Marcin Gortat can see the light at the end of the tunnel. A light that grows brighter every day as the 33-year-old center plays in a league that no longer celebrates his gifts and drifts further away from traditional back-to-the-basket big men.
On Friday before the Washington Wizards defeated the Orlando Magic, 125-119, Gortat considered his basketball mortality. In the morning, Gortat told the Orlando Sentinel that he could see himself retiring when his Wizards contract expires after the 2018-19 season, and that he “would love to join” the Magic, the team that launched his NBA career in 2007. Later in the evening, Gortat further explained how his station in life will play a role in any future decisions.
“The way I’m feeling right now, probably yes,” Gortat responded, when asked directly if he would like to retire at the end of his contract. “About why I want to do that, it’s not because I hate basketball or I hate the Washington Wizards or I hate the city or I hate the NBA. No. I want to retire because I’m old, first of all.
“Two, if I retire … and there would be an opportunity for me to be with the Magic, I would love to do that because I live in Orlando. That’s the only reason. If I have an opportunity, I could be there but I want to fulfill my contract here. A year and a half. Unless they say ‘[screw] it, we don’t like you. You got to go!’ ”
Sunset comes for every professional athlete, but on Friday night, Gortat looked fresh and rejuvenated as he made his first four shots in the opening quarter. He also finished with his 10th double-double of the season (12 points, 11 rebounds).
For the sixth consecutive game, Gortat logged more than 25 minutes. Gortat boasts the third-longest consecutive games streak in the NBA at 124, but he had fallen out of favor in the rotation the previous month while the Wizards closed games with smaller lineups.
The dwindling minutes, compounded by the team’s up-and-down performances, led to frustration. This month, Gortat, the only Polish player in the NBA, was quoted in a publication from his home country, Przeglad Sportowy (translated as Sports Review). In the online interview, Gortat revealed: “I no longer feel that joy and fire that I felt even just a few years ago.”
However, by Friday night, Gortat said that despair has subsided.
“A month ago, I was different. I was in a different place than where I am right now completely,” Gortat said. “A month ago I felt bad because, first of all, the team was losing, but who didn’t freakin’ feel bad? Bottom line. A month ago I felt bad. I feel much better now. The joy of the game was completely different when you play 15 minutes a game and you’re sitting on the bench constantly and you’re trying to help the team, then all of a sudden, a month later you are on the court and you are actually playing the games. So, it’s a completely different story. The joy of the game is different now.”
Longtime teammates recognize this as the Gortat experience, playing alongside a passionate person who speaks his mind — always. John Wall has teamed with Gortat since the center was traded to Washington from the Phoenix Suns right before the 2013-14 season. And so Wall tried to understand any frustrations Gortat may have felt, or may continue to feel, through the prism of his current role on the Wizards.
“It’s very tough. Being paid then seeing other guys getting paid,” Wall said of Gortat, while motioning toward backup Ian Mahinmi’s locker. “It’s kind of frustrating at the time. I mean, not calling anybody out, but you come and get paid more, it’s kind of frustrating. And then the way the league is evolving. He’s not an athletic big. He’s not really a rim runner, but he does a great job of setting screens and getting us open and catching the ball. So, it’s kind of tough because the league is evolving into another way and he’s getting older.”
Gortat recognizes that the end is near for his role as a traditional 6-foot-11 big man. The timeline of his 11-year NBA career as a sturdy center has coincided with the great evolution in the modern game. Gortat came into the NBA as the understudy for Dwight Howard during an era when centers would battle in the low post. Now, big men follow the analytics in driving for dunks or shooting three-pointers.
Anyone in the league can gaze into a crystal ball and see how centers such as Gortat and Orlando’s Bismack Biyombo, who played his role around the rim for 21 points and 13 rebounds Friday, will have to adapt to survive.
“Well, I think they’ll still have roles. I don’t believe the center position has gone away. I believe it has dissolved on some level,” Magic Coach Frank Vogel said. “To be a successful seven-footer in this league, you have to be dominant with your shot-blocking at the rim while also having the ability to play on the perimeter, to switch out and have mobility out there. I think you’re going to see every seven-footer that comes out now — I don’t think you’re going to see guys raised as Shaquille O’Neal was. I think every kid right now that’s 10 years old is being told you have to shoot three-point shots, no matter what their size, and I think you’re going to see that.”
Gortat refuses to assimilate — although he recently ended a Wizards practice by nailing a game-winning three from the corner — and wants to go out on his own terms. Screening, pick-and-popping, rebounding and taking charges until the end, when he decides to stop playing.
“He’s always been a great teammate for us,” Wall said. “He has times when he’s very emotional and he expresses himself to the media, but everybody expresses themselves in different ways. Sometimes you got to talk to him like a baby. Sometimes you can yell at him. But it goes different ways. Sometimes you can yell at me or I ain’t dealing with the yelling today. And I think he’s just a very emotional guy that’s up and down, but he’s been a person you can count on every night that’s going to play just about every game.”
Wizards Coach Scott Brooks doesn’t think the curtain should close anytime soon.
“He’s improved his pick-and-roll defense,” Brooks said. “I didn’t think that he was going to be as good as he is now, [but] I don’t see him as a three-point shooter. You never know. It’s not like his career is over after this season. He’s not even 34 yet, so there’s still some basketball. I don’t think he should be thinking about retiring yet.”
But the thought is there, coming up every now and then as Gortat recognizes the reality of being closer to the end of his career than the beginning. Before pulling up his blue “13” wristbands on Friday, then collecting his double-double, Gortat spoke about his future and how there will be light after basketball.
“I know it’s a story for everybody that all of a sudden a guy who doesn’t miss games and I feel pretty young and I don’t look that old, all of a sudden he wants to finish his career,” Gortat said. “That’s how I am; that’s how I feel. I know I have at least four more years in my tank, I can go for four more years and sign another good contract. Money’s not the most important thing for me in life. I want to have a family. I’m thinking about family. I’m thinking about children, about different things in life.”
Zofia Smardz contributed to this report.
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