The first thing I remember thinking about Zaza Pachulia is he had back acne. Our starting center needed to wear a tshirt under his jersey. I was skeptical. He looked more like a shrimp boat captain than an NBA player. And so naturally I did what you have to do in situations where one of the five primary players from your favorite team appears to be from a maritime cartoon, you embrace every idiosyncratic thing about a player so you can laugh instead of cry.
So I did.
The way he celebrated an "and one" make with a subtle but authoritative hand motion, how he Dennis Rodman power boarded rebounds down by his hips, his remarkable ability to pad stats with misses, and setting the nightly line on moving screens. Pachulia was a walking exaggeration. He was created for bad basketball teams' fans to enjoy and marvel at. He was a halftime show during the game. His name was freaking Zaza Pachulia. He was awesome. For a team that went 26-56, he was not an escape into fandom he was a reason for it.
But somewhere along the way, without changing a thing he did, Zaza Pachulia stopped being a joke and started being serious. Hawks fans got serious with their respect for a man who put in on the line every night. Serious in the way you are with brothers or sisters who are yours to make fun of and no one else. Serious in the way you can mock your government or house or job or city but if one other person brings up the vertical leap of Zaza f'ing Pachulia well words will be exchanged.
Things changed. Maybe it was that he was not bad as he should have been. Maybe it was that I found such joy in the crazy parts of Zaza, but I found it safe to root for him earnestly as a guy who helped my team win. I am not sure. I am still not sure the draw of this man. I don't even know when the joke turned into a passion, but I know when we all knew it happened. It was the moment Zaza's manicured face of Eastern European brow force touched Kevin Garnett's perpetual sweaty head that it all became clear. It became abundantly known to the rest of the world after the "Nothing Easy" speech. Zaza Pachulia was not great at NBA basketball, but he was what he was paid to be every time on the court. For a team stuck in above average mediocrity, consistency is surprisingly charismatic.
Zaza wanted this city to be an NBA town so he played like it already was one. Zaza tried. He was a professional. And yes, he got paid millions of dollars to do so therefore it feels a bit obnoxious or simple to say, but Zaza tried at Atlanta. He gave his all to make this his home and make that home better. Zaza loves Atlanta. You can mock this post for being sappy or overstated, but name another athlete who can be described in similar terms. No Atlanta sports personality since the turn of newest century has embraced the city more.
The world of sports is a pretty cynical place. I am a pretty cynical person. Sports can feel like a business or drudgery. It is filled with millionaires doing things that for all practical purposes should not garner such wages. It has people taking themselves way too seriously or not seriously enough. Sports have their moments for sure. Winning overrides even the worst cynic, but usually, we only name the power of sports collectively after a tragedy or because of cancer or a moving first pitch or father and son stories of redemption. But sports are better than that. At their core, at their best, they involve a group of people working as hard as they can to make another group happy. A team and its city. The Hawks have maybe never been that for Atlanta, but Zaza Pachulia has.