The ‘Polish Hammer’ makes his debut with LA Clippers at start of the NBA
Knowing the difference between pierogi (dumplings) and kiełbasa (sausage) is not the most obvious requirement for a basketball pundit.
Yet Shaquille O’Neal, one of the game's all-time greats, probably came to regret his ignorance when in a video that has since gone viral on YouTube he greeted every move by Marcin Gortat with an enthusiastic exclamation: “Barbecue pierogi alert! Barbecue pierogi alert!”
The legendary centre’s understanding of Polish cuisine may be under suspicion but his admiration for Gortat, who last weekend made his debut for LA Clippers of the National Basketball Association (NBA), is not.
Never the most elegant of players, the two-metre-eleven tall Pole has won admiration of basketball fans the world over for his no-nonsense, scrappy style of play that defies fashion but delivers results. Asked if he would work on refining his technique in the offseason, Gortat talked instead about his plans to spend time on the beach and in the gym.
“This summer, I’m going to work on my tan,” he said. “I’m going to work on my 6-pack. Get my biceps definition a bit better. You can’t improve your [technique…] No, I’m not going to do that. I want to go into the paint [a restricted area of the court closest to basket where the strongest players jostle for position]. Body people. Be physical. Get scratches. Bleed.”
That sort of attitude comes with the territory, Gortat has often told interviewers, for a boy from Bałuty. Born in the toughest district of Łódź, Poland’s premier industrial city, he grew up amid bloody, sometimes lethal rivalry between fans of two local football clubs and played the sport until the age of 17 when his sheer size forced him to switch to basketball.
Now aged 34, he made his name as a teenager in the German league before being drafted 57th (near the very end of the draft) by the Orlando Magic of the NBA, the world’s indisputably top basketball league. In his three years in Florida, 2007-2010, Gortat played second fiddle to one of the league’s brightest stars, Dwight Howard, but even with the limited opportunities, his ability shone through. Traded to the Phoenix Suns, he averaged 15.4 points and 10.0 rebounds per game in the best of his three seasons with the team, the statistics of an elite NBA centre. Then he was on his way again this time to Washington Wizards where he became the mainstay of a perennial playoff team and earned the nickname of “Polish Hammer” among the affectionate fans.
In his 11 NBA seasons to date, Gortat averages 10.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 assists in 26.3 minutes, on a par with the best players currently in his position. That has not prevented him being traded to LA where his playing time is expected to be somewhat reduced.
The Clippers, where he is set to spend the twilight years of his career, are forever living in the shade of the LA Lakers, forever the less glamorous team in the NBA’s most glamorous market. Which is perhaps the perfect fit for Gortat, a hardworking but hardly flashy player, well able to excel in a supporting role but unlikely to carry the burden of team leadership.
That, at least, is true in the NBA. Back in Poland, Gortat is an undoubted star, much loved for his continued devotion to the postindustrial, downtrodden city of his birth and for his efforts on behalf of the national team. Risking injury that could endanger his multimillion-dollar NBA contracts, the Polish Hammer defied his employers to turn out for Poland in 63 international matches. The unquestioned star of the team he would typically never leave the court during the game, a rare feat for a basketball player.
In a sign of devotion to the sole Pole in the world’s tallest league, the fans voted to name a baby giraffe in the Warsaw zoo, Gortat.