Even basic things like waking up and taking a shower required so much energy that it would knock the young Latvian out for 12-14 hours a day. The ability to run up and down the court was near impossible, and Porzingis withdrew from teammates because it was too difficult to even hold conversations with others.
The thoughts of your body failing are scary enough for anyone, but to add even more agony — Porzingis was in a new country, with a new language and culture. It was hard enough to explain the way he felt, much less try to describe the weakness in another language. The fatigue gripped his life. At nights he’d set his alarm with the intention of waking up early, only to nuzzle awake late in the afternoon with the bright sun overshadowing his face.
When we sat down for media day at the start of the year, Porzingis was optimistic about the upcoming season because the chance to start fresh was important for him. He was coming off a knee injury that sidelined him for 18 months, but that was far from his biggest test in life.
A deeply introspective player, Porzingis understood that his journey here actually started 10 years earlier when an undiagnosed blood disorder nearly took his life. Basketball was just a tiny piece of his story. The ability to face adversity as a teen, even more than the public realized, was really the defining moment of his life.
“It was an everyday fight because I was always exhausted and sleepy,” Porzingis said. “I would give everything I had in practice and really struggle. I was constantly tired. It took all my effort to run up and down the court, and my breathing was really heavy. I had no idea what was wrong.”
At the time, Porzingis was 15 years old, 6-foot-9 and weighed 160 pounds, and had just arrived in Sevilla, Spain, to jump-start his career. Soon the weakness simply became too much.
For six months Porzingis pushed through the fatigue that grappled his life until doctors realized he was suffering from a blood disorder called anemia. For many people, anemia can be easily managed, but for others, the disorder can cause severe consequences when the organs don’t get enough oxygen, thus forcing the body to shut down.
Porzingis said the health scare started after he changed from Latvian food to Spanish food and wasn’t eating enough. To further complicate matters, he also was a growing teenager and was working out a ton to match intense outside pressure as the next European basketball sensation.
Once doctors in Sevilla diagnosed his condition, Porzingis began treatment to monitor his iron level. And a few years later after his anemia diagnosis, Porzingis went on to win the EuroCup Basketball Rising Star award at age 18, becoming the youngest player to ever earn the award.
Still, as we sat down to talk about the upcoming season last September, Porzingis acknowledged that he still holds memories when anemia nearly threatened his basketball career. Now he can look back and realize it was all a part of the journey and it makes his NBA playoffs debut even more special.
Porzingis now understands that the medical obstacles created a resilient spirit deep inside him that has transformed him into the elite player he is today.
“It just made me realize how much I love this game and how much I missed it when I was out,” Porzingis said on Media Day. “I’m just happy to be back. I’m in a new place. A new city. A new organization. I’m ready to start a new chapter.”
FROM THE BEGINNING
To understand how Porzingis arrived to his NBA playoffs debut, we have to go back to the first chapter when he rolled into the world on August 2, 1995. Talis and Ingrida Porzingis said that Kristaps was a miracle child, arriving four years after the death of their third son, Toms, who passed away at 14 months.
“It felt like a bulldozer had run over my life,” Ingrīda shared in a 2017 E:60 documentary. “We had two other children who we had to care for. We had to live on. After Kristaps was born, it was like he had to live for two lives.”
Porzingis grew up in Liepāja, Latvia, a Nordic seaside village that is peppered with fine white sand and fascinating architecture and history. Latvia, which is about the size of West Virginia, became an independent state in 1918 and was later forcibly annexed into the Soviet Union in 1940. Then in August 1991, four years before Kristaps was born, Latvia regained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This was the era that Kristaps arrived into the world and basketball remained a family refuge, a place where the Porzingis family found joy and peace.
Kristaps, who is known as “Kris” to his close family and friends, is the son of Talis, a 6-4 former basketball player that played semi-professional hoops and later became a bus driver. Meanwhile, his mother Ingrīda (6-foot-1) was also a sensation on the basketball court and once competed on the Latvia women’s youth national basketball team and later became a coach. His older brothers, Martins and Janis, also played basketball. Martins is 6-foot-4 and Janis is 6-foot-7, respectively.
When Kristaps turned 12 years old, he would attend offseason training camps with Janis, who came back to Latvia between seasons while competing in Austria, Belgium, Sweden and Italy.
Then fate intertwined with his destiny. While playing for his hometown club team, an agent happened to catch a young KP thrashing to the hoop and sinking shots from deep.
The agent sent video that he captured to teams in Spain and Italy, and that’s how Porzingis ended up with the Baloncesto Sevilla team. This was the same team Porzingis would start to experience the symptoms of anemia, and he said he also struggled to communicate with the coaching staff to explain the challenges.
Nonetheless, Porzingis persevered and debuted for the youth squad on Jan. 4, 2012, against Barcelona, notching 12 points and 10 rebounds.
The 2013-’14 season was Porzingis’ breakout year, and he opened his second season on Sevilla’s main team in the third game and recorded 12 points, six rebounds and four blocks in a 20-point victory. That same year he was selected to the ACB All-Young Players Team.
In April 2014, Porzingis declared for the NBA draft, but later withdrew his name and returned to Europe and earned the EuroCup Rising Star award later that season.
Porzingis learned English from watching American movies at an early age and had three movies on repeat: Friday, Dinner For Schmucks, and John Wick, incidentally starring his current teammate Boban Marjanovic in John Wick 3.
“You’d watch the movie the first time and not understand anything,” Porzingis shared in a GQ interview. “Then you’d watch it again and you’d start understanding more and more, and that’s how I learned English. And I like the music, too.”
Porzingis said the adjustment to English culture was pretty easy with the exception of the American handshake that includes the handshake transitioned to the hug, back to the hand.
Porzingis went by the nickname “Zinger” in Europe (a nickname he wasn’t very fond of) until Kevin Durant gave him the “Unicorn” nickname.
“He can shoot, he can make the right plays, he can defend, he’s a 7-footer that can shoot all the way out to the 3-point line,” Durant said in early 2016. “That’s rare. And block shots—that’s like a unicorn in this league.
“When (the Knicks) made the pick, I texted (Knicks head coach Derek Fisher) immediately and said ‘I like this kid, he can play.’ A lot of people were down on him, but he can play. He’s a skilled guy and I think we’ve gotten away from enjoying skilled players in this league. We get so many players that are athletic and big and strong, but he’s a skilled player.”
Later on a Jimmy Fallon appearance, Porzingis confessed that he had no idea what the nickname the “Unicorn” meant.
“At first I was a little confused. I was like, what is this?” he laughed. “A horse with a ponytail? What does it mean? But then they explained it to me. What he tried to say was that I am a unique player. It was nice to hear him say good things about me.”
Now he fully embraces the name.
A NEW ERA
On June 25, 2015, Porzingis was selected fourth overall in the NBA draft by the New York Knicks and spent the first few years of his career there until landing with the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 31, 2019 in a blockbuster trade. At the time, the Mavericks were 4.5 games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference and team officials decided to sit Porzingis until the 2019-’20 campaign, especially since he was still recovering from anterior cruciate ligament surgery.
The decision worked, and Porzingis, along with Luka Dončić, form one of the most potent duos in the NBA and are the cornerstone pieces of the Mavs’ future. The European pair will hit the court for their NBA playoffs debut Monday night when the seventh-seeded Mavs face the second-seeded Los Angeles Clippers at 8 p.m. CT on Fox Sports Southwest.
Now in his fifth NBA season, Porzingis is versatile enough to post-up defenders, dribble and drive to the basket, or take an opponent outside of the perimeter and drain a 3-point shot. He has all of those weapons in his arsenal — and more.
“KP is a great player — just flat-out,” Mavs head coach Carlisle said. “He’s a great team player, he has high impact defensively, offensively he’s changing the game at the (center) position.”
Last Friday, Porzingis was named to the Kia NBA All-Seeding Games Second Team after he finished tied for fourth among all restart players in scoring (30.5 ppg) and tied for 10th in rebounding (9.5 rpg). He also scored at least 20 points in each of his six games in Orlando, including four 30-plus points games.
The only other time in his career that Porzingis went six consecutive games while scoring at least 20 points was from Nov. 3-15, 2017 when he was playing for the Knicks.
“It’s good to be playing at a better level than I was in the beginning of the season,” said Porzingis. “Like I said, I just needed time. I needed time and I knew with the work that I put in I was going to go like this. I never really had any doubts in my mind, but now that I‘m actually playing at a better level I’m still looking at the things that I can do better. I’m never satisfied. It’s obviously a good feeling to be recognized, but I feel like I still have a lot more growing and a lot more to prove.”
The danger Porzingis brings to the table was put on full display several times this season. That includes a 13-game stretch bridging the All-Star break when he collected a double-double in 10 of those games while averaging 26.2 points and 10 rebounds.
That dominant performance solidified the fact that the Mavs had gotten Porzingis from the Knicks in a steal.
“I think the biggest thing that we’ve learned is how he fits into how we’re going to be playing,” Carlisle said of Porzingis. “The last time he played (before this season) he was playing with the Knicks and they were either playing the Triangle offense or they were in the process of phasing out of it gradually.
“So the spacing with that is way different than how we’re playing. This season, particularly the last month-and-a-half of this season before the hiatus, we saw how he fits into a (center-out) scenario with spacing and how his skill set can affect the game in such a positive way.”
Off the court, KP continues to impact the community in various ways and this year he partnered up with the Mavs to launch #KrisStops, a new community initiative to fight childhood hunger. With every block this season, Porzingis will donate $500 to the Mavs Foundation, which will then be distributed to local organizations to help stop hunger in North Texas.
Right now the funds are at nearly $60,000 as the team enters the playoffs. Most athletes choose to end their community initiatives once the regular season is over, but the Dallas Mavericks community relations team said that Porzingis elected to raise funds throughout the playoffs, too. He’s also a dedicated youth basketball ambassador and has participated in Basketball Without Borders camps and donated youth basketball courts to the children back at home.
Porzingis’ NBA playoffs debut will be a special moment for the Latvian, along with the family who always believed that no matter the obstacles, he would always rise and be able to propel himself to this moment.
“I’m extremely excited for the opportunity to be in the playoffs for the first time in my NBA career,” Porzingis said. “I’m extremely excited about where we are as a team…(and we will) just play the hardest basketball we’ve ever played and aim as high as we can.”