It’s 2:20 in the morning and Gints Jankovskis’ alarm is ringing loudly. Ten minutes later, he is sipping his first cup of coffee.
Jankovskis is 17 years old. He lives with his mom and dad in the in the rural village of Dzerumi, located in the Kekava region of Latvia. Gints is a student at the local secondary school, but he is not up at this ungodly hour to finish a forgotten homework assignment or cram for a final exam. No, he has set his alarm to make sure he doesn’t miss a minute of the Knicks-Suns game, which is scheduled to tip off in New York at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.
Believe it or not, Jankovskis has watched each and every game the Knicks have played this season.
“I very much hope my teachers don’t read this because I sometimes don’t go to school because I was really exhausted after a long night and just don’t wake up in time for school,” he nervously admits.
Catching every single game is a difficult chore even for die-hard Knicks fans who reside in and around New York. For a fan living in Latvia, the challenge is compounded exponentially due to the seven-hour time difference. Yet, it turns out that Jankovskis is but one of a growing number of folks in Latvia, a small country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, that can’t get enough Knickerbocker basketball. The reason why Latvia has become a breeding ground for Knick fandom is, of course, rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis, who hails from Liepaja, Latvia.
Jankovskis began following Porzingis back in 2013. The FIBA Under-18 European Championship was held in Latvia that year. The Latvian team finished fourth and a rail-thin 16-year-old named Kristaps raised eyebrows. Jankovskis says he was motivated to follow Porzingis at that point and kept a close eye on him when he went off to play in Spain. Around that same time, Jankovskis began watching more and more NBA games as well. He rarely watched regular season contests, but tuned in for a few intriguing postseason games and the NBA Finals.
However, that causal relationship with the NBA ended once Porzingis invaded America.
Leading up the 2015 Draft, Latvian hoop fans were both excited and nervous to find out which team would select Porzingis. Jankovskis, corresponding via e-mail, says he remembers hoping that the Knicks would select Porzingis.
“All Latvian media, before draft night, was sure it would be the fourth or fifth pick,” Jankovskis explained. “I really like the ‘New York Triangle’ and I am really happy to see Kristaps in a New York jersey. Before draft night, I cross[ed] my fingers for Porzingis to get drafted by New York.”
While Americans had only a few YouTube clips by which to judge this European import prior to the draft, Latvians had years of up-close exposure. Still, while Jankovskis thought Porzingis would play well, even he didn’t expect expectations to be exceeded to the extent that they have.
“It wasn’t [a] complete surprise for Latvians,” he said. “We sports fans knew he one day [would] play in NBA but we don’t think like that – putback, putback, double-double, etc. Right now, every morning, the headline in every Latvian newspaper is about Kristaps Porzingis; he’s the biggest celebrity in Latvia right now. He’s probably the most popular person in all of Latvia.”
For many Latvians, it is enough to read the game recaps the following day or catch the highlights on local sports shows. But for some, including Gints Jankovskis, that simply won’t suffice.
“Perhaps you will be surprised, but I have not not missed any Kristaps Porzingis games,” he said. “Every game, I wake up and watch. My routine when New York plays: I go to sleep around 9 or 10 p.m. and wake up five to 10 minutes before the game starts [at 2:30 a.m.]. I take my Dell notebook downstairs and connect my PC with HDMI to the TV. We watch many Porzingis games as a family.”
Gints’ father, Eriks, who works in law enforcement, watches every game with his youngest son. Sometimes it is very difficult for the elder Jankovskis to get up for work the next day, but Gints scoffs at the idea that something as unimportant as sleep would prevent his dad from missing a game.
“He was in the army and is in very good health,” he said. “He’s a big sports fan, like myself.
“My mom and brother don’t watch all the games because their work. My mom watches when she doesn’t have to work the next day. My brother watches with us only when there are really interesting, strong opponents. If game is in NY at 7:30 p.m., in Latvia that is 2:30 a.m. If the game ends around 5 a.m. then I shut down my PC, TV and go to sleep and wake up to school 6:30 a.m. or if it’s free day like 1 p.m. When I watch games, I eat some chips, popcorn and drink some tea or coffee to not sleep.”
Gunars Klegers is 36 years old. He resides in Riga, Latvia’s capital city, and works as a PR professional. He is also a blogger and a publisher of a fishing magazine. In addition, he’s a self-professed “newborn Knicks fan in Latvia.”
At this time last year, Klegers had absolutely no interest in basketball contests taking place in the United States of America. He admits that as recently as a few months ago, he would not have even recognized the NBA’s reigning MVP if he plopped down next to him at a pub.
“So far Porzingis has made a lot of new basketball, NBA and New York Knicks fans in Latvia who are getting up in the middle of the night to watch games or are waking up in the morning on working days with their phone in hand to see the stats and highlights of last night’s Knicks games,” Klegers said.
“If someone would have told me seven months ago that I would be staying up late on weekends to watch live NBA games and dig deep into NBA stats every day, I would suggest to that person to take some medicine, because I had zero interest in the NBA. I didn’t even know who Steph Curry was! My interest in the NBA faded away along with Michael Jordan’s retirement from the Bulls. And seven months ago, KP was the only another prospective youngster in our basketball community hopeful to be drafted.”
The last time Klegers had stayed up late into the night for a sporting event played in North America was when (Latvian legend) Sandis Ozolinsh was playing in the Stanley Cup Finals. That was back in 1996.
Klegers can’t stay up to watch games during the week due to work commitments, but if a Knicks game falls on a weekend, he fights to stay awake.
“I don’t go to sleep until 4 or 5 in the morning and my wife and kids accept that I get a couple of hours longer sleep the next morning,” he said. “Yes, there are some zombie-days sometimes, but it’s worth it. This kind of fairy tale is unique for Latvia and I don‘t want to miss it.“
What has amazed Klegers most about Porzingis’ surge in popularity within Latvia is how it has spread like wildfire throughout the entire country. No one, regardless of age or occupation, is immune to the Porzingis appeal.
“From kids to pensioners, from simple workers to our President… if earlier while making small-talk you had to talk about weather, now you can easily switch to Porzingis’ highlights from last night,” Klegers said.
Josh Harrellson is 26 years old. He lives in Riga. He’s plays basketball for a living.
After playing three years at the University of Kentucky, Harrellson was drafted in the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft by the New Orleans Pelicans and immediately traded to the Knicks. Just like Porzingis, Josh spent his rookie season in New York. Harrellson earned minutes by playing surprisingly well for the Knicks during his lone season in NYC. In fact, ironically enough, there are only two players in Knicks franchise history who have scored at least 12 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and hit four or more three-pointers in one game during their rookie season: Kristaps Porzingis and Josh Harrellson. After playing for the Miami HEAT in 2012-13 and the Detroit Pistons in 2013-14, Josh pursued his basketball dreams abroad, including stops in China and Puerto Rico.
This year, Harrellson landed in Latvia, signing with VEF Riga. He wasn’t sure what to expect when he agreed to spend eight months in Northern Europe. However, Harrellson affirms he has been pleasantly surprised.
“I live in Riga and it is a very nice city, a lot of things to see and a lot to do! Overall I am very impressed with Latvia, it’s a beautiful country,” Harrellson said.
Because he has his own career to focus on, Harrellson hasn’t watched much live NBA action but he does check box scores each morning to keep a pulse of the league. From what he’s seen, Harrellson has been impressed by how well Porzingis has played.
“I have been really surprised by his success this early in his career. He is very skilled and still has a lot of growing to do. I can only imagine how good he will be when it is all said and done,” Harrellson explained via e-mail.
Harrellson has seen his fair share of hype and excitement (he played alongside Jeremy Lin when the unforgettable “Linsanity” craze engulfed New York), and he can attest to just how popular Porzingis is in Latvia. Harrellson recently coached in a high school All-Star Game for standout players in Latvia and during the dunk competition, two dunkers surprised the crowd by donning Porzingis jerseys to show their love for the hometown hero.
As someone who is currently living in Latvia, but first learned the ropes playing for the Knicks in New York, Harrellson was asked what wisdom he would pass along to Porzingis: “The only advice I can give is that New York has the best fans. Just play with your heart and they will love you forever. Keep your head up no matter what. Remember they booed you and they booed Patrick Ewing and look how he turned out!”
Maris Keiss is 30 years old. He lives Jekabpils, a small town of about 25,000 people, located approximately 140 kilometers from Riga.
Like many other Latvian basketball fans, Porzingis popped up on Keiss’ radar in 2013 at the FIBA U-18 championships. Keiss still sadly recalls how a buzzer-beater from Spain coast Latvia the bronze medal. Still, despite the loss, Keiss was immediately impressed by Porzingis’ play. He followed the big man closely in Spain, and was extremely excited to see if Porzingis could continue his success in America.
While Keiss’ first glimpses of Porzingis three years ago were enormously encouraging, his first impression of Knicks fans and New Yorkers (watching the 2015 NBA Draft) were just as memorable but for all the wrong reasons.
“I was so mad, so angry at Knicks fans. I didn’t understand how they can boo somebody if they didn’t even see him play?” Keiss said. “After draft, I read many things about Knicks fans and the organization, and found out that happens with every drafted rookie in New York, so i just let it go.”
As with many other Latvians, Keiss’ first substantial exposure to the NBA came in 2008. This is because Andris Biedrins, the first and only other Latvian player to make a significant impact in the NBA, played the best ball of his career that season, and played for a remarkable team.
“I can’t say I was big fan of the NBA, but I remember Jordan playing in my childhood, some Europeans players after,” Keiss said. “I started to watch NBA in 2007 or 2008 when Biedrins had his breakout season with the Warriors. They knocked out the Mavs in first round of playoffs. I remember it as ‘the biggest upset in NBA history.’ Baron Davis, Matt Barnes, J-Rich, Monta Ellis, Captain Jack were on the team. So many good memories!”
Keiss works for a restaurant in town. Fortunately, his schedule allows him to sleep late, so he finds a way to get his Porzingis fix nearly every time KP takes the court.
“I have seen almost all games,” he said. “I missed only three or four.”
Keiss’ shift ends in the early morning hours, so he stays up late on nights the Knicks play and then finally collapses into bed once the the game ends.
“Thank God I am working in afternoons till late at night, so I have a chance to see games,” Keiss said. “Usually I wake up at 1 or 2 p.m. I have to be at work by 3 p.m. After work, I am always drinking strong coffee to make sure I don’t fall asleep before the Knicks’ game starts.”
He’s had his sanity questioned more than once.
“My parents say that I’m crazy and that I’m killing myself, but there’s nothing I can do; I’m addicted to the Knicks now,’ Keiss said.
“In the beginning of season, I knew only ‘Melo and KP, but now I’ve fallen in love with every single member of the team. I like D-Will’s emotions and I like Gallo’s inspiration. I even like how RoLo runs back home after two points. ‘Melo’s leadership is incredible. KP is in right time and in right place.”
Peteris Sprogis is 42 years old. He lives in Riga with his wife Marta and their four children. He is a pastor.
Sprogis hadn’t followed the NBA since the Michael Jordan era, which coincided with his high school years. Sprogis and his family have many other interests.
“Latvia is very much into arts, theater and music,” he said. “We have world-renowned orchestra conductors, composers, singers, etc. There is a large segment of the population that is more into the arts than sports.”
“At this point, Kristaps Porzingis for Latvia is more than a famous athlete,” Sprogis said. “We see him also as our ambassador to the world and to the USA. I travel to America several times a year and I have tried to explain where Latvia is, that we are not part of Russia, etc. No offense, but geography does not seem to be a favorite subject in school for many Americans. So now I have hope that on my next trip, more and more people will know where and what Latvia is.”
Sprogis seems genuinely surprised at just how much interest he now has in the Knickerbockers. He’s watched more live games than he’d like to admit.
“I have to confess, quite a few times NBA and Knicks have stolen my good nights rest,” he said. “I have heard that the USA is a country where people like to sue one another and lawyers advertise on billboards like hamburger shops. Maybe I should sue [the] NBA for harming my sleep and for not writing a warning notice: Addictive!”
Kaspers Kambala is 37 years old. He is currently playing professional basketball in Adanaspor, Turkey, but lives in his native Riga during the offseason.
Kambala played professionally in Latvia at a very early age before heading to America in his late teenage years. He attended high school in Wisconsin and then stared at the University of Nevada Las Vegas as a collegian from 1997 to 2001. He led the Runnin’ Rebels in scoring his junior and senior season at UNLV and led the team in rebounding three of his four years in Vegas.
He played for a few NBA summer league teams in the years after college, but never appeared in a regular season NBA game. However, Kambala has enjoyed a very successful pro career in Europe. He still holds the Euroleague record for most points scored in a single game when he poured in 41 points against FC Barcelona in October of 2002. It’s been reported that Kambala, as one of the few Latvians playing big time ball abroad, was one of the players a young Kristaps Porzingis looked up to as a kid. Thus, Kambala is able to offer a unique perspective on the topic of Porzingis’ recent success in the United States.
Unsurprisingly, Kambala was aware of this young phenom from Leipaja before most.
“I first heard his name maybe four or five years ago: ‘There’s a young talented kid you need to come watch,’ people would tell me,” Kambala said during a long conversation via Skype. “Back then, they would just say he’s really tall and talented.”
However, Kambala is not all that surprised by Porzingis’ exceptional play over his first few months in the NBA.
“He really started making a name for himself the last two years, especially last year in Spain,” he said.
Seeing how well and how hard Porzingis competed against older, stronger players impressed Kambala, especially because he knew the type of pounding young Kristaps had to deal with each time he confronted the cagey veterans in Spain.
“European basketball is very physical,” Kambala said. “The Spanish league is a tough league. It’s one of the toughest in Europe. They’re not giving you anything easy. People think he’s a just a 20-year-old young kid, but he’s been playing against physical, grown men that have been beating him up these last two years.”
Also, Kambala knows about the pressure Porzingis faced in those challenging environments, which helped prep him for what was to come in the Big Apple: “The Spanish club he played for had a lot of spectators. This is not his first time dealing with fame. It’s been coming, not at this magnitude of course, but this is not his first time experiencing this.”
Still, he has been delighted to watch the way Porzingis has aggressively attacked opponents in America.
“It’s not just that he’s playing well, it’s the way he’s carrying himself. He plays with a high level of confidence… He plays with a lot of swagger!” Kambala says with a smile.
Practice starts at 10 a.m. for Kambala so staying up into the wee hours of the morning to watch games live is not an option. However, he can’t help but catch daily updates of Porzingis’ accomplishments.
“Latvia is really small,” Kambala said. “Every day, I go through Facebook and all I see is highlights that people and sports channels have posted. And all my friends are retweeting stuff about him on Twitter. I see what he’s doing all the time. It’s really cool.”
While his international fame never reached ‘Porzingis proportions,’ Kambala can relate to being a star player representing his hometown in faraway places.
“I made a joke once back in my younger days, my cockier days… I had just signed with Real Madrid after winning two championships in the Turkish league. As Latvians we think the whole world should know where Latvia is, but that’s not always the case. Latvia has a population of less than 2 million, you know. I played college ball in America and then played in Turkey, which has about is about 90 million people, and then in Spain. So, I made a joke: ‘More people around the world probably know my name than my country’s president’s name.'”
Kambala eventually learned that a certain responsibility came along with that recognition.
“Through basketball, you really have an opportunity to carry your country’s name to different parts of the globe. People found out about Latvia that way. They would ask, ‘What’s that? Where is Latvia?’ Kristaps is taking it even further. He is bringing our country’s name not just to New York and America, but worldwide, because the NBA is everywhere.”
Reinis Osenieks is not a doctor, and has no medical training, but he has uncovered an epidemic sweeping across the Republic of Latvia. He has termed it “The NBA Hangover.”
Osenieks is 28 years old. He lives in Riga and works as a sports journalist and on-air personality for Latvian TV, the national television station. He’s covered many major sporting events, including the NBA All-Star Game and the NBA Draft in New York last year, and will be heading to Rio, Brazil to cover the upcoming Summer Olympics as well. Yet, he recognizes that Porzingis has captured the attention of the Latvian people in an uniquely special and endearing way.
However, there are repercussions to this love affair, according to Osenieks: “I call it ‘The NBA Hangover!’ You haven’t been to a party, you haven’t got drunk, but you feel not very good the next day. That is ‘The NBA Hangover!’”
He usually watches the games alone, but Reinis recently heard about a cadre of fans that meet up at a local bar. (Edgars Zanders started a Facebook page to help organize the group, which gathers at ‘Klodaika,’ a bar in Riga that purchased NBA League Pass so Latvians would be able to watch Knicks games together.)
“I have fallen asleep during two games,” Osenieks admits. “One of them was a little boring, [Derek] Fisher took out KP and I fell asleep on sofa. My girlfriend woke me up at the morning with a text: ‘You should’ve switched off the Christmas lights!’ She was mad at me.”
Nonetheless, Osenieks believes it is but a small price to pay to witness something he feels is truly extraordinary. He eloquently explains, via email, just how much Porzingis’ success means to him and his fellow countrymen.
“Kristaps makes us believe that there are no boundaries!” he wrote. “He’s a great example for every Latvian – that you can fulfill your goals no matter where you come from. He motivates us to be better. When you wake up and watch highlights of KP’s performance from the night before, the mood gets very good to start a great day!”
Riga and New York City are separated by approximately 4,195 miles and seven time zones, but Latvia’s limitless love for and prodigious pride in Porzingis seemingly know no bounds.
“Latvia is a small country, but with big hearts,” Osenieks said. “Maybe because we are so small, we want to prove that we can do better than others. Kristaps represents the country in one of the biggest cities in the universe! He makes us believe.”
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