When I was growing up in Latvia, my older brothers, Janis and Martins, had a nickname for me.
It wasn’t Porzee.
It wasn’t KP.
It was pastarītis.
Pastarītis is an old Latvian slang term meaning “youngest child in the family,” but the way my brothers used it, it meant aloof. They would say it all the time.
When I’d mess up or something, they’d yell, “Yo, pastarītis!”
I’d be like, “No, I’m not pastarītis!” I guess they would call me that because on the court, I would live in the moment — I’m just playing basketball. I’m not thinking about much else. I’m not really overthinking every outcome and every scenario. To my brothers, maybe, it would appear that I wasn’t really paying attention to what was going on around me. In tough situations, maybe a normal kid would be like Man, I don’t know if I can do this. I was like, F*** it. I’m going to do it.
I keep things simple.
My brothers and I love to compete, which is how the infamous cornrows came about. When I was like 10 years old, we had a bet about who would cut their hair first. I was the youngest, and like I said, I had no idea what was going on, so my hair just grew out and got long — fast.
I won the bet.
Like, I didn’t really win anything, but we had made the stupid bet, so I just had this long hair. At that point, I was watching Iverson and Melo in the NBA, and I told my brothers, “I wanna do cornrows!”
And they were like, “O.K., cool. We’re gonna get you cornrows.”
They took me to a barber shop and we put the braids in. I wore those cornrows for like, a year straight. I wouldn’t go to school if I didn’t have them braided perfect, because nobody saw me with regular hair.
But one day, I took the cornrows out. I went to school with straight hair, and, well….
Let’s just say that, looking back, I should have not gone to school with the cornrows out.
Even to this day, my brothers stay on me. I’ve always been confident, and Martins is always like, “Look at yourself, how can you be confident? You look like s***!”
I tell him, “I’m confident because I’m pastarītis. Remember?”
I grew up by myself, for the most part. I came to Spain to play for CB Sevilla when I was 15. Considering I’m so close to my family, being away from them and living in a country where I didn’t speak the language was hard. Early in my first season, I’ll never forget when my coach, Carlos Romero, asked me this:
“What’s wrong with you?”
I didn’t have an answer.
Being so young in Spain was hard. I was homesick and I didn’t speak Spanish well. But on this morning I was feeling particularly unwell. I was always the first person at the gym, but that morning I was feeling off. To be honest, I’d been feeling off for some time.
My coach said, “You’ve been with the team for three months, you should be in good shape by now.”
And I was thinking, Man, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I was going hard, but I couldn’t keep up with my teammates. I just had no answers for what was happening.
We hit the Christmas break, I went home to Latvia, and I remember walking through the airport, hearing people speaking Latvian again. I was like, Oh my God. This is so good. This is like heaven.
I wanted to be home for as long as possible. I was back home for two or three weeks, and it was the best. I was back with family. In Spain I was by myself, save for the times my family would come down and take care of me.
The first two days after I got back to Spain I was like, I wanna go home. I don’t want to be here. I packed up all my stuff. I remember smelling the clothes that my mom had washed when I was home, and I was like, Oh my God, it smells like home … my mom’s laundry. I wanna be back in Latvia so bad.
I thought about it nonstop for a couple of days. My bag was packed on my bed, waiting.
But then I started practicing again with the team.
And I thought, You know what? I’m good. Basketball takes me out of everything. I stopped thinking about anything but basketball.
When I started playing again, the team doctors started to give me vitamins, and I was like, again with the vitamins?! I had already been taking all sorts of stuff when I started feeling sick, and I didn’t have faith that they would work now.
So one week goes by. I’m already starting to feel better. Two weeks, three weeks. And I’m like, Yes! This is how I’m supposed to feel. I could run way more. I wasn’t sleepy in the morning. I’m actually feeling good!
Strangely enough, the team didn’t tell me immediately what was wrong with me. After a few weeks, they told me that I had been suffering from anemia.
When I finally started getting treatment, I was like 6’8” and like 71 kilos (155 lbs.). I was a skeleton. Before the next season started, I was up to about 85 kilos (190 lbs.). I felt really strong and good, and my game took off.
Now looking back at it, it’s interesting to think about all the stuff I went through and that I did. I’m still here, I’m alive. I’ve put in the work. And now I’m good. Five years ago, I could not run down the court at practice without wanting to go to sleep. Now, I’m on the New York Knicks.
When I first came to New York, this exchange happened 100 times a day:
“Whoa, you’re tall! Do you play basketball?”
“Wow! Who do you play for?”
[Sighs] “The Knicks.”
“Dude, you play for the Knicks! Can I get a picture?”
It took some time to get used to it. Now I like the attention. People recognize me more. But sometimes somebody still walks up to me and says “You know, you should try and make some money playing basketball!”
I had a few monster games last season, but one of my favorite moments from my rookie year was on a play that didn’t count. It came straight out of my dreams.
Watching highlights growing up, game-winning shots to me always felt like the ultimate. Especially the last-second game-winner when the ball is still in the air as the clock goes off, and the ball just whooshes through the net.
You know that feeling when you’re not quite asleep, but you’re not quite awake either? I vividly remember being in that state when I was a kid, and half dreaming about about someone passing me the ball. I’d flinch as if I were really catching it before the last-second shot to win.
So, we were in Charlotte. I caught the ball with 0.6 seconds left, faded away and let it fly. It was a game winner! I was celebrating, going crazy. My teammates were hugging me, Melo was laughing. Dream come true.…
But it wasn’t.
It was one moment too slow. The refs confirmed it on replay. We didn’t win the game — although, in that moment, it felt like we did — it was important for me to prove that I could shoot those kinds of shots. My teammates know I’m not afraid of those moments. That’s one important thing that I showed.
I’m ready to show more in year two. I am only 80 overall in NBA 2K, so I need to improve.
In terms of personal goals, I can’t predict what I’m going to do. There are goals for myself and goals for my team. I believe that we have to make the playoffs, and that’s my focus. Just gonna put this out there, though: One day I’d like to get a quadruple double, points, assists, rebounds and blocks. Melo got close to a few triple doubles last year — as the wing player in our offense, he’s in a good position to do set everyone up — so I know it’s possible in our system. Ten blocks, though … I don’t know.
My first year in New York City was full of a lot of cool moments. I met Pirlo, David Villa, Dirk Nowitzki.
You want the best one, though? I’ll tell you.
We were playing the Lakers in the second half of the season. Kobe came up to me after the game, and he said, “You have a bright future ahead of you.”
That blew my mind. Kobe’s my idol. It was an honor!
With stuff like that, I have to admit, I catch myself sometimes thinking too much these days.
Should I have done this better? Should I have made this play differently?
But then I remember — Keep it simple, like you always have. That’s just my way of living.
I’m young. I’m having fun. Who’d have thought a kid from Latvia would be making noise in New York?
I’m not saving the world. I’m just playing basketball.
Keep it simple.