Before New York, there was Seville. For rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis, the man who went from getting booed in draft night to being adored at the Madison Square Garden, the path to the glitz of the NBA went through the southern Spanish city, where he moved from Latvia as a super skinny teenager back in 2010.
How was Seville’s Porzingis compared to the confident, high-flying rookie we see on the NBA courts these days?
We talked to people who spent time with him before making the big leap to the Big Apple to find out.
* Rocky Jarana is an assistant coach at Baloncesto Sevilla who worked on the development of young players for the club.
* Saturnina Gadea, known as Caja’s Grandma, worked for 29 years at Baloncesto Sevilla (previously named Caja San Fernando and Cajasol) doing the laundry and cleaning the locker rooms. A beloved figure, the club paid Gadea a tribute upon her retirement last year.
* Berni Rodriguez is a veteran guard at Baloncesto Sevilla. He was a member of the Spanish National Team that won the gold medal at the 2006 World Championship and the silver medal at the 2008 Olympics.
* Ben Woodside has played pro basketball in Europe the last seven years. He was a member of Baloncesto Sevilla last season.
* Willy Hernangomez was a teammate of Porzingis from 2013 to 2015 and perhaps his closest friend at Baloncesto Sevilla. He was the 35th overall pick in the last draft. His NBA rights belong to the New York Knicks.
* Jose Luis Galilea was the general manager of Baloncesto Sevilla in 2014-15. During his playing days, he wore the uniform of European powerhouses such as FC Barcelona, Virtus Bologna and Real Madrid.
* Derrick Byars was a member of Baloncesto Sevilla in 2014-15. He has played for multiple teams in Europe, Latin America and the D-League and briefly joined the San Antonio Spurs in 2012. He will play in Puerto Rico this season.
Rocky Jarana: “We were first approached about possibly signing Kristaps Porzingis by Salva Mendez, who works for YouFirst agency these days. We gave him a tryout in Seville in May/June 2010. He was roughly 6-foot-7 and super skinny. We saw he was super coordinated for his size and at the same time was far away from full maturation from a physical standpoint. It looked like he had to grow a lot more. We took a gamble on him. When he returned for preseason three months later, he was 6-foot-9 already, but still super skinny. He weighed around 150 pounds. It was a mess.”
Saturnina Gadea: “I kind of felt bad for him at the beginning seeing how skinny he was. I was always on him that he needed to eat more, a lot more.”
Rocky Jarana: “Because of his body frame, we could tell this kid could be physically imposing in due time if he put on weight. But us coaches were wondering if he was going to be able to do that.
He was a quick learner. I worked with him on his point guard skills and we fixed his shooting mechanic, which was a little off. He was very coachable and made quick progress from a technical standpoint. The big problem was his lack of stamina and strength. He would take 15 shots in a row and we had to stop because his shoulder couldn’t take it. It was like that his first three months with us and we had no idea what was going on. I really got upset with him once, asking him how in the world was it possible that he couldn’t take 15 shots in a row and keep going. I told him I just couldn’t believe it and he started crying.
Eventually we put him through some tests and our nutritionist found out he was dealing with anemia due to an enzyme deficiency. He underwent treatment and in one month it was like night and day. Both his body and his character changed. He went from being a shy kid who stayed away from people to becoming a jokester and one of the guys.”
Saturnina Gadea: “He’s a very good kid and I love him like he’s family. Every time I eat melon, I think about him. Boy, that kid liked melon. He wanted nothing but melon and Spanish omelette. I would bring melons for the players and he wanted all of them for himself. And he liked chocolate big time too. He always had chocolate in his locker. He wanted me to eat that Latvian chocolate that he liked so much, but I didn’t like it at all.”
Saturnina Gadea with Baloncesto Sevilla forward Bostjan Nachbar.
Berni Rodriguez: “Early on, he was not that mature physically, but you knew right away. That first day with him I was in awe and knew he was going to play in the NBA.”
Ben Woodside: “When I signed with Seville, I didn’t know about Porzingis. I knew they had very promising young players, but I didn’t know about him specifically. The first practice, when I saw him and how he handled the ball for that size and saw how he conducted himself, I was just really impressed by how good he was. Just from that first day, I knew he had a great future and was going to be something special.”
Berni Rodriguez: “The combination of size and skill was impressive. Then you have that coordination. It’s not that he moved well for a 7-foot-2 guy. He moved well for a 6-foot-3 guy!
One of the keys with him is his character. The off-the-court stuff that might sidetrack the career of a kid of this talent, you knew it would have no bearing whatsoever with him. He’s a really nice guy and a hard worker.”
Willy Hernangomez: “We became fast friends. I knew him from the European Championship that he played with Latvia and against my brother (Juancho Hernangomez) and we were in touch right from the moment I knew I was headed to Seville. Since we met, we basically spent every day together while we were there.”
Jose Luis Galilea: “He stayed after practice for extra work every single day. He would be there with Nikola Radicevic to work on invidual stuff, every single day without exception. When you have that attitude and talent, it’s hard not to succeed.”
Willy Hernangomez: “After practice, we liked to play one-one-one and it got really serious oftentimes. It was not a typical one-one-one, though. We could not use our main strengths. Those were not allowed. We tried to take each other’s advantages away and see who prevailed.”
Jose Luis Galilea: “Another thing is, he’s super critical with himself. He was very coachable and paid attention to what he was told in order to improve. There was never an excuse. He was very receptive to criticism.”
Saturnina Gadea: “He was always messing with me. He would write things on the whiteboard like ‘Grandma is not doing laundry well’ or ‘Grandma is not cleaning the locker room well’. I was like, ‘Damn that kid’ and he was like ‘Grandma, it wasn’t me, it was that other guy’. I responded with curse words in Spanish, which he probably shouldn’t have learned (laughs). We had that confidence with each other to treat each other like that.”
Berni Rodriguez: “This guy not only speaks perfect Spanish, he imitates accents from certain places of Spain as well! He was very good with the Sevillian accent. He would approach the girls and do that accent: ‘Hey girls, I’m from Carmona (a small town north of Seville)’.
He would imitate (Saturnina Gadea) as well, of course. Actually, I think he impersonated her better and more often than anybody else. We would roll on the floor laughing when he did that. He was hilarious, especially for a Latvian guy.”
Saturnina Gadea: “At times he wanted to give me money and I said I wasn’t taking any money from players because I had my salary already. But if he found out that perhaps I needed something, he would offer to give some. He would be like ‘Take this money’ and I was like ‘How I’m going to take your money if you don’t have much money yourself, kid?'”
Jose Luis Galilea: “He had an old contract. He was one of the lowest-paid players on the team.”
Derrick Byars: “He’s a fun guy to be around. We were roommates very often. He’s a good impersonator, he can impersonate anybody. Teammates, coaches, anybody that comes around on a regular basis. If he sees any type of mannerism in how you act, he’s going to duplicate it. He would do it on the bus for people to see.”
Jose Luis Galilea: “He may have that serious Latvian demeanor, but he’s a super funny kid and very attentive. I remember during a break he went back home in Latvia… When he came back and we met, I joked with him on how come he didn’t bring any gift for me. He was like, ‘Of course I brought something for you!’ And he gave me a bottle of liquor from his country.
He cares about others. He’s aware he has it pretty good in life and tries to give back. That’s a very nice thing. Sadly, it’s not very common in this basketball world.”
Ben Woodside: “Off the court, he’s a really cool guy. He has a good sense of humor about him. Funny guy. He’s a people’s person that likes to interact with guys. You have this kid here that you know is going to be a mega star and was extremely humble with the people around him. He’s a great player, but I think he’s an even better person.”
Jose Luis Galilea: “He’s super humble. Many high-level players when faced with a situation like the one he was going through would care about stats, media attention and being on magazines. Not him. He was only about getting better and was obsessed about it.”
Derrick Byars: “I was very impressed with him. He was just 19 years old. We would have very intense practices at the beginning. Three hours long. His skillset is what impressed me the most, but there was another thing… toughness. Here was a 19-year-old player playing with grown men with that skinny frame, but you could tell he was mentally tough. He had confidence.
This guy was going against Felipe Reyes and Blagota Sekulic and all these strong players in the ACB and he was holding his own.”
Jose Luis Galilea: “My thing with him was, we wanted him to be more assertive offensively. I was like, ‘Don’t let the game pass in front of your eyes without trying to do more’. I was trying to make him understand that the team was built around him and we needed him to play a bigger role. It was hard for him sometimes because he was not used to taking that many shots. Now you see he’s taking the most shots in New York outside of Carmelo Anthony and you think, ‘This guy has come a long way'”.
Willy Hernangomez: “He had a father-son relationship with Berni Rodriguez. He really took care of both of us, giving us advice and we still remain in touch with him.”
Berni Rodriguez: “I started playing as a pro at a very young age and the veterans back then really took me under their wing. That stuck with me, how they treated me. We had a really young team last season and I kind of played that veteran role for Kristaps and Willy Hernangomez. I was there mentoring them, especially with situations outside of basketball, so they would stay even-keeled when things didn’t go so well on the court. Those two and Pierre Oriola too. We went everywhere together. They took me outside and then I took them home (laughs).”
Derrick Byars: “My relationship with him was as good or perhaps the best I’ve had with a European player overseas. I was cool with Willy Hernangomez too. It’s funny because I’m 31 and they are over a decade younger, but they had a personality to them that I would call magnetic. Kristaps was a very cool, laid-back, funny guy and I enjoyed my time with him.”
Willy Hernangomez: “He really got upset when playing PlayStation at my place. He would lose at NBA 2K or FIFA and storm out of the apartment at times. We both chose Real Madrid often, but sometimes it was random teams. We would play Racing Santander-Betis, for example.”
Jose Luis Galilea: “I think having a coach with NBA pedigree like Scott Roth helped him in his transition to the NBA. He knew that type of basketball to perfection. Everything was in English and the type of preparation he was getting was very NBAish.”
Berni Rodriguez: “He didn’t want to discuss the NBA much at times because he knew it might be distracting. We would mess with him telling him, ‘Look at that NBA guy that came over today’ and he was like ‘Whatever, let’s focus on our stuff and forget about that’. That really spoke about how focused he was.”
Jose Luis Galilea: “The first thing that strikes you about him is the talent, but there’s also how he reacts to the buzz around him. We had 5-7 NBA guys in the crowd and that wouldn’t faze him. He only cared about getting better.”
Berni Rodriguez: “He would mention 2-3 NBA teams that were interested in him and one of them was the Knicks.”
Ben Woodside: “All that hype and attention didn’t change him at all. He continued to be who he was on and off the court and his work ethic was phenomenal and that’s why people hold him in such high regards.”
Jose Luis Galilea: “The NBA people would ask me about him and when I said all these very nice things about him, they were incredulous. I was like, ‘I’m not trying to sell him, that’s the reality with this kid.'”
Willy Hernangomez: “When he had American players, he would always try to engage with them to learn things about the States, to improve his English, ask for advice for the future. Especially his final year in Seville, you could tell he was thinking about this big chance of making it to the NBA.
A couple of seasons ago, he was not thinking about the NBA much. He felt he was too young. He knew he had potential, but was not yet ready. Last year, he was already warming up to the idea of going to the States, talking with the American players, seeing how scouts were coming to practice.”
Ben Woodside: “I knew whoever drafted him was going to get a steal. He had the combination of attitude and talent that makes a really good NBA player. I knew he was going to live up to the hype.”
Derrick Byars: “He handled the NBA attention seamlessly with no issues or problems at all. He knew he was going to be a lottery pick. He knew he was getting into a lifestyle and a financial situation that was going to be very good… and he was not in shock about that. It was almost like he was ready. You could tell this new situation that was coming was not making him change.”
Ben Woodside: “He was way beyond his years maturity-wise and he was ready for that next step. There was no doubt about it.”
Derrick Byars: “He had a good understanding of American way of life and customs. He’s very much into whatever is going on in America.”
Jose Luis Galilea: “He’s a very easy-going and respectful guy. You can tell the kind of family he has helped a lot in that regard. His brother, who’s his mentor, was a pro basketball player and understands what this is about. That family is why he conducts himself like that in life, why he’s so grounded. Especially his brother Janis.”
Derrick Byars: “He would always ask me about NBA life and how things worked in the States and stuff like that. I wanted to make it feel like I was there for him if he wanted help in terms of things related to lifestyle and mental aspects of the game.
He was curious about the kind of attention he would get in the States. It’s funny to think about it now that he’s in the media capital of the world.”
Ben Woodside: “I still have contact with him every once in a while, although I try not to bother him too much since I know he’s extremely busy. I follow him closely right now. I had never seen so many Knick games in my life!”
Saturnina Gadea: “When we learned for certain that he wasn’t coming back, me and a girl at the office spent two days talking about it and crying about it. Especially me because I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to him.
If you talk to him, tell him I’m sending kisses and hugs. If he ever comes to Seville, tell him to come over to my house. He knows where I live. I miss him a lot.”
Photos courtesy of Emilio Cobos. You can follow him @EmilioCobosC.