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Family man
by Gery Woelfel / January 3, 2005

Zaza Pachulia had always respected and loved his father, but his appreciation for his dad grew even more when he became a teenager.

The youngster keenly observed how the elder Pachulia conducted himself, how he interacted with other people, how he handled his business affairs. Zaza especially marveled at how his father was, in the truest sense, a father, constantly caring for his wife, Marina, and their only child.

Zaza made a conscientious effort to deposit as many of his dad's admirable traits into his own memory bank, realizing they some day could pay off for him. Those traits, Zaza reasoned, would enable him to be like his father.

"My dad, he was the one I was watching and learning things from when I was young," said Pachulia, a power forward for the Milwaukee Bucks who grew up in the Republic of Georgia. "He taught me things step-by-step. When I was 14, he was telling me things a 25-year-old man should do.

"He was thinking ahead. He was thinking about my future."

But neither Zaza nor his father, a manager of a Georgian airline company, ever envisioned the future coming so quickly and unexpectedly. When Zaza was 16, his father went to the doctor for a routine examination. He would never return home.

Zaza said his father suffered a fatal heart attack, one that Zaza said is shrouded in mystery. According to Zaza, his father had been given an injection by a doctor shortly before his death, an injection Pachulia suspects may have killed him.

"Nobody is saying anything," Pachulia said of the cause of his father's death. "He was feeling good when he went to see the doctor. ... I don't know.

"But, as we know, he had bad color in his face. The color on his face changed because of ... wrong injection."

David Pachulia's passing devastated Marina and Zaza. For the latter, dealing with the loss of his father, the man he describes as his idol, was difficult enough. Yet, Zaza carried more weight on his shoulders. He had just finished his first season as a professional basketball player in Turkey and had exhibited exceptional promise.

It wasn't a question of whether Pachulia would be a good pro but a great pro. It wasn't a question whether Pachulia could have a long, productive career in Europe but whether he wanted to venture to the United States and play in the National Basketball Association against the greatest practitioners of the game.

But one of the lessons David Pachulia taught his son was putting one's family first. And Zaza was determined to abide by his father's credo. His mother meant more to him than any potential jackpot at the end of his basketball rainbow. And so did the welfare of his aunt, who had lost her husband, and his grandmother, who also was a widow.

In the family's deepest hour of need, Pachulia wasn't about to abandon them. Like his father, Zaza would try his best to ensure their safety and happiness.

"I was the only man in the family," Pachulia said. "I had to watch them, of course. My mom, she was crying every day. And I remember when I was a kid, my grandmother was crazy about me. I was only grandson for them. They were doing everything for me. Every summer, I was going to their house. I remember the good times.

"When the times change, I have to take care of them. I was scared. I didn't know how to handle this, to take care of all the ladies financially, and also not to let other people bother them, especially in a country like mine. That time was really tough because of kidnapping and robbery. It was a bad situation in my country.

"So I said I'm going to quit playing basketball. I'm going to be with my mom and the ladies and go to school. I'm going to find some other way to make it."

Marina never questioned her son's intentions. She knew Zaza would do anything for her, even if it meant sacrificing his dream. But Marina wasn't about to let that occur.

Marina understood what basketball meant to her son. She understood how basketball was his ticket to a better life. The fact that she played basketball herself made her more sympathetic to Zaza's dilemma.

Marina was a member of the National Team from 1972-80. She was a power forward – which is Zaza's primary position. Ever since Zaza began playing basketball, Marina took a deep interest in her son's development. After a practice or a game, Marina would candidly critique Zaza's performance. Said Zaza, "She was pretty tough. She wanted me to do it the right way."

So when Zaza told his mother he would walk away from the game he embraced to assist her, Marina instantly put a halt to such talk.

"Basketball was what he was meant to do," Marina said through an interpreter after a recent Bucks' game at the Bradley Center. "This was his dream. To play in the NBA was his biggest dream."

Marina was thankful for her son's sincerity, but insisted Zaza return to Turkey and continue his quest to fulfill his dream. And he did. Pachulia spent five more years playing professionally for Ulker of Istanbul before finally realizing his dream on June 24, 2003. That's when the Orlando Magic selected Pachulia in the second round of the NBA draft.

But after having a solid rookie season with the Magic – Pachulia played in 59 games, averaging 3.3 points and 2.9 rebounds – Orlando left Pachulia unprotected in the expansion draft for the Charlotte Bobcats.

The Bobcats selected Pachulia before trading him to the Bucks for a second-round draft pick. Now, almost a third of the way into the season, it's already apparent the Bucks pulled off a heist.

The ruggedly-built 6-foot-11, 240-pound Pachulia has appeared in 19 games, giving the Bucks quality minutes as the first player off the bench. His 5.2 points and 4.9 rebounds a game average don't begin to tell the story of his contributions, especially during the Bucks' recent three-game winning streak.

In that stretch, Pachulia averaged 9.3 points, but more impressively, 10.6 rebounds in 34 minutes a game. Pachulia also had done a commendable job of doing the necessary so-called little things like setting picks and providing help on defense.

Understandably, Bucks officials are delighted with Pachulia's progress and intrigued with the 20-year-old's potential.

"There's no way we could have gotten someone of his stature with our second-round pick,"' Bucks coach Terry Porter said. "We couldn't have drafted someone who could have stepped in and contributed like Zaza has.

"We were very excited that we were able to work out that deal and get him. He's so young, but he's got a big body. He has a physical presence about him; he won't back down. And he can run pretty good.

"Zaza wants to get good and he's working at it. I think he can be a good player in this league."

So does Marina. That's why she left her homeland and moved to Milwaukee, where she shares an apartment with her son on the east side of the city. Marina does all the cooking, serving up Zaza's favorite Georgian and Italian dishes.

She further shows her support by attending his games at the Bradley Center. Her seat is directly across from the Bucks' bench, just a few rows off the floor. She and her son often make eye contact during a game.

"I came here to help him, to back him," Marina, who is learning to speak English, told her friend and interpreter, Lianna Dolbaia. "Zaza is big now, but he's still my little child. He means everything to me. He is my life."

And Marina is Zaza's. He cringes at the thought of what might have happened if not for her. Zaza acknowledges he still struggles with his father's death. He concedes the void in his heart may never be filled.

Asked how often he thinks about his father, Zaza took a deep breath and said, "Well ... it's almost six years, seven years ... I kind of get used to it, but I mean when I do something good, when I play good, or do good job, I wish he could see it.

"I try not to think about it because, you know, it's really ... bad feeling. You understand? It's not good to think about it every day. But life goes on. If not for my mom, if not for her help, maybe I not be here. She helped me a lot.

"Right now, I am happiest man. I could not be happier than this now. I think I really did a good job for my family."

His dad would proudly agree.

Gery Woelfel covers the Milwaukee Bucks and the NBA for The Racine (Wis.) Journal Times

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