7-Foot-5 Siberian Shooting for NBAJun 20, 2003
The Moscow Times
By Carl Schreck
On the list of basketball hotbeds, the Siberian town Pashino ranks well below New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
But this military town of 35,000 people has produced the biggest sensation -- literally -- of this year's NBA draft: 18-year-old center Pavel Podkolzin, who is 7-foot-5 (226 centimeters) and 300 pounds (136 kilograms).
Podkolzin -- whose physical enormity has earned him the moniker "Siberian Shaq" after the NBA's most dominant player, 7-foot-1, 330-pound Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers -- has a chance to become the highest Russian NBA draft pick ever on June 26 in New York.
He has also provided one of the more remarkable basketball stories of the year.
Until December of last year, few in the basketball world had ever heard of this Russian giant whose career path began in the unlikely town of Pashino, where his parents still live. Podkolzin's mother, Tatyana, a 46-year-old hair stylist, didn't even know what a draft was until a month ago.
Podkolzin began his professional career in nearby Novosibirsk in 2000, ultimately landing in Varese, Italy, where he was virtually hidden away by the local professional team.
It wasn't until U.S. sports media giant ESPN.com ran a story about Podkolzin on Dec. 19 that NBA scouts began to flock to Varese to determine the veracity of reports that a towering center with incredible athleticism was being trained behind closed doors.
When the reports proved to be true, NBA teams began collectively salivating at the young Russian's potential. In six months' time, Podkolzin went from being a nobody to a projected top-10 pick commanding a multimillion-dollar contract.
Podkolzin has spent the past two weeks taking part in the pre-draft workout circuit, traveling to different U.S. cities to showcase his ability to different NBA clubs.
"I've been to six different cities in seven days," he said in a telephone interview Tuesday from his hotel room in Seattle, having just finished a workout for the Super Sonics.
Pre-draft workouts are critical for draft prospects who want to raise their stock in the eyes of NBA teams. Hundreds of NBA scouts showed up to size up Podkolzin during his first pre-draft workout last week in Chicago.
"It was the first time that 90 percent of the people in the gym had ever seen him, and they all left impressed," said one NBA scout, who asked not to be named, in a telephone interview. "He moved well, he showed some agility, and he showed he can shoot.
"At one point he made about 15 shots in a row. Everybody seemed pretty amazed."
Podkolzin, however, says his best workout so far came in New York, where the Knicks put him through drills. The Knicks' Allen Houston and Charlie Ward approached him afterward and congratulated him on the effort.
Mostly, Podkolzin is humble when discussing the recent buzz surrounding him. "I don't read what the press writes," he said.
He may become the fifth Russian ever drafted by an NBA team. Two players, Alexander Belov (1970) and Valery Tikhonenko (1986), were drafted in the Soviet era in later rounds by teams using throwaway picks. The Boston Celtics took Andrei Fetisov with their second-round selection in 1994, but he never made it out of Europe. Andrei Kirilenko, picked by Utah in the first round in 1999, is the only Russian ever to play in the NBA.
Podkolzin's path to the first round of the NBA draft has been far from typical. He has never been a star and has never proven that he can play consistently at a professional level. NBA teams are coveting him strictly for his potential.
Podkolzin started playing basketball when he was 13 at a sports school in Novosibirsk. In a telephone interview from Novosibirsk, Podkolzin's youth coach, Vitaly Utkin, remembered the commitment that the 6-foot-4 Pavel had for basketball even as a 7th grader.
"He would travel an hour by bus into Novosibirsk every day just to play," Utkin said. "He hadn't played much basketball before then, but he improved quickly. He began to learn how to move and it became obvious that he was a colossal talent."
It was Podkolzin's combination of immense size and agility that led to the next stage of his journey.
In 2000, Podkolzin was playing for Lokomotiv Novosibirsk when an Italian named Fabrizio Besnati -- then the general manager of the St. Petersburg Lions basketball club -- caught a glimpse of him. Podkolzin had grown to 6-foot-11.
Seeing that Novosibirsk didn't have the facilities to develop the young center, Besnati approached Podkolzin's coaches and parents with an offer to send him to the professional basketball club in Varese, where he would receive individual attention from coaches and have access to the facilities of a top European basketball club.
A contract was drawn up between the two clubs, and Podkolzin soon found himself in Italy.
A retired military officer, Podkolzin's father, Nikolai, said it wasn't a difficult decision. "We were used to his being gone and traveling around with the [Russian] junior national team," he said by telephone. "We decided that the level of play and the resources here were inadequate for his development, so we decided to send him there."
Most of Podkolzin's development in Italy took place during practices and individual workouts. He spent the last two years sitting the bench during most of Varese's games. Last season he played in only 10 games, giving NBA scouts little opportunity to judge his ability. But they say in basketball circles that you can't teach height -- NBA teams are betting that they can teach Podkolzin everything else.
But recently, questions about Podkolzin's basketball development have been overshadowed by financial disputes.
Should Podkolzin be selected in the top 10, as draft experts predict, it would mean a windfall for the Russian. NBA rules dictate that the No. 10 pick receives an automatic contract valued at over $4.5 million for three years. If Podkolzin goes higher in the draft, his payout will only increase. For example, this year's sure-fire No. 1 pick, LeBron James, will be guaranteed almost $13 million over three years.
The expected riches have caused a rift between Podkolzin's original club, Lokomotiv Novosibirsk, and Varese. When NBA teams draft European players, the original club is due a payment to buy out the player's European contract. Now the clubs are tussling over who owns Podkolzin's contract.
Lokomotiv Novosibirsk president Alexander Solodkin told Izvestia this week that his club signed a contract with Varese in December 2001 to loan Podkolzin to the Italian team for two years. The center was then scheduled to return to Novosibirsk in September 2004.
According to the details of the agreement, Varese would pay Lokomotiv $25,000 per year, subsidize the salary of a foreign player for the Novosibirsk club and fulfill what Solodkin called "several other minor obligations."
In a telephone interview, Solodkin declined to elaborate on the nature of these obligations.
Solodkin claimed Varese did not comply with the contract terms. Earlier this month, he sent a letter to the Italian club, all 29 NBA teams, and to the International Basketball Federation, or FIBA, announcing the contract's annulment.
The matter was further complicated when Podkolzin hired well-known Italian agent Riccardo Sbezzi, who, Solodkin said, disregarded Podkolzin's contractual obligations to Lokomotiv.
Podkolzin was quoted in Sport-Express on Wednesday saying that he is of legal age and has the right to sign his own contracts.
Solodkin disagrees. "He's our player," he said. "We have a five-year contract with him through 2004 that was signed by his father. He was to return to Russia after two years in Italy, when we could have decided to keep him here or send him somewhere else."
But Solodkin's protests appear to be in vain. Spokesmen from FIBA said the organization had no jurisdiction in the dispute, and that "any disagreements are to be solved between the respective parties involved."
Solodkin's last hope is to receive compensation from Podkolzin's buyout clause. Solodkin said that according to the contract, Varese was set to receive 60 percent of any purchase of Podkolzin's rights by a third club, while Lokomotiv would receive the remaining 40 percent. But he remains skeptical.
"Sure, we'll get some money," Solodkin said. "But it might be $1 or $10,000. What we get and how much is anybody's guess. But if we don't get the agreed-upon percentage, I will take it to an international court."
As if Podkolzin's story were lacking drama, another issue has arisen in the run-up to the draft.
This week medical test results showed that Podkolzin has a pituitary gland disorder similar to the one that ended the NBA career of 7-foot-7 Romanian Gheorghe Muresan.
Apparently, a key factor behind Podkolzin's height is the abnormal amount of a growth hormone that his pituitary gland releases.
His U.S. agent, Justin Zanik, sent a letter explaining the diagnosis to all NBA teams. The letter says that because the disorder was discovered early on, a two-hour surgery and two-day hospital stay should allow Pavel back on the court in two weeks with no long-term consequences.
That means the Siberian giant may still have a seat in the NBA Draft's green room, where lottery picks spend their final moments before the bright lights of the NBA descend upon them.