapidly since its inception. In year one, there were 250 kids. This year, it reached 700. In 2019, Zaza expects close to 1,000 participants, with age groups ranging from five to 20 years old.
Zaza has assembled a staff comprised of former players to help him accomplish what he’s set out to do. Each member brings something different to the table, from Xs and Os to financial expertise and business savvy. When a major decision has to be made, the board will jump on a conference call or communicate via group chat.
“We might not be agreeing on everything, and that's very normal,” he says. “Actually, we want that to kinda have a healthy argument about what our thoughts are, and everyone's obviously free to come out with what they think. But bottom line, we're making decisions based on what's good for these kids and the academy.”
The most recent addition to the group is Will Smith, a native Australian who's coached at the high school level and with NBA China's junior team for the last three years.
Mind Gym Notable Quotes at the Zaza Pachulia Basketball Academy
"I'm a firm believer in goal setting. Step by step I can't see any other way of accomplishing anything." -- Michael Jordan
"Talent is never enough. With few exceptions, the best players are the hardest workers." -- Magic Johnson
"You must have dreams and goals if you are ever going to achieve anything in this world." -- Lou Holtz
"Build your weaknesses until they become your strengths." -- Knute Rockne
The academy has also benefited from Zaza's strong basketball connections. For three consecutive summers, he has drawn international legends to his camp—including fellow 2003 first-round pick Zarko Cabarkapa and European star Marko Milic—along with 2015 WNBA champion Kalana Greene.
Although those interactions were short-lived for attendees, Zaza believes the camps can leave lasting impacts on the kids.
“Obviously you're not gonna become an amazing player [in that time],” he says. “But maybe that drill or maybe that comment or recommendation [will make a difference].
“It's the small things because success is built around the small things, and small baby steps. And the idea behind this camp is the opportunity for you to make a small step towards the bigger picture.”
Zaza realizes that the academy is responsible not only to the kids, but also to their parents and guardians.
“They trust you,” he says. “They trust your vision and they trust your thoughts and whatever you're gonna bring on the table for this academy. We are very honest to parents and very clear that not everybody's gonna be a pro basketball player, but we're working really hard from our side to take the most out of those kids and reach their maximum potential.”
Zaza founded the academy because he didn’t have anything close to it growing up in post-Soviet Georgia. He recalls practicing in gyms with no lights and broken windows in the middle of February, when it was so cold that he had to wear extra layers and long-sleeve shirts just to get his work in.
“I used to be in their shoes,” he says. “I used to be little. I used to be in the situation where I'm trying to figure it out and didn't know quite what to do when I was very young.”
There was no gas, no heating and no electricity, but Zaza reached the NBA anyway. So did Vladimir Stepania, the first Georgian to play in the league. And so did Nikoloz Tskitishvilli, the fifth pick in the 2002 NBA draft and a childhood friend of Zaza's.
“If we made it from that to the U.S. and I'm going into my 16th year of my NBA career, they definitely have no excuse,” Zaza says. “Every day is a challenge. Every day is a test. So if you're mentally not strong enough, you're gonna fall off. Once you lose your opportunity, then it's hard to get it back.”
Standout players from the academy competed in Tbilisi's U-16 basketball championship. (Courtesy of Zaza Pachulia)
Zaza's goal is to prepare the next generation for the kinds of basketball opportunities he had, be it playing professionally in Europe or the NBA, or competing on the Georgian national team.
Luka Alavidze looks like the best bet to be the academy's first such success story. The 13-year-old has stood out at the academy since its founding, and made Europe's Junior NBA World Championship roster this summer.
Alavidze’s triumph has propelled Zaza to begin contacting agents to help the players find opportunities to compete on bigger stages, whether professionally in Europe or at the high-school and college levels in the U.S.
“It's impressive for you to [see] one of them succeed, but from there hopefully it's gonna open the doors for others,” Zaza says. “Success has no limits. You're just happy for them and just proud of the team that you're working with because you feel like you're doing something right.”
The biggest concern for the academy? The demand for its services has already outstripped supply. Since the kids don't get out of school until 3 p.m. and the facility closes at 9 p.m., it can't accommodate much more than its current constituency.
Furthermore, the academy doesn’t want to sacrifice the personal connection between its coaches and players. Groups of 15-17 kids are ideal. Anything beyond that cuts into the amount of attention and quality of instruction that each attendee receives.
Zaza celebrated his new NBA team this offseason with the kids. (Courtesy of Zaza Pachulia)
To better serve the talent in the region, Zaza plans to open more locations, with the original academy as the standard bearer. And to help with that expansion, Zaza has been brushing up on the ins and outs of entrepreneurship.
In September, he spent a few days at Harvard Business School for its "Crossover Into Business" program, alongside fellow NBA players Kyrie Irving, Paul Millsap and Spencer Dinwiddie—as well as professional athletes from the WNBA, NFL, MLS and UFC.
Zaza will continue with professor Anita Elberse's class through the fall semester while corresponding with an MBA student mentor to help sharpen his business acumen and decision-making. He plans to apply what he's learning at Harvard to improve the academy in creative ways.
“Sometimes I kind of feel that the only difference [between sports and business] is that we're wearing the uniforms on the court and business managers are wearing suits," Zaza says, "but the result is the same, honestly.
“We both sweat because we have to work so hard on the court, or businessmen off the court and in the office or in the street. We have to work so hard. The process is the same and we have so many similarities in dealing with so many similar challenges and it's amazing.”
Zaza with his "Crossover Into Business" classmates at Harvard Business School. (Courtesy of the NBA)
When it comes to popularity back home, Zaza is already an expert. He was nearly voted into the 2016 NBA All-Star Game, thanks to fervent support from his fans in the Republic of Georgia.
“There's fake love and there's true love,” Zaza says. “I haven't even asked one single time to vote for me, but those guys every day were into every single computer or device they had and tried to vote for me and did, so I got 1.5 million votes. The country is only 3.5 million people. So it's amazing.”
To him, that is just a single example of how united Georgia truly is. It's one of the oldest countries in the region, with a rich history and tradition to match. It’s not as big or as wealthy as its neighbors, but it’s still standing because everybody has each other’s backs.
Now, Zaza is paying it forward with his own academy. The kids are happy, the citizens are happy and the Georgian government—which entrusted him with this endeavor—is happy.
He may be thousands of miles away, but Zaza will be engaged with the progress at the academy daily.
Despite an eight-hour time difference, he’s excited to wake up early to call the board and hear how things are going every morning. He looks forward to watching filmed practices from afar, and engaging with the kids through an upcoming cell phone app.
Ultimately, Zaza wants his students to succeed as players and as people. If that goal is met, he’ll have done his job and will be “the happiest person”—even if (or when) Detroit freezes over in the winter.
Spencer Davies is a veteran NBA writer based in Cleveland. Follow him on Twitter.