Five seasons in, Timofey Mozgov is fresh off a breakout tilt with the Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers. On the day the Cavs picked up his team option extension and just a handful of hours before catching a plane back to his native Russia, the center stopped by our Draft Suite to talk about how his upbringing in St. Petersburg led him to this point.
SLAM: How does a kid from St. Petersburg end up choosing basketball?
Timofey Mozgov: The first time I picked up a ball, I was, like, 9. How it happened is funny and long. Do you have enough pages?
SLAM: We’ll make it fit, bro.
TM: Good. So I was in fourth grade. Just to let you understand, sports works a bit different in Russia. Like, in the US, every school has a team. Over there, schools don’t have teams, but they have special schools. So I was in fourth grade in the middle of the class and some ladies come in and ask, “Uh guys, you have some tall dudes?” I was taller than everybody but shy, so I stayed quiet. But then my friends and everybody was like, “This dude is tall! This dude here!” And the lady said, “Can we get you for a second?” I said OK, so I go out and she asked me to jump, sprint and whatever. I do all this stuff and then she says, “You know what? We got a basketball school and we want you to join.” They took my number and I forgot about it. Two weeks later, my dad says, “Why didn’t you tell me they wanted you to play basketball?” I said I just forgot. He said, “OK, pick up your shoes, we go to this school.” That was the first time I picked up a ball. Funny, right?
SLAM: Yeah. How long until you decided you wanted to play seriously?
TM: When I was like 20. I wasn’t a good player. Even for a Russian, they say. I said, This is the time, if I don’t go forward now and at least be good for the national team [then] there’s no way I’m going to be a good basketball player and make a good life, or whatever you call it. For me, it was like, Now, if you don’t go forward, you’re going to [have] a hard time because you have no degree and you’re not a good player. So you have to do something. Then we got a new coach and he let me play a lot of minutes. Then I went to the national team, then the NBA scouts probably saw me in the European championships.
SLAM: What was your first sport?
TM: Everybody plays soccer overseas, in Europe. Soccer is big, and it’s easy. All you need is a ball. After school, you can just put two bag packs and play.
SLAM: What position did you play?
TM: Oh, I don’t know because I was worse. You know, I still can’t even catch the ball. [Laughs] I’m working on it though, trust me guys.
SLAM: We read somewhere that you used to play basketball in the snow.
TM: It’s true. Me and my guys would mix American football and basketball together. We would run though the snow and push each other and shoot. No dribbling. It was so fun, just push each other in the snow and score.
SLAM: What’s been the biggest adjustment coming from Russia?
TM: Here, people do business first and sometimes they end up [having] a good relationship, but everyone understands it is business. The problem for Russians, I think, people understand it is business but not everybody. Somebody will keep trusting in a relationship but when time to split money comes, they don’t understand. “Now you say this, you said that!” Here, they know business and they know [what’s] friends and good relationships. Here it’s OK, there [it’s like] you are betrayed.
SLAM: Any potential vodka endorsements in Russia after the hilarious Brew Garden spot?
TM: Not yet. But you gotta understand that was my first commercial! By the way, I think it worked because it went everywhere. But now I have experience. People [back home] were like, “What the [pauses] was that?” It was my first time—don’t be so mean, you know?
Franklyn Calle is an Assistant Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @FrankieC7.