NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Wednesday, November 18, 2015, 3:00 PM
To watch a Knicks game in Latvia is not so difficult these days because of the Internet, so long as somebody is inclined to wake up at 3 a.m. – or never go to sleep. According to Armands Tripans, a reporter for Latvian television, the latter has been a popular choice lately in his home country, with a prideful emphasis on Wednesday’s game because of its timing.
It was already the early morning of Latvian Independence Day, Nov. 18, when Kristaps Porzingis was torching the Hornets for 29 points and furthering his savior status at the Garden. So while the phenomena was growing amidst chants at the Garden, in Latvia, over 4,000 miles away, he was kicking off a celebration.
“It bumps up our pride as a nation. He’s Latvian pride,” Tripans said. “And we have only two times in four years when we have pride – when we have the Olympics, and when we have our big song festival when we sing our native songs.”
Olympics. Latvian Song and Dance Festival. Kristaps Porzingis.
“It’s huge. If we compare right now, he’s number one (in popularity for all our athletes),” Tripans added. “Not in basketball, but all sports combined. He’s the top athlete in Latvia and he’s just (20 years old).”
Daris Delins, the Honorary Consul of Latvia in New York, called Porzingis’ scoring outburst on the eve of Latvian Independence Day a “great birthday present for us.” And next month when hosting members of the National Guard who’ll be traveling to Latvia, Delins decided his cultural tour will include the U.N. and a Knicks game against the TWolves on Dec. 16.
“They want to learn about Latvian culture,” he said, “so I’m taking them to see a well-known Latvian basketball player.”
If the NHL is any indication, there are perks to being popular in Latvia. Zemgus Girgensons, a solid-yet-unspectacular center on the Buffalo Sabres nicknamed “The Latvian Locomotive,” was the top vote-getter for the All-Star game by a wide margin. According to Brian Jennings, the NHL’s chief marketing officer who spoke to the New York Times about this last year, Girgensons’ skewed tally was because of “the big amount of fans that are coming from Latvia and getting their vote out.” It was quite an accomplishment for a country with only two million people, and brings up a scenario where Porzingis is starting as a rookie for the Eastern Conference All-Stars.
There have already instances of overseas countries over an NBA All-Star ballot, like when Yao Ming was voted as a starter for the eighth time despite missing the season with an ankle injury. Latvia is a lot smaller than China, but since there are multiple platforms to cast votes and few limits, all it takes is commitment.
Kristaps Porzingis stretches out for rebound against the Hornets.
“They probably will be voting for me in Latvia, but I want to really deserve it,” Porzingis told the Daily News. “Not just because a country is behind me, I really want to deserve it if I get voted one day.”
Porzingis hasn’t been back to Latvia since August, not long after he was drafted by the Knicks. Social media has provided Porzingis hints about how his popularity has grown in his home country, but he’s unsure about the reaction from a culture more introverted on the streets.
“Me being a big thing was kind of a big thing that happened in Latvia so people started to recognize me,” he said. “But people in Latvia are different. They’re not as open, they’re more shy to come up to you and ask to take pictures. So it’s different. So people are going to start to recognize me more.
“It’s definitely going to be bigger when I come back.”
Based on Tripans’ account, Porzingis is being modest. He said the people have an appreciation of where Porzingis has come from as the son of a bus driver with a deep connection to his family, “the mirror of Latvian people.”
Scott Roth, who coached Porzingis as pro in Spain last year, agreed that family was a driving force in Porzingis’ career. The youngest of three boys now stays in New York with his brother, Janis, whose journeyman basketball career never left Europe.
“I think deep down he plays for his mom and dad, and both brothers,” Roth said. “He feels a great obligation to them for their sacrifices and wanting to give back to them.”
In doing so, Porzingis is also giving back to his country. And maybe they’ll reciprocate with All-Star votes – even if he’d prefer to build up a deserving resume first.