I think I speak for most Washington pro basketball fans in saying if 9-9 is this entertaining, what ice-breakers and cringe-makers could 10-9 or, heck, 50-32 bring?
“Do I have a philosophy approaching the game?” Gortat said to a crowd at Hill Country Barbecue Market in the Penn Quarter the other night, responding to a fan’s question. “My name is Marcin Gortat (pronounced MAR-cheen GORE-that). I’m coming from Poland. I represent 40 million people and an additional 40 million in the United States. I represent my mom and dad.”
Gortat could have added, “I run the pick-and-pop like Steve Nash taught me in Phoenix. I learned to be physical backing up Dwight Howard in Orlando. I live a one-minute, jet-ski ride away from Shaquille O’Neal. Oh, and I once spent $30,000 to work with Hakeem Olajuwon for a week. That’s how much I want to be a great big man.”
He can bang. He can ’bound. He can score from 10 feet out or more. Mostly, he can ball. He calls Nene “The Brazilian Gladiator,” himself “The Polish Machine” (even though he’s been christened “The Polish Hammer” by a writer) and when you confess to a 6-foot-11, 240-pound veteran NBA center that you were really worried he was going to be that stoic, Eastern European stereotype when the cast of Post Sports Live shared the stage with him on Tuesday, Gortat laughs at you.
“Hah. I am only Drago on the court,” he says. “In life, I am a clown.”
Since being traded from Phoenix just before the regular season began, Gortat has been a godsend for a franchise that took four years to get back to .500. Averaging 13.3 points and 9.2 rebounds, bodying up other power forwards and centers, blocking shots, giving Nene the necessary help down low to ensure his big-man brethren doesn’t physically deteriorate into Nay-Play, Gortat has instantly become an integral part of a team that stunningly finds itself as the No. 3 seed at the moment in a struggling Eastern Conference.
But that’s just the player. As a personality, a self-assured veteran who has become immediately comfortable among his new teammates, Gortat is straight-up gold.
He’s not backing off his claim the Wizards can win 50 games this year, even though they have not done so since, oh, 1979. In the midst of a contract season, he also knows his own numbers won’t get him paid as much as what he does to improve his team’s win-loss mark.
“Trust me, it’s not fun to be on a team that loses 60 games a year,” he says of his 57-loss Suns of a year ago. “When Miami or San Antonio or someone would come to town and talking about resting their starters, it almost feels disrespectful. No one wants to be on a team like that.”
Gortat chronicled his bean-stalk rise in the game, how he didn’t even play basketball until he was 18 despite his 6-10 height, how three years later he was on the Polish national team and three years after that he was on an actual NBA roster.
Eight years after he first touched a basketball, “I was playing in the NBA Finals. Ten years later, I have a check coming with seven digits.”
This didn’t just happen because he won the lottery gene pool. He was diligent, determined. Gortat ran and lifted, lifted and ran — until his cardio work, his ability to run the floor, was as impressive as his size and strength.
And, okay, he did come from pretty good stock — Olympic stock. His father, Janusz Gortat, was a bronze medalist light-heavyweight boxer at the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games. He actually lost to Leon Spinks in 1976 and beat the future heavyweight champion at the world championships a year later.
When Marcin came home six years ago to show his father he had gotten a tattoo of him on his left pectoral muscle, with ’72 and ’76 inked alongside the portrait, Janusz predictably responded, “Have you lost your mind?”
“That’s my dad,” he says. “One time I came home from German league after winning championship. He said, ‘Those four medals you have I won when I was 18 years old. I can weigh my medals with kilograms and pounds they weigh so much.’ So one day I make my counter move. I show him my first check, it was like $300,000. ‘In this check, I will make more than you make your entire life, Dad. Hah.’ ”
Talk about a tough household.
“Being Mr. Gortat’s son, the Gortat Jr., wasn’t easy,” Marcin says. “There was a lot of expectation. Everybody knew I am going to one day be an athlete. A lot of people obviously tried to take a shot at me.”
Two months shy of 30 years old, it was all worth it for Marcin.
He appears to have landed on an NBA roster headed for much better times. On Wednesday, he went to Capitol Hill to attend a special screening of a movie based on Lech Walesa, the former Polish president and Nobel Peace Prize winner. It was the second time he met Walesa, who told him a couple of years ago before snapping photographs with Gortat, “I’ve always wanted to meet you.”
“You’ve always wanted to meet me?” Gortat replied. “Wow. I could not believe it.”
Like dreaming about the Wizards having home-court advantage in a playoff series, featuring their one-two punch of the Brazilian Gladiator and the Polish Machine in the paint, it all seems surreal right now.
“I hope I can be the silent veteran who can make a difference,” Marcin Gortat says, perhaps not even realizing he already has.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.