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DETROIT – The Warriors do not celebrate much after winning the Western Conference Finals. Save the champagne celebrations for when the Warriors win the real thing in June. The Warriors make an exception, though. They sport the customary hats.
That is except for Zaza Pachulia, who could not rock one after the Warriors swept the San Antonio Spurs in the 2017 Western Conference Finals for a simple reason. His head is too big.
“That’s one of the funniest moments, seriously,” Pachulia recalled this week. “It was only standard size. Of course, it didn’t fit me.”
Pachulia reflected this week on his two-year stint with the Warriors (2016-2018) that entailed plenty of moments. He won two NBA championships. He brought the Warriors’ 2017 championship trophy for an off-season ceremony in his native Georgia. He fielded scrutiny for a controversial closeout that sidelined former Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard in the 2017 NBA playoffs. He set plenty of screens to free up Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant. He handled diminished playing time with professionalism last season amid the Warriors’ focus on fielding smaller lineups and developing younger players. That paved the way for his free-agency departure last summer to the Detroit Pistons.
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It seems inevitable more memories will emerge when the Warriors (15-8) visit Detroit (12-7) on Saturday. It also seems inevitable Pachulia and his former Warriors teammates and coaches will tease him about his hat snafu.
“That’s probably the best part,” Curry said, still laughing two years later. “That was the running joke from the time he shared how big his head was. He took it in stride.”
SVP talks to Steph Curry about Zaza Pachulia not being able to get a hat on his head pic.twitter.com/8iRk3ESHkJ
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) May 23, 2017
After the Warriors swept the Spurs in the 2017 Western Conference Finals, the NBA distributed hats as they always do to any team that advances to the Finals. When that hat did not fit Pachulia’s head, he jokingly pointed fingers at Raymond Ridder, the Warriors’ senior vice president of communications that has served as the team’s longtime media relations guru.
“It’s Raymond’s fault,” Pachulia joked. “I blame it on Raymond.”
Ridder came up with an idea both to rectify the issue and spark another chuckle at Pachulia’s expense. He spoke with team officials about contacting an outside vendor to purchase the biggest hat they could find.
So before the Warriors began a film session to prepare for the NBA Finals against Cleveland, Curry gave an announcement.
“Before we start this meeting, there was an unfortunate situation we had a couple of days ago. It was really embarrassing,” Pachulia recalled Curry saying. “As a captain of the team, I would like to fix this mistake that was done.”
JaVale McGee says they made a custom hat for Zaza Pachulia 😂😂😂 pic.twitter.com/zKOP8DjVEW
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) June 3, 2017
Curry then opened the oversized box and unveiled the hat. Ridder estimated the hat “could’ve fit 25 basketballs underneath it.” Pachulia mused that the hat “could literally fit all of my family” that includes his wife (Tika), two sons (Davit, Saba) and one daughter (Miriam).
“We were joking later on that the company went bankrupt,” Pachulia said, chuckling. “They ran out of business because they had to use all the material for that particular hat. It was a pretty funny moment.”
The Warriors often teased Pachulia about his head, his plodding fast-breaks and his clumsiness for a simple reason. Deep down, they appreciated how Pachulia accepted starting at center in limited minutes mostly to set screens for his All-Star teammates and bolster the team’s defensive intensity.
“Good guy, man. He has great heart and plays with passion,” Thompson said. “He really enjoys having this is as a job. I really learned a lot as far as being a professional. He really is a great teammate.”
Pachulia signed up for that role at a market discount for expected reasons. After the Warriors won an NBA title (2014-15) and set the league record in regular-season wins (2015-16), Pachulia wanted to experience what he called the team’s “winning tradition.” After all, Pachulia had played with rebuilding teams, including the Orlando Magic (2003-04), Milwaukee Bucks (2004-05) and Atlanta Hawks (2005-07). He had made six combined playoff appearances with Atlanta (2008-2009), Milwaukee (2015) and Dallas (2016), but never past the second round. It is not surprising Pachulia won an NBA title and signed another one-year deal afterwards. Pachulia joined the Warriors the same summer they acquired Kevin Durant in free agency. Pachulia became pleasantly surprised, though, that his All-Star teammates made him feel welcome immediately.
“I’m amazed on how humble, down-to-earth and great human beings they are,” Pachulia said. “It was all about fun with those guys.”
Boy, did they have fun.
The Warriors teased Pachulia anytime he ran a fast break. Last season in Denver, Pachulia stole a pass and then labored down the court against Nuggets center Nikola Jokic for what Warriors coach Steve Kerr jokingly called “a transition basket that took about 14 seconds to get going.” After Pachulia made the basket, Curry playfully pushed Pachulia with excitement. The Warriors emptied their bench and greeted Pachulia with high fives.
“Those guys,” Pachulia said, chuckling. “You do something small, they’re looking for excuses to laugh and joke with me.”
Thompson looked for any excuse to get Pachulia to join him on fishing trips around the Bay Area during the offseason and on days off. Then, the pair often caught bass and enjoyed what Thompson called “the tranquility” with being disconnected. Once the two returned to the court, though, the ribbing continued.
Pachulia had seven points over Thompson’s six in a rare off shooting night (1-of-9) in Game 3 of the 2017 Western Conference semifinals against Utah. So Pachulia gave Thompson a frame of both the box score and the newspaper headline, “Hell Freezes Over: Pachulia outscores Thompson.” Following practice, Pachulia interrupted Thompson’s group interview session.
“Hey big guy!” Pachulia said. “Can you sign this for me?” Thompson smiled and responded, “You got a pen?”
“It took a lot of energy for me to outscore him,” Pachulia said, chuckling.
Pachulia and Thompson also had an open bet on who would have the most dunks last season. The final tally? Pachulia had 13 dunks, while Thompson finished with 11.
“I was spoonfeeding him dunks. That’s the only reason he won,” Thompson said. “We all spoonfed him wide-open dunks.”
Pachulia might be glad to hear that Thompson feels upset with the results.
“It wasn’t about me getting money. It was about motivating him, so it worked out,” Pachulia said. “He’s motivated. He became a high flyer now. Good for him.”
Their playful trash talking happened after the season, too. Thompson and Pachulia hung out on their own double-decker bus during the Warriors’ championship parade through downtown Oakland. Then, Thompson often yelled through a bullhorn with Pachulia standing within earshot. Pachulia often threw up his arms in mock disgust. But that did not stop the two from sharing alcoholic beverages together on the bus. Nor did it stop Pachulia from helping his friend out. When a Warriors fan tossed a basketball onto the bus, Pachulia leaned in and caught the ball so it wouldn’t hit Thompson’s head.
Pachulia provided another needed assist following the Warriors’ championship parade. Curry left the team’s practice facility without his previous two championship rings. No problem. Pachulia found them on the floor, picked them up and handed them over to Warriors director of team operations Eric Housen, who has overseen the team’s equipment needs and travel arrangements.
“He definitely hooked me up when there was some chaos at the facility,” Curry said. “He looked out for me.”
Afterwards, Curry thanked Pachulia and joked that “you set a good screen for me.” Pachulia jokingly retorted, “I’m tired of having your back.”
The Warriors pulled for each other during more serious moments, too. Pachulia still remains bothered with the criticism, including from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, when former Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard suffered a postseason-ending left ankle injury after landing on Pachulia’s foot in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals. Pachulia has repeatedly maintained he never did that intentionally.
Though he maintains he did not take offense to the attack on his character, he remains bothered about the attacks on his family. Security guards were sent to the entrance of his children’s school as a precaution.
“I was more worried about my family. I’ve never been in that situation. To be honest, they didn’t deserve to be in that situation,” Pachulia said. “It’s just a game. It’s a basketball game. It was really ugly.”
Pachulia considered it beautiful, though, how the Warriors defended him.
Kerr noted that “everybody in our organization knows what a good guy he is — a competitor, but he’s not dirty.” Curry called it “uncalled for” that the Spurs and others accused Pachulia of intentionally hurting Leonard. Last season, Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook also accused Leonard of intentionally falling on his legs, though he was not injured. Although Durant considered Pachulia “clumsy” because “a lot of big guys are,” Durant maintained that “I don’t think Zaza is trying to hurt anybody.”
“Once you have a teammate having your back, it makes you feel so much stronger,” Pachulia said. “But that experience honestly made me mentally stronger.”
The Warriors also admired how the 6-foot-11, 270-pound Pachulia handled his reduced playing time last season. He did not start in 25 regular-season games in favor of a reserve role (12) or healthy scratches (13) because of Kerr’s want to chase matchups and feature smaller and more athletic lineups. During the playoffs, Pachulia played in only mop-up duty in seven out of a possible 21 playoff games for the same reasons.
Instead of Pachulia complaining publicly about it, Kerr credited Pachilia for having “a major leadership role for us” as a mentor. After winning their third NBA title in four years, though, the Warriors made a strategic decision to invest in acquiring and developing younger reserves. So when the 34-year-old Pachulia had his exit meeting with Kerr, he told Pachulia directly about the team’s plans not to re-sign him for his 16th NBA season.
“He’s always open and always honest to you,” Pachulia said of Kerr. “As a vet, you appreciate that. There’s no games being played.”
Pachulia understood the reasons. Shortly after free agency began, the Warriors acquired All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins at their taxpayer midlevel exception ($5.3 million) thanks to a depressed market stemmed from rehabbing his left Achilles tendon injury. The Warriors did not retain JaVale McGee (Los Angeles Lakers) and David West (retirement), while paving larger roles for third-year center, Damian Jones, second-year forward Jordan Bell and fourth-year forward Kevon Looney.
“I didn’t take it personally,” Pachulia said. “Obviously it’s part of the game. It’s business. I’ve been in this league for a long time. You hear and sometimes you experience that throughout your career. You just move on.”
So, Pachulia signed with the Detroit Pistons. So far, Pachulia has averaged 4.2 points on a career-low 36.8 percent shooting and 4.4 rebounds per game. Still, the Warriors have missed Pachulia’s steady presence as a defender and screen setter. Jones has struggled with inconsistent starts and foul trouble, while Cousins rehabs his left Achilles tendon. Yet, Pachulia did not even joke about treating the Warriors’ game as a “revenge game” and trying to dominate against Jones.
“I’ve been doing the right things and playing the right way. I’m against changing and getting crazy and breaking the play and shooting 20 times a game,” Pachulia said. “That’s just not me. Never have been that way. I don’t think I want to change my approach to that game as well.”
Pachulia might change his approach before the game, though. Then, Pachulia envisioned he will speak with plenty of Warriors coaches, teammates and staff members He might have some catching up to do, but he already has.
After Thompson made a game-winning putback last week against Sacramento, Pachulia texted Thompson “that’s the best game I’ve ever seen.” When Thompson made an NBA record 14-pointers against Chicago on Oct. 29, Pachulia tweeted at Curry and Thompson in jest. After all, Curry had previously had the record with 13 3-pointers against New Orleans on Nov. 7, 2016. Later, Pachulia predicted Curry will break Thompson’s 3-point record soon.
— Zaza Pachulia (@zaza27) October 30, 2018
“It’s always great to have these kind of exciting players. But I’m talking about them because it wasn’t against us,” Pachulia said. “If it was against us, I’d be pretty mad and not be happy about it. But it wasn’t against us so it kind of gives me the luxury to talk about it.”
Pachulia will likely have plenty more to talk about once he sees the Warriors on Saturday.
“I had a single gray hair when I joined the Warriors. When I left the Warriors, I didn’t have an extra gray hair,” Pachulia said. “It was all good times.”
Even when Pachulia couldn’t fit into a hat onto his large head. That just gave Pachulia and his teammates another reason to tease each other.
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