When Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia was a young kid growing up in Georgia, he was a goalkeeper. Obviously. “What else could I do with this height?” the 6’11” player laughs. The thirty-three-year-old is now Georgia’s most famous basketball player but he reminisced about his roots in soccer as he welcomed fellow countryman Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili to the San Jose Earthquakes.
“My mom used to be a basketball but I wanted to play football when I was a kid,” he said. “When I remember the practices, I always tried to touch the ball with my hands so the coach put me in the goal.”
Finally, some wise advice from his coach set him on his nomadic path to the NBA.
“Son, you’re playing the wrong sport!” the coach had said.
Perhaps it was for the best, as Vako is now carrying the Georgian flag in Major League Soccer. The twenty-four-year-old recently touched down in San Jose after signing a Designated Player contract for the Quakes and was accompanied by Zaza to watch his first game, a 3-2 victory over the LA Galaxy.
It’s Vako’s first ever visit Stateside so the basketball star was happy to offer his advice.
“I’ve been in his shoes, I went through exactly the same process,” Zaza said. “He’s lucky because when I first came here I didn’t know one single person. I was nineteen and the only person I knew was my agent, who was in a totally different city when I started my career in San Jose. He just got here, he has to deal with the jet-lag, but ten Georgians just showed up at the game today and obviously we need to support him. That’s what we do. We don’t know each other personally but it’s a small country with a unique personality and traditions. We are here today to make it feel like home and make it easier for him. We’re going to do our best to make things easy for him.”
“I don’t think he’s going to have a hard time to adjust to the American lifestyle, hopefully the worst thing that will happen to him is the jet-lag,” he added.
Zaza hopes to help Vako adjust on the pitch with strong support off of it. “We get more and more Georgians, it’s great!” he said. “We support each other, we have each others’ backs. It’s good to have friends from your country, it takes away the [homesickness] when you talk in your own language. It’s a great help for athletes to perform better on the field.”
He hasn’t lost the soccer bug, either, coolly converting the game’s ceremonial first kick into the back of the net after sending Mascot Q the wrong way.
“I’ve been watching [Vako’s] career actually, especially lately since he started to play for the Georgian national team,” he said. “He’s very talented so I’m excited for him and for the team and fans. They really got a chance to watch a good player.
“[Soccer] in America is getting bigger and better. I started playing it when I was young before basketball. It’s the number one sport in the world, I hate to say it but it’s true. I’m really glad that they’re investing in it in the US and really working hard to get the level of the game higher. So many good players are coming here lately to play. Some of them are older but they still have the magical moves that you can be excited to see. Vako is young, he’s only twenty-four-years-old and I’m sure he’s going to have an impact on this team. It’s a great situation for him and for the team.”
Although he bemoaned the lack of Georgian restaurants in the Bay Area, he said that they’ll be covered between their two families.
“Georgian cuisine is one of the best,” he said. “I’m not just saying it because it’s mine, it really is. When you look at blogs and food channels, you can see that Georgian cuisine is very rich and very old with a lot of history. We love it. When we go back to and visit Georgian, it’s the nature, the history, and the food. That’s the top three things. The hospitality from the Georgians is the first thing you notice. I can be proud.”
He hopes the Quakes will be proud of Vako too.
“Football has the best fans I’ve seen and experience,” he said. “I mean that. You win a championship and help this team to the finals, you’ll be loved and respected and wanted back. As an athlete that’s what you want. Of course, it’s great for you and your family but you’re making so many people happy. The Bay Area is a huge place. To help a team win the championship, you’re going to have so much support and they’re going to have your back. I’m pretty sure from watching his game, how hard he works in every position, that he’s a winner. He wants to win. Hopefully, he’s going to bring that mentality here.”