NBA giant Kristaps Porzingis: Head in the clouds; feet on the ground

Kristaps Porzingis talks basketball, life in America
Kristaps Porzingis talks basketball, life in America

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Kristaps Porzingis talks basketball, life in America 04:07

Story highlights

  • Kristaps Porzingis impressing for Knicks
  • NBA rookie overcomes early critics
  • Brought his family over from Latvia
  • Wins praise from Shaquille O'Neal

(CNN)He had dreamed of this moment for as long as he could remember. As the clamors of the assembled crowd fell to an expectant hush, one young man's life was about to be changed forever.

"With the fourth pick of the 2015 NBA draft, the New York Knicks select ... Kristaps Porzingis."
But there was no ovation -- the breathless silence was quickly broken with despairing cries of frustration and a chorus of boos. Knicks fans eager for a big-name player had instead been presented with an unproven European teen -- and in true New York fashion, they didn't hold back.
In a clip that would soon go viral, one youngster even broke down in tears.
This was not the man they'd hoped for.
Porzingis, though, was ready and waiting for the jeers -- an early indication that he was mature beyond his years for the rigors of NBA life.
"I was kind of preparing myself for that," Porzingis told CNN.
"There were boos but I was just enjoying the moment with my family; I didn't really think about (it) that much at that point."
It took just one game to win over Madison Square Garden. On his NBA debut, three months after his 20th birthday, he scored 16 points, guiding the new-look Knicks to victory in their season-opener against the Milwaukee Bucks on October 28.
And he hasn't let up. In November, Porzingis helped himself to 29 points and 11 rebounds in a 102-94 win against the Charlotte Hornets -- the best performance by a Knicks rookie in 30 years.
Nearly halfway through his debut campaign, the "Kirstaps Porzingis" chant has become a home game ritual, while the Latvian has garnered Rookie of the Year attention.

Family Life

From the Latvian coast to the Big Apple, it was never going to be an easy ride.
A rookie's rise to the top table is fraught with potential pitfalls, from the seemingly endless trappings of fame to the risks of being an identifiable wealthy athlete in the big city.
Just last month, fellow Knicks player Cleanthony Early, 24, was shot and robbed as he left a Queens strip club in the early hours of the morning. A week earlier, teammate Derrick Williams reportedly had up to $750,000 of jewelery stolen from his New York apartment.
"You're a target when you're famous," Porzingis admits. "You just have to be really careful and try to avoid those situations as much as you can. You're never fully protected but it is what it is."
Taken under the wing of a close-knit family unit, Porzingis has tempered the glare of a considerable spotlight.
"For me, having family around is fundamental," he says. "I think the attention you get as an NBA player can be overwhelming."
The Porzingis family lives under a single roof in White Plains, Westchester county -- a leafy city suburb far removed from the bright lights of Manhattan.
And although Kristaps has traded the Latvian court for the world's biggest stage, brother Janis (a former European pro) remains his mentor and agent. "Those were the footsteps I wanted to follow," Porzingis says.
The 7-foot 3-inch center with the sweet outside shot counts "getting up early in the morning to watch the Lakers" among his earliest NBA memories, and he's starry-eyed as he recalls the exploits of Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant -- but there is no doubt brothers Janis and Martins are his true heroes. "They've always been the support I needed," he says.
Kristaps Porzingis meets with Commissioner Adam Silver after being selected fourth overall by the New York Knicks in the First Round of the 2015 NBA Draft.

Mixed Emotions

Reflecting back upon that fateful night of boos and new beginnings, Porzingis describes "a lot of mixed emotions."
"You want to enjoy the moment, but it's nerve-wracking ... preparing yourself for the worst," he recalls.
Fortunately, he was not alone. It's certainly telling that Porzingis remembers draft night above all as a "beautiful moment for me and my family". Indeed, it is increasingly clear that he rarely considers himself without recourse to those around him.
"I think the rest of the rookies are suffering a little more than I am," says Porzingis, whose mother cooks him staple Latvian dishes after practice. "(My teammates) see how mature I am on and off the court, and they respect that."
Four-time NBA champion Shaquille O'Neal, a former No. 1 draft pick, has been impressed by the rookie.
"I like the fact that he's stepped up," says the former Lakers star.
"For a lot of guys on draft night when you get booed, that can be a downer. You can come into training camp down on yourself, doubting yourself, but he stuck with it.
"He's only going to better his game."
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver -- the man who announced Porzingis' fate last June -- says the youngster is "all business on the court."
"He works hard, he eats well, he gets good sleep," Silver says.
But Porzingis' sheltered life may not last forever. He's already rubbing shoulders with the likes of Entourage actor Jerry Ferrara, comedian Tracy Morgan and director Spike Lee -- all big fans who once had their doubts about him.
Far more impressive, however, is the fact that Porzingis has won over his most unlikely fan. That kid who cried on draft night? Well, guess whose jersey he wears at the Garden now?