Marcin Gortat on Love, Loneliness, and the Polish Struggle
[Ed. Note: Bartosz “Bart” Bielecki (@bart__92) is a 22-year-old Polish college student majoring in American Studies who loves basketball and, of course, keeps close tabs on Marcin Gortat. Today he joins TAI with his first contribution as the site’s Polish correspondent. On July 4, Polish outlet Gazeta Wyborcza.pl published an interview with Gortat by Donata Subbotko entitled “Marcin Gortat. Baluty Boy.” Bielecki provides a translation of select cuts from that interview below. —KW]
Donata Subbotko: 60 million dollars. That’s how much you are going to earn over the next five years in the Washington Wizards. Could it have been any better?
Marcin Gortat: That’s the salary range I wanted to fit in. I had the best season in my career and I tried to get as much as I could. Could it have been any better? I am 30, the age works to my disadvantage, and the situation in the NBA has stabilized recently. Practically every team has a center—an older one and a younger one. Maybe because of that, we lost a little bit in the negotiations. But still, I also wanted to continue playing in Washington, I feel good there. It’s a team which has an enormous potential, and prospects for the upcoming years. It’s all good.
The contract is ready, so what now—some vacation?
Gortat: I travel the entire season … another flight and sleeping in a hotel? I don’t see that happening. I prefer my own bed. I like staying at my house in Florida, fixing something, upgrading, learning Spanish, or washing a car out of boredom. Apart from that, I’m single now, and I don’t feel like flying anywhere just by myself.
A year ago I split up with my girlfriend after four years. I didn’t dwell too much on it, I had to focus on basketball. I knew that the contract I signed in 2009 would expire this year and all my life would depend on the new contract. OK, maybe I’ll find another girl, maybe I won’t. You can’t plan it, especially when it comes to a woman, who is supposed to be “the one.”
Is it hard to find “the one”?
Gortat: But you keep searching. I would like to have a family, build a lasting relationship with someone. But still—contrary to many Poles—I wake up willingly, do something I love, and I even get a lot of money for that. It would be stupid if I was unhappy.
What’s more: I’m a loner. Even when I used to live with my girlfriend I often wanted to be alone. Sometimes I cut myself off from my friends, too. They go together to a club or a restaurant and I stay at home, and I’m not answering any phone calls.
What do you do then?
Gortat: I look at the wall. I look at a white wall and contemplate.
Gortat: About everything. About life, where I am, where I would like to be. I analyze my doings, situations, what would be good for me, and what would not.
How does it balance?
Gortat: If it didn’t balance good, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I try not to be arrogant, but thanks to hard work, I reach the goals I set for myself. I’m being stubborn at times. Some say that I’m too stubborn.
Does this white wall help you?
Gortat: I’m not sitting and rocking in the chair, but I’m reflecting on myself, I’m unloading the unnecessary tension. For instance, when I come back after a game in which I scored 30 points… For some it may seem like I’m a superstar now, but instead, I sit in front of this white wall and bring myself down. I scored today, tomorrow it’s going to be someone else. I’m not that good to become someone else. It is not enough. Every time, I analyze what I did good and what I did wrong.
I’ve changed a lot in myself over the past few years. I was a different person once. I cared for what was written about me, or what people that I didn’t know said about me. Today it doesn’t influence my well-being. When I came to the USA in 2005, I was a young buck, who had no idea about the world. The United States, the NBA, and basketball made a man out of me.
Every year, you bring some buddies from the NBA to the Gortat Camp (a series of trainings for children). Do they like Poland?
Gortat: The presence of NBA players, not only Gortat, is huge for the kids. For my friends, too, some of them leave America for the first time in their lives, and perhaps—just as Shaquille O’Neal did—they mistake pierogi for kielbasa. In Poland they are surprised by sizes. Everything is small. In the USA, you won’t buy a small bag of potato chips, but a six-pound one. You are not buying a car with a 1.2 liter engine, but with 3.0 or 4.0 liters. Our large pizza is small for them.
Almost like in the “Gulliver’s Travels”…
Gortat: In Orlando I have a huge house, but in Lodz, a small apartment in the same block of flats that my mom lives in.
But those apartments are barely 6-foot-7 high and you are 6-foot-11.
Gortat: Somehow I manage to fit in it. It’s tight, it’s a fact, but people spend all their lives in such apartments and they don’t complain. In the summer, sometimes it is hard to endure the heat. I could buy myself a palace, but I prefer those two rooms in the block of flats in which I was raised. When I come back here I feel humility.
Poland has a different mentality, too. I can see it now. A large part of our nation are haters, jealous people, anonymously-writing Internet morons. In America there is not so much hatred. If I was so full of hatred in the States, saying that this guy plays bad, that guy missed shots, why am I not playing, then people would tell me: so make it happen that you play like that, that you make shots. I had to get rid of this trait myself.
We’ve got people in our country that come home from work and they’re resentful that they have to go to work again the very next morning. They feel grief and jealousy that somebody has something, that someone has accomplished something. There are a lot of people in Poland that speak their minds out on topics that they have no idea about. If someone looked through the articles about me, they wouldn’t believe that I still play ball. How many mistakes I made, how unprepared I was, how weak and untalented I was… Today I’m playing in the best league in the world and I’ve just signed a big contract. Sometimes journalists ask me what my goal is. I reply that it’s to be the best and win as many games as possible. Then, when I struggle, they write, ‘Who is he? Is he nuts?’ What should I say then? That I came to lose all the games with the National Team?
Similar dilemmas to those of Jerzy Janowicz, but he doesn’t even want to talk anymore. (Jerzy Janowicz is a Polish professional tennis player who lashed out at the media after his team go knocked out of the Davis Cup in early-July.)
Gortat: I agree with him. At his famous press conference, he said how it really was. In Poland people only have expectations and resentment towards sportsmen.
The only problem is that Jerzy shouldn’t have said it aloud. It is not profitable. Maybe he exaggerated that he had been practicing in sheds, but in fact, that was the point. Most of us used to work very hard in unpleasant circumstances. I used to practice in gyms where there was snow falling on the floor through the windows. And I heard, “Take away this piece of wood!” That’s what they called me (a piece of wood). Today I don’t care what people say about me. What’s more, I’m at this stage when no article can change my life. I don’t have to give any interviews. There is neither such a journalist in Poland, nor a TV program, that could destroy what I have accomplished.
But what do you feel in regard to this? Bitterness?
Gortat: I feel that nothing can break my hard work and devotion.
I wear a “Polish Machine” wristband. I like this nickname of mine, because it reminds me why I was called this way, where I am, and where I could have been. It reminds me of the hardest days of my life, when I trained so hard I was in such a pain that I couldn’t sit down. Even if I wrote a book on how much I had been through, nobody would understand that.
I come from a family which might not have been poor, but it was not rich. I didn’t grow up in some cozy place, but in Baluty, a district where a lot of things were going on. Many of my friends fell by the wayside—drinking or street fighting.
You have a tattoo of your father in boxing gloves on your heart. The caption says “Munich 1972” and “Montreal 1976.” Janusz Gortat won Olympic medals there. Was he a role model?
Gortat: He was, and still is a recognizable person. I wanted to maintain the respect for the name. He worked very hard, I wanted to continue that work, and, like my father, be a well-perceived person, who gives something back to the people.
I was raised by my mother, Alicja Gortat. She used to play volleyball for Polish National Team. Dad lived in Warsaw while me, my mother, and my brother lived in Lodz. Despite that, my father took care of me, he used to take me to the boxing camps. I suppose he thought I would fight, but I wasn’t good with it. I preferred soccer, and he didn’t insist. He taught me perseverance. He was strict. Mom was, too, because of her job. She was a P.E. teacher. Obviously she had to deal with hundreds of students every day, and there I was, another student waiting at home.
When I suddenly grew up, I wasn’t afraid of my height, but more of the fact that I was skinny and fragile. I had to fix this, so I started going to the gym. When I was 17, I switched from soccer to basketball, and a year later I left Poland to play with a German team. In 2005, after less than three years of practicing basketball, I made it to the NBA.
Easier said than done. It wasn’t an American Dream, though. You had to make something out of this “piece of wood,” as you were called.
Gortat: All that people see is that I’m rich. But I was toiling while everyone else was partying. Should I feel guilty that I’m rich? They say I lost my mind because I buy big, expensive cars. What cars should I buy? I’m 6-foot-11, I need a big, safe car with seats for three or more people. When I go to an event, where NBA players are meeting, one guy arrives in a Ferrari, another one in a Maserati, and I’m supposed to arrive in a Kia or an Opel?! And get out of the car in a suit worth half as much as this car? It’s a different world. That’s just how life is, I’m sorry.
In Poland people say I’m nuts. When somebody earns two thousand dollars and changes his job to earn three thousand, would you say he’s nuts? Everyone wants to improve their standard of living. That includes me. I also work hard to earn money. I help myself but also the others. I’ve got dreams and make them come true. Is it wrong?
Gortat: I paid a big toll for where I am.
Some friends from my neighborhood will just sit in bars drinking beers. Every time I come home after a workout, I go straight to bed, and my knees, ankles, also my spine hurt in the morning. They might become gentlemen with beer bellies, because they don’t take care of themselves, and me? I’ll probably have to workout every morning for 15-to-30 minutes when I am 35, so that my muscles and bones would work at all. My body is already so damaged … and at the end of the day I’m still gonna be kicked in the ass just for playing basketball and being successful. That’s the country we live in.
Why do I have receding hair and I am almost bald? Because I live in an extreme stress. Imagine that you go to a party, next morning you’re hungover, and you’re struggling at the practice. For now, the coach would only frown upon you. You play a bad game, you lose your rhythm—the coach would say, “Look, I don’t like this.” The pressure appears. You have to play better, because there are three teammates and thousands of kids outside the NBA waiting to take your spot. You play another bad game, you’re out of the starting lineup, and after a year you get released from the team and become unemployed.
Today, maybe 12 out of 450 NBA players are averaging a double-double. I’m not, but I was very close this season—I averaged 13 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
Your season highs were 31 points and 16 rebounds in a playoff game against the Indiana Pacers. Shaquille O’Neal was shouting “Barbecued Pierogi Alert!” during the TNT broadcast when you were shown scoring.
Gortat: But most of my games were on a 10-10 level. When I play like that now, people say that I played a bad or an average game. People expect 20 points in a game from me now. That’s the stress in the NBA. I saw guys that couldn’t handle it.
What happens on the court is reflected in the personal life. Eight out of ten relationships in the NBA fall apart. Try to find a woman who will like you, love you, just for who you are—one who is not a gold digger. Go to a club and talk to a girl. Talk with her casually, while not being a usual, anonymous guy, that has a normal life…
So do you have a better or a worse than normal life?
Gortat: I think that if you were earning millions of dollars a year, you wouldn’t ask yourself this question. That’s my job. I really like it, though this life, while giving me a lot also takes something away from me at the same time.
How do you find the balance?
Gortat: It’s important to surround yourself with the right people. The ones that I surround myself with make me feel safe, either when it comes to my personal life or the things related with my foundation. Apart from that, I had some good mentors, coaches, and older teammates who taught me what to focus on, what not to care about, how to de-stress… How? I simply play a video game or watch a TV series—”Spartacus,” “Game of Thrones,” “Falling Skies,” “The Walking Dead.” Sometimes I just go and have a drink with my friends or I go to a shooting range. I’m a huge fan of the army. I own eight guns myself.
But sometimes I sit in front of this white wall and think. Or in front of the aquarium. I own a big one, with lionfish. I might buy sharks, too. I’m not interested in guppies. I prefer aggressive predators, probably because of basketball. It’s sometimes brutal on the court. I had to learn that, too. You have to spark the aggression in yourself before the game.
You have your ways to do so?
Gortat: I think of where I would be if I wasn’t a basketball player. Imagine that on the other side there is someone who wants to take it all away from you—fight for what’s yours!
And when you struggle anyway?
Gortat: Then I torture myself. I punish myself, but maybe because of that, I am who I am.
Because of what? What kind of torture is that?
Gortat: I train until I fall.
I feel like I need it, because in a situation in which I should have done good, I did bad, I made a bad play, I said something wrong… Even though I had such a situation in my life before, and I knew what I should have done, I made a mistake.
You can’t make a mistake twice?
Gortat: No. When you burn yourself, because you touched something hot, do you touch it again? No. When a man hurts you, do you come back to him? No.
It’s that simple?
Gortat: If somebody treated you like shit at work, would you go there again, or would you change the job?
Gortat: That’s the way I look at some things. If I make a mistake that I shouldn’t have made, I punish myself.
But there are days when, for instance, I just go to a car dealer and choose a car. It clears my mind a little bit, but generally I’m not too good to myself.
What did you lose, because of this way of living?
Gortat: Some of my friends. The money separated us. But I’m alright. I like going back to my roots, to what things used to be like. When I started practicing basketball I used to take the public transport to get to the gym. Recently I took a bus with Piotr Gruszka* in Sopot. We purposely took a longer route, and I had a beer with him somewhere on a bench. They immediately took a picture of us. Wouldn’t it be better to show in a newspaper that Gruszka organizes volleyball competitions or that he helped Marcin Gortat with basketball camps? Maybe some parent would read that and bring his kid to the camp.
* Piotr Gruszka, one of the best Polish volleyball players in history, is now retired. He is the record holder for the most appearances in Polish National Team.You visit soldiers on missions. Why are you so fond of the army?
Gortat: My dad, apart from being a famous boxer, was also a captain in the army. I look up to people in uniforms, not only soldiers. I like the respect for the uniformed services in the American culture. Our culture misses it. People don’t have the awareness that, in Afghanistan, the Polish contingent builds roads, schools, civilization. They teach the Afghan army how to maintain the peace. It’s a laborious job which takes years. What do they get for this? A fellow countryman sits on a couch with a beer in his hand and only criticizes them. Man, if it wasn’t for the soldiers, you wouldn’t sit on your couch but you would be in a quarry—not in Poland, because we would be some other country.
You don’t have to agree with me. I don’t even care if you do. Maybe if I become a politician one day, I will care. Then I will start by founding a new political party that I could identify myself with.
Gortat: Even If I become a politician, I would do it to change Poland for the better, not to make money out of it. There is no bigger money in politics, or anywhere else, than the money I made out of sport. Certainly I’ll prepare myself better than our sportsmen running in the elections to the European Parliament. Anyway, in two or three years everything may change. Who knows, maybe the children that I hope I’ll have will change my perception of the world.
Recently a racist scandal broke out in the NBA. Donald Sterling, the owner of the Clippers, said he didn’t want black people at his games.
Gortat: There is no such thing in the Wizards. If there are some comments, they’re only caused by the on-court anger. They sometimes call me “white boy” on the court, and I fight back. There is no racism on a daily basis in the NBA, the league is too diverse for that to happen. We already have a player in the NBA that publicly admitted to being gay—Jason Collins, from the Brooklyn Nets. Are we really going to discuss racism now?
How was it perceived?
Gortat: Next question.
What about Polish pride? I can see that you wear a “Polish Pride” wristband.
Gortat: Whatever happens, till the end of my life, I’ll always say that I’m a Pole. I’m from Lodz, I’m from Baluty. Baluty boy.
I signed a big contract, so I will help the people from my country, city, district. If a Polish National team plays somewhere in the States, I’ll be there, even if it’s some water dancing.
If they are showing the movie “Walesa” in Washington, I’ll be there to pay homage to the man who played such a huge role for our country. I met President Walesa multiple times, I really like him. He always makes fun of me. He calls me “Mr. Star,” and I’m telling him, “I’m Marcin,” but he just does his own thing and laughs.
Despite all the faults, Poles are people with a strong character. It doesn’t matter how the national soccer team plays, the stadium is going to be sold out. The love they are getting is something to be jealous of. We are also known for beautiful women, and perseverance. I’m convinced that if some country assaulted us today, we would persevere. I like that family is respected in Poland. That’s our advantage over the other countries. Not to mention schabowy, mielone, kielbasa or pierogi*.
* Traditional polish dishes.