There were plenty of NBA prospects from Europe back in the early 2000s who either didn’t pan out or, in many cases, never even made it across the pond.
And then there was Zaza Pachulia. The Orlando Magic drafted Pachulia in the second round of the 2003 NBA Draft as a 19-year-old center out of the Republic of Georgia. After bouncing around the L his first few seasons, Pachulia eventually found a home in Atlanta, where he anchored the Hawks for much of the 2000s. After a few more stops, he ended up in Golden State, where Pachulia put in the work and went on to win two NBA titles.
This summer, Pachulia retired after 16 seasons. Finished on the floor, he stayed near the game by taking a position as a consultant with the Golden State Warriors, where he does things like ring the opening bell at the stock market as well as get an overall view of how an NBA franchise runs.
Yet it wasn’t just on the court that Pachulia put in work during his career. He also has always been something of a serial entrepreneur, taking classes and dabbling in various companies. His latest venture involved teaming up with some businessmen in his native Georgia to help kickstart a shoe brand, Crosty. We recently caught up with Pachulia, who if anything surely understands that on the road to success, nothing is easy.
SLAM: I imagine it must be kind of weird for you as training camps start, and the first time in a long time you’re not showing up as a player.
Zaza: Yeah, for 16 years I’ve been going through the same process. Mentally to be prepared for the moment it was so helpful. Another amazing thing that happened, obviously, is I joined an organization with probably the most memorable years I had, with the Warriors. So yeah, I might not be on the court, but to be engaged in the process and all that, it’s so helpful. It’s a great opportunity, first of all, to learn to see this business from this angle and obviously being on the court is great, but you really never kind of knew what it took from the front office and the meetings and how the decisions were made, so I was a big part of it for the last couple of weeks. It definitely helps the transition. It helps me to not think about playing. Of course, you miss basketball, but you’re still in basketball, so I couldn’t ask for more than that.
SLAM: You said you’re mentally ready to step away from the game, but how long did it take you to make the decision? Even if you’re mentally ready, it must still be a hard decision for you to make.
Zaza: Absolutely. I’m really curious how I’m going to deal with the first game, the official opening. I’m sure it’s going to be a different feeling. But to be honest, I look at it as a business decision. Even though basketball is my passion, I’ve been doing it for such a long period of time. This seemed the same as any team coming and offering you the chance to play another season. But maybe it’s even better, because it’s a great way to start your next chapter, especially when you’re talking about being around the guys like Bob Myers and Steve Kerr and Joe Lacob. I had the good fortune to meet with a lot of our ownership group while I played here. And the overall experience that’s around it the Bay Area and the Warriors, it’s amazing. To start this chapter this way, I’m thankful and fortunate.
SLAM: Give me one moment from your playing career that you’ll never be able to forget.
Zaza: I’ve been for fortunate to have a few of those moments. Obviously since you and I have a lot of Atlanta ties, the 2008 playoffs against the Boston Celtics…after Game 6…
SLAM: Nothing easy! Nothing easy!
Zaza: (laughing) I feel like that’s when people really got to know me, especially being part of a young team, on the radar for the fanbase and for NBA, for teams that was trying to win the championship. We were this young team and a guy coming from Republic of Georgia—a lot of people don’t even know where the country is located at, but I kind of felt like people got to know me. Most importantly, they got to know my personality. That was the most important thing. Because this is something that doesn’t come out in the stats. I think a couple seconds of my personality was out there for everybody. I remember that night I got so many text messages and emails and phone calls, it’s crazy, like I won the championship.
SLAM: And then you ended up going on to win two titles with the Warriors.
Zaza: Both of them were amazing, because the first is the first—it’s great. First love, first kiss, you name it, the first championship, it is just totally different. And winning the second championship was even sweeter, winning on the road. You already know that feeling, so for that feeling to come and to get to experience it again, it’s great. So, those three moments.
SLAM: I remember talking to you about fashion and style ten years ago, even before the whole NBA thing took off where guys were dressing for the runway and all that kind of stuff. You’ve always cared about how you looked and how you dressed. Now it seems kind of fitting that you’re involved in a shoe company that makes stylish shoes. How did that come about?
Zaza: Obviously, being from Europe always helps because of the fashion there. And being 6-11 is pretty challenging when you’re talking about fashion. But I had no idea back then that this was coming. It was totally, totally on accident. I had no plans to make an investment in the shoe company, especially when you play basketball at that age you just concentrate. Yeah, you want to have a shoe deal, something I have all my career, but probably I was dreaming about that more than this.
The way Crosty and I got started together was really interesting, because after I won the first championship I got a pretty huge box and it was from a Georgia address. So I opened it and I’m pulling out this nice box, you could tell from the quality of box it was something serious. And once I opened the black box, and there was a letter from Georgia saying congratulations on your first championship, about how I made Georgia proud and here’s a little gift from us. So, I opened it obviously and I took it out. I pulled it out and it’s a shoe. It’s a sneaker. It’s my favorite sneaker color—white—and it’s leather, and everything is all in place. The message said it’s a Georgia company, Crosty, but I had never heard about it. I was like, how the hell did they know my size, especially the white color, [which is] something that I would be wearing most of the time literally with everything, either a suit or casual—I like just white colored shoes, I think it goes with anything. So, I Googled it and I read about the company. Once I went back to Georgia, I wanted to meet these people and support them because you could sense the quality there.
SLAM: So how did you guys connect?
Zaza: I ended up reaching out to them—Georgia is small so it’s easy to get in touch with anybody you want to, so I reached out to them and I met with them. The first meeting was great, so I asked them how they heard about my shoe size and my favorite color, and they said they checked [my] Instagram and most of the pictures I was wearing the white color shoes so they decided to send me the white colored sneakers. And obviously I’ve been wearing them pretty often. The second meeting I said, well, think about some ideas how we can work together. So then we met each other again and talked about the values, what’s your goal, what’s your big picture. It was more like the first meeting was getting to know each other, and the second time it was more of a business meeting. And I said, you know what, I love the story that they had, I love the people behind it and they were super motivated guys.
SLAM: And what was the story behind it?
Zaza: Basically, there are the Mikaia brothers and they were born and raised in the Abkhazia region—it’s a region of Abkhazia that is occupied by Russia right now. I’m not trying to go into politics but they had to leave after the war, and they had to leave home, leave everything there. They just literally went away with whatever clothes they had and nothing else, basically. They moved to Tbilisi back in the mid ‘90s, not knowing many people. So, both brothers started searching for freedom, and the whole country was searching for freedom, and was just trying to find a way to live and operate. And they said if you want to walk forward to freedom you should have comfortable shoes, and that’s how they started making those shoes.
SLAM: That’s a great story.
Zaza: The guys had nothing whatsoever, they lost their home, friends and everything they had. They started from zero and now they have such a cool story and such a cool brand. It’s about the freedom, it’s about the quality, it’s about walking towards that freedom. So, it’s a cool thing and I definitely got involved into it and there are motivated people behind this brand—energetic with big plans, and I would like to be part of it. And I ended up becoming their partner, so I’m very, very proud to have these kind of partners. That’s the most important thing. I mean, obviously our goal is to make this brand famous, profitable, but most importantly you’re dealing with motivated guys who are going to push you and who are going to complement you and that you’re going to learn from them and they’re working super hard and are fighting for something. As an athlete, as a competitor, it means so much to be on the same page in that regard.
SLAM: What does Crosty mean?
Zaza: It’s related to the freedom, that word. So, everything.
SLAM: I know when you were on the Hawks you had other businesses you ran—a restaurant, a lounge. I assume it’s sort of like being a player—you have times you lose, you have times you win, but you learn from all that and it comes together. Does that play into your involvement with this company?
Zaza: I’ll tell you, the restaurant business is one of the best things that happened to me. I learned so much and I got so much experience, my approach to things changed. I got so much motivation to be more prepared, go into more details, look at things differently. I attended so many business classes, and that still continues. Now I get to really dig into it because there’s a lot of competition out there and patience and a lot of time. I’ve been approaching every single opportunity differently. So far, so good.
SLAM: That’s cool. Last thing, which of your former teammates do you want to get into a pair of Crosty shoes?
Zaza: The shoes fit today’s style—I’ve seen so many athletes wearing the sneakers with suits. I gifted a couple of them to my teammates either with the Warriors or with Detroit. I have been getting a lot of great feedback about it and it’s always good to hear.
Follow Lang Whitaker on Twitter @langwhitaker.
Photos via Crosty and Getty.