A few weeks after he was taken 57th overall in the 2005 NBA draft, Marcin Gortat came over from Europe to play for the Orlando Magic summer league team and was so skinny, lost and quiet that, to this day, Randy Wittman doesn’t even recall having him around.
“He was on our summer league team?” asked an incredulous Wittman, then an assistant under Brian Hill in Orlando. “That shows you how good he was then.”
Nearly nine years later, Wittman can’t imagine where his Washington Wizards would be without the 6-foot-11 center from Poland with the loud mouth, shaved head and distinguishing billy-goat beard.
The Wizards’ first playoff berth in six years can be attributed to many factors: John Wall’s emergence into an all-star point guard, Bradley Beal’s steady progression as a shooting guard and Trevor Ariza’s surprising turn as a three-point marksman. But the acquisition of Gortat essentially rescued the team twice, first when it became clear last fall that Emeka Okafor would miss the season because of a neck injury and second by preventing a slide during the past six weeks, when Nene was out because of a sprained knee ligament.
With Nene expected to return Wednesday night against Charlotte, Gortat leads the team in rebounds (9.4 per game), blocks (1.5) and field goal percentage (54.2), has the highest average plus-minus of any player on the team (3.1), and the team produces its best net rating in points scored and allowed per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Not bad for an auto mechanic who aspired to be a goalie for Manchester United and didn’t start playing basketball until he was 17.
“I always wanted to be a soccer player and then one day, it just changed,” Gortat said. “It sounds stupid, but it’s just like in “Space Jam,” the alien hit you in the head and you lost your talent. That’s what happened to me. Somebody shot me in the head. All of a sudden, I turned around and I’m like, ‘Wow.’ I grab a soccer ball and started shooting at a basket. People were like, ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ ”
He certainly had an athletic background: His father, Janusz, won bronze medals in the light heavyweight division for Poland in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, and his mother, Alicja, played for the Polish national volleyball team. But Gortat never gravitated to boxing, and Poland had produced just two NBA players: the forgotten Cezary Trybanksi and Maciej Lampe. So his path to this point was anything but clear.
“Pretty much every day, before every game, I think, where would I be if I didn’t play basketball?” he said. “I am what I am because of the hard work. We have this thing in our blood, in our family. If we have to, we go through walls and we fight through any problem to achieve our goals.”
With his goalie footwork and hands, and a past as a high jumper, Gortat had a solid foundation to be a serviceable big man. In just six months, Gortat was on Poland’s under-20 national team. In a year, he was on the national team. Gortat thought basketball would lead him to a career with a EuroLeague power, possibly in Spain.
Even after a chance encounter with current Oklahoma City Thunder General Manager Sam Presti, then a scout for the San Antonio Spurs who was in Poland to watch another player, Gortat considered the NBA a fantasy.
“He gave me the business card. The logo of the Spurs was like a shiny one, like silver, and I was flipping card and showing it everywhere,” he said. “That was the exciting part, just having that opportunity to interact with an NBA guy.”
Gortat became more serious after joining RheinEnergie Cologne in Germany, where he learned the ropes about being a professional basketball player from Serbian player Sasa Obradovic before the Suns drafted him on behalf of the Magic for $350,000. After spending two summers with the Magic summer league team and having Hill send him back to Germany both times, Gortat assumed that he wasn’t good enough for the NBA — until he showed up in the summer of 2007 and used the anger of his previous rejections to impress a new regime, led by Coach Stan Van Gundy.
To Gortat’s surprise, the Magic signed him to a free agent deal, making him the third-string center behind all-star Dwight Howard and veteran Adonal Foyle. Gortat called his mother to tell her that he finally made it to the NBA — and she had no concept of its significance.
“Oh, it’s only the best league in the world,” Gortat recalled telling her, rolling his eyes and laughing. “I couldn’t believe what was going on. It was a dream come true.”
Gortat appeared in the NBA Development League before making his NBA debut, but he emerged as Howard’s primary backup at center in the 2008 playoffs after playing in just six regular season games. Van Gundy and Gortat’s former teammates all sympathized with the self-proclaimed “Polish Hammer” because he often was the nail in practice with Howard.
“It was hard every day in practice, getting beat up by Dwight,” Los Angeles Clippers forward Hedo Turkoglu said. “Dwight, before he got hurt, he was really strong. He was really powerful, but Marcin, he wasn’t backing off from the challenge. He wanted to compete every day. That really helped him out to become a good player in this league.”
Howard also assisted Gortat with his fashion style by passing along some of his old suits. With the help of Joe Rogowski, the Magic’s strength and conditioning coach who has since moved on to Houston, Gortat transformed his body from scrawny to brawny and made sure that opposing defenses didn’t get much of a break when Howard sat. By the end of his second season in Orlando, Van Gundy realized that Gortat was probably good enough to start for several teams in the NBA.
“He’s the perfect convergence of a great worker and very, very knowledgeable guy who did what you needed to do. What you got was a guy who maximized his physical capabilities,” Van Gundy said. “I don’t know anybody in Orlando, coaches, teammates, other people in the organization, who didn’t love the guy. He was a great guy. He likes and cares about the people around him. He’s not a ‘me’ guy. He really cares about the group. That’s why a lot of people really enjoyed watching his development.”
Gortat became the obsession of several teams when he started in place of the suspended Howard in a playoff series-clinching game in Philadelphia, in which he had 11 points, 15 rebounds and four steals. Eager to escape Howard’s shadow, Gortat signed a five-year, $34 million offer sheet with the Dallas Mavericks in the summer of 2009 but the Magic matched, to his chagrin.
“Mark Cuban is going to make me a rich man,” Gortat said he told himself. “I really thought I’m going to go to Dallas. I was really close to looking for a house, and on the sixth day, after signing, my agent [Guy Zucker] called and said, ‘They’re going to keep you.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s too bad.’ ”
The Magic traded Gortat to Phoenix roughly 18 months later, giving him the opportunity for which he had been waiting. But it also came at the price of success. After winning at least 50 games in each of his first three seasons in Orlando, with a trip to the NBA Finals and another to the conference finals, Gortat never came close to reaching the postseason with the Suns. Last October’s trade to Washington gave him a chance to play a leadership role on a team with playoff aspirations.
“Every day when I come in here, I’ve got to keep proving that I’m a decent big in this league, and my goal is to be one of the best bigs in the league. It doesn’t matter where I play, I’m going to keep improving every day,” Gortat said. “That’s why I come in here early, working on my game, working on my body. After last year, when you lose 60 games in a season, I was blaming a lot on myself, too.”
Gortat has offered tips to get Wall to slow down on the offensive end, and he formed an immediate connection with Nene, convincing the Brazilian big man to push through ailments that previously would’ve caused him to sit. Being in Washington has forced Gortat to make more mature choices, such as leaving behind a BMW M5 that the former auto mechanic claims is the loudest and fastest in the league, “because I’m 30 years old. You can’t come in a suit to the game with a car this is freaking so loud that when you come in all of the alarms go off on the other cars around you.”
With the Polish embassy not far from Verizon Center, Gortat has also connected with Poland’s Ambassador to the United States, Ryszard Schnepf, and has worked out a deal with Schnepf’s chef to have golabki and other favorite dishes home cooked for him on occasion. Gortat, who wears a “Polish Pride” wristband, has even pondered a run at Poland’s presidency when his playing days are over.
“Right now it’s the talk, but maybe one day the talk will be real,” Gortat said with a smile, when asked about his political aspirations. “I carry a lot of responsibility. And there is a lot of pressure. So it’s just a lot of people tell me I’m the pride of Poland.”
Gortat is more hesitant to discuss his future with the Wizards. He will be a free agent this summer but won’t offer many hints about his plans beyond this season.
“It’s too many things going on right now. I’ll just say, I’m too excited to be in the playoffs right now,” Gortat said. “I guess I will talk to my agent. And I guess all of the conversations and drama will start soon. Right now, it’s not getting into my head. I’m more excited about being in a basketball rhythm, in a good rhythm, and I’m feeling good right now. We’ll see later.”