I never hid the fact that I was a big fan of Darius Songaila when he was with the Wizards. I wouldn’t call it a man-crush, as Mike Miller once professed (via Twitter) for LeBron James, but let’s just say that I really hated to see Songaila go as part of the Mike Miller-Randy Foye/Etan Thomas-Oleksiy Pecherov-5th Pick (Ricky Rubio) trade with Minnesota this past summer.
Darius is an under-appreciated basketball player, and unfortunately, was under-appreciated by many Wizards fans. Not sure how people could not like a big man who set hard screens, displayed fundamentals that should make JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche jealous, hit outside jumpers, and who did pretty much anything asked without question.
Are injuries abundant and you need Darius to guard, say, Dwight Howard? No problem coach. Caron Butler also loved him some Darius Songaila … whatever that means at this point.
Thank god Songaila didn’t get stuck in Minnesota. A couple of months after acquiring him, the Timberwolves sent Songaila and Bobby Brown to New Orleans for Darius’ former teammate, Antonio Daniels, and a 2014 second round pick. New Orleans, an already financially strapped team, obviously thought highly enough of Songaila to acquire his extra year of contract ($4.8 million in 2010-11) for the expiring contract of Daniels. New Orleans also had a need for front-court depth.
Songaila recently sprained his ankle and is slated for be out for around two weeks. But before that, he was averaging 7.2 points, 49.7 FG% and 3.0 rebounds in 18.7 minutes per game on the season. Songaila was even becoming a more valuable player off the bench for the Hornets, his minutes per game climbing from 16.1 in November to 18.0 in December to 20.1 in January to 25.0 in seven February games.
When New Orleans came to town on January 10, I sat down with Songaila for an exclusive chat before the game. Bare with me as I’m still brushing up on my interview skills and coming up with good questions to ask (i.e., I wish I asked Songaila if Gilbert Arenas ever pulled any pranks on him, such as pooping in his shoe a la Andray Blatche — although, I’m pretty sure that, while Songaila may seem like a choir boy, the Lithuanian Brawler would not have stood for any of Arenas’ antics). In any case, he was very gracious in taking time to sit down and answer any question I had … to the best of his ability.
How is your homecoming to D.C.?
“It’s good to see everybody, just to bring out some memories of how things were.”
Any particular fond memories of your time in D.C.?
“This was the longest stay for me, three years … guys on the team, we really got along great. We loved the city, my family lived in Georgetown and we loved where we lived … great memories. Last year put a damper on things, the two years before that we made the playoffs. But things change … so what are you going to do?”
Who on the team do you keep in touch with the most?
“Couple guys … Brendan, Antawn”
What was your reaction when you got traded from D.C., were you shocked?
“When I got traded, I didn’t even find out until a week afterward. But yea, it was kind of a shock at first. But it was during the summer, so I had time to sit down and think about it and cool down. And it all worked out in the end.”
Reports came out that the team would have rather send DeShawn Stevenson to Minnesota instead of you.
“You know, whatever the reports were, you can’t believe everything that’s said. Whatever happened happened, and it all worked out.”
Have you gotten a chance to do anything in D.C. on your trip back?
“I lived in Georgetown, went to eat last night, walked around a little bit and then went back to the hotel. It’s an early game, so …”
How are you liking New Orleans?
“The food is unbelievable … good and bad I guess [as in bad for you]. But it’s been great so far.”
What about this latest stuff with the team, Abe Pollin’s passing, the Gilbert Arenas situation. What was your reaction when hearing some of this stuff?
“Abe passing away is a shame because he was a great owner for the three years I was here. And I was fortunate enough for him to still be alive. All of the other stuff, it’s really not my business. Whatever happens, it’s going to be handled internally with the team so I don’t want any part of that.”
Still, were you pretty surprised?
“Yea, things like that always get you surprised.”
A lot of things seem blown out of proportion …
“It always gets blown out of proportion with the media, you know? I’m sure there is a different story behind all that, but only they know the truth.”
What was your memory when you first met Mr. Pollin and what kind of impression did you have of him?
“I flew in from Lithuania into D.C., with my wife. We came in to sign the contract and met Abe. He was a super nice guy. It seemed like he knew everything I was doing. He knew what I was good at. He wasn’t just the guy signing me to a team. He knew what I liked to do, what my tendencies were. It was kind of a surprise that an owner, the way he was, that he knew all the little details. He knew everything and was pretty sharp. It was a pleasant surprise.”
What about this current team … it looks like they are going to have to be broken up. Any thoughts?
“It’s tough … those decisions. I was on a team like that once before in Sacramento*. We had two seasons with 55, 56 wins, but obviously the goal was the championship and we didn’t get it done, so it started getting broken up … trading C-Webb … and people started leaving. So, I think that’s what [the Wizards] are probably going to go through. You had the nucleus of the team for so long, and the team was good in the past. But the last couple of years it just wasn’t working. So, GMs and owners gotta do what they gotta do.”
Getting to the team’s defense, Roger Mason Jr., after he left D.C. and got to San Antonio, had a quote about playing defense and about finding out how serious the Spurs were about it in contrast to the Wizards — (the exact Mason quote, via Rashad Mobley of Hoops Addict: “I can’t say that I really was the most experienced defender when I left Washington, I did the best I thought I could do. But when I got in this system [with the Spurs] that first year really stripped me of a lot of my bad habits, and I’ve learned how to compete defensively.”) — do you think you guys took defense seriously enough here? What was seemingly the issue?
“I mean, I can’t tell you this year …”
Specifically speaking about the past …
“Yea, the first couple of years we obviously were a playoff team and brought in a defense coach (Randy Ayers, who was hired in July 2007), so we worked on it extra. But last year, the whole people getting hurt thing, the season was kinda over for us a couple months in. That kinda changed the whole approach to the game. But they were working on it, we were working on it. We tried a few new things, but sometimes things don’t work out. But the team, guys had great talent and a high-powered offensive team. Sometimes defense is about those hustle and energy areas.”
You have one more year left on your contract, and I know it’s way in advance, but any thoughts on your career now?
“I haven’t really thought about it. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
*NOTE: In Songaila’s rookie year, ’03-04, the Kings finished 2nd in the Pacific Division with a 55-27 record. They beat the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2004 playoffs as a #4 seed, but lost to Flip Saunders and the #1 seed Minnesota Timberwolves in the second round.
In ’04-05 the Kings finished 50-32 and 2nd in the Pacific. They traded Chris Webber, along with Matt Barnes and Michael Bradley, to the Philadelphia 76ers for Brian Skinner, Kenny Thomas and Corliss Williamson on February 23, 2005. The Kings finished the season 16-12 and made the playoffs as a #6 seed, but lost to the #3 seed Seattle Supersonics in the first round. The following September, Songaila signed with the Chicago Bulls as a free-agent.
ALSO: If you want to know why Songaila is called the White Knight, and who gave him that nickname, click here.