Kristaps Porzingis Is Learning How to Be the Hottest Athlete in New York

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Kristaps Porzingis aka Zingis Khan, the Latviathan, Porz Authority, “Three 6 Latvia,” etc. Photo: Nick Laham/2015 Getty Images

Once upon a time, before he started answering to “Godzingis,” 6-year-old Kristaps Porzingis went to his first basketball practice in Liepaja, Latvia. It was an unremarkable event, in part because his first coach thought the young boy simply looked “pale and scared.” This was more or less what Knicks fans thought 13 years later, when the team used the fourth overall pick in June’s NBA Draft — the team’s highest since 1985, when it landed Patrick Ewing — to select a skinny 19-year-old Latvian who topped out at over seven feet but was untested by the American basketball system and unknown to fans beyond some grainy YouTube footage. Carmelo Anthony was reportedly “furious,” and when the pick was announced, ESPN’s cameras caught a young boy in Knicks gear erupting in a fit of convulsive tears.  

Six months later, the Latvian is the Knicks’ leading rebounder and shot-blocker, their second-leading scorer, and the brightest beacon of hope since Jeremy Lin stormed the Garden. In his first month on the court, he could be seen driving the length of the court, spinning past a defender, and dunking; making three-pointers; and leaping over the backs of grown men everyone believed would shove him around. As a gleeful Spike Lee put it, “He’s not scared of the brothers!” Last month, after Porzingis scored a career-high 29 points against Lin’s new team, the Daily News ran a photo of a roaring Porzingis next to a forlorn Lin and declared that the city had moved on and become gripped by a new fever: “Zingsanity.” At one point, Porzingis had the second-highest-selling replica jersey behind Stephen Curry, the Golden State Warriors all-galactic star. Phil Jackson, the team’s president and resident mystic, credited the rookie’s sudden rise to a “magical element,” which seemed to manifest itself in the fact that at the draft, he measured seven-foot-one, but after a month of dominant play, he was suddenly and universally listed at seven-foot-three, like some kind of Latvian beanstalk. By early December, ESPN was promoting Knicks games not with highlights of Carmelo but with a 30-second ad consisting almost exclusively of Porzingis highlights, set to a Latvian rap song:

I notice the prettiest girl in the club

and tell her I am your destiny

But she says to me you are not so tall

like Kristaps Porzingis

The bad news about being the hottest athletic celebrity in town is that everyone suddenly wants a piece of your time — autograph signings in Westchester, food drives in New Jersey — and on the first day of December, Porzingis’s presence was expected at the ribbon-cutting of a new school gymnasium near the Queens end of the F train. The good news, however, is that everyone has to wait for you. “We’re waiting for the tall-ass white boy,” one of the school’s employees said as he milled about the gym with various dignitaries from Madison Square Garden — Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers, Swin Cash of the Liberty — which had renovated the gym through its Garden of Dreams charitable foundation.

The tall-ass white boy eventually showed up, half an hour late and wearing loose gray sweats from head to toe, like a college student back at his parents’ house, which he sort of is: Porzingis, who turned 20 in August, lives with his mom and dad in an apartment in White Plains. His first brand ambassadorship came from a mattress factory in New Jersey, which comped him a 98-inch “Athletic King” mattress that takes up most of the floor space in his bedroom. His favorite restaurant is the Cheesecake Factory, which replaced his previous favorite, TGI Fridays. “They have millions of different cheesecakes,” he says with a shrug.

Anthony arrived at the gym alongside Porzingis, wearing a STAY MELO T-shirt and Timberland boots with the laces undone and the tongue sticking out. When Porzingis was 10 — still pale, a little less scared — he braided his hair into cornrows, like the ones Anthony was then sporting in his third year in the NBA. (Porzingis’s favorite player, Kobe Bryant, has been in the NBA for all but one year of Porzingis’s life.) The cornrows were just one of many unlikely quirks Knicks fans had discovered about Porzingis — before the draft, he posted a video of himself singing “Ridin’ Dirty” while driving an Audi — and as the Garden dignitaries filed in front of a group of kids from the school, Porzingis curled his left hand into the shape of a pistol, pointed at the kids, and offered an exaggerated wink, as if he had leapt straight out of an old Western. “From the New York Knicks, we have Carmelo Anthony,” the emcee said, to applause, before adding the main attraction, “And our new star, Kristaps Porzingis!”

There was a time — February 2012, to be specific — when Anthony would have bristled at someone else being called the star of his team. No one enjoyed Linsanity less than Anthony, who seemed to view Lin’s blip of success and subsequent adulation as unearned. But, at 31, he has embraced Porzingis as a near equal on the court — “He’s gonna lead this organization long after I’m retired” — and a welcome deflection of attention off it. “Kristaps is available,” Anthony said with a smile as television cameras passed him by en route to Porzingis, who was busy submitting to one of many selfie requests. These were easier attempted than performed: Anyone who tried to take one with Porzingis tried contorting an arm in various directions in an attempt to fit him into the frame, before inevitably handing the phone to someone else who could take enough of a step back to fit both normal and giant-size humans into the shot.

Let me get KP!” Swin Cash said, pulling Porzingis away from an autograph seeker and into a photograph with Anthony and Lundqvist, all of whom left the gym before Porzingis. “KP” is the most succinct and least hyperbolic of the roughly 80 million nicknames that have been offered for Porzingis, as Knicks fans seek a pithier way to refer to him. “The one I don’t like is Zinger,” Porzingis said with a hard g that’s one of the few hitches in his lightly stilted English. Anthony insists on maintaining some level of seniority by using the abbreviated diminutive “Rook,” while Mike Francesa of WFAN told Porzingis he would like to call him “Special K.” (Porzingis didn’t like that one either.) Other suggestions include divine puns — Godzingis, Porzeesus — along with Zingis Khan, the Latviathan, and Porz Authority. He wears No. 6, and most of Brooklyn seems to prefer “Three 6 Latvia.” 

The school visit was one of Porzingis’s first trips to the outer-boroughs, or anywhere in the city, for that matter. He spends most of his non-basketball time in White Plains with his parents and two older brothers, Janis and Martin, who also live with him. “It’s a whole family business,” Porzingis said after taking a seat away from the throng. “My brothers are out there making deals for me — Janis is my agent, Martin’s my manager — and Dad is analyzing every game.” His mother handles nutrition, when he is not at Cheesecake Factory, which requires regular trips to South Brooklyn’s Russian grocery stores for Latvian products. “We eat a lot of meat,” Porzingis said. “The trainers are okay with it.” (There will soon be no more home cooking: Visa requirements are forcing his parents to return to Latvia this month.)

Even across the Atlantic, Porzingis was aware of both Linsanity’s meteoric rise and its nearly as swift dissolution. “It’s definitely different, I hope,” he said of Zingsanity. “Because hopefully I can stay here for a long time.” For now, the PorzinGod is simply relishing his new converts. Recently, the father of the tearful boy from Draft Night approached Porzingis’s brother at a game. “That kid, he’s got my jersey now,” Porzingis said. “His dad got one, too.”

*This article appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.