In my house, he goes by Bazinga. Last year, a perfect storm of garbled internet radio, New York accents, and almost zero familiarity with the NBA gave my husband the impression that the New York Knicks had drafted a promising young player by that last name. The misunderstanding took a little while to be uncovered, but we now yell Bazinga! whenever Kristaps Porzingis, the 7-foot-3 Latvian that New York selected with the fourth pick in 2015, drains a 3.
Bazinga! we say when the gangly buzz-cut beauty converts one of his putback dunks. We enunciate the word in the direction of our 1-year-old, as if we’re teaching him basic language like “mama” or “arugula,” because we are. Bazinga! we sing, bongo-pounding the couch in joy, when Porzingis reaches up one of those Gumby-ass limbs of his and bats down a shot.
I suspect we’re not alone. Over the last 18 months, Porzingis has gone from being the kinda-sorta-target of boos on NBA draft day to being the center of a near-religious movement, a potential savior in the eyes of his believers. Last week, he was certainly omnipresent and omnipotent, as former Knicks guard and current TV commentator Walt Frazier might say. Porzingis finished with a career-high 35 points in a 105–102 Knicks win over Detroit, and did so by covering what felt like every centimeter of the court with his frenetic tentacles.
He checked the boxes a 7-foot-3 guy is supposed to — little layups, towering defense — and scribbled happily outside the lines. He hit three 3-pointers; finished a dunk in the manner of a sunburned dad executing a can-opener; and recorded a steal, a block, and three assists. He contorted his face into dark-eyed grimaces that looked inspired by the interstitials in a Grand Theft Auto game. He high-fived fans while running up the court and spilled their drinks.
In one particularly audacious third-quarter sequence, he took a 3-point shot, hauled in his own long rebound, sliced through the key in a way that was somehow both lumbering and buttery, took a bank shot, again grabbed his own rebound, and finally sealed the deal with a two-handed dunk. It was like watching one of those choreographed routines at halftime involving mascots, stilts, and mini-trampolines, except in this case it was just one man, just our Bazinga.
Like any deity, Porzingis has many names. Knickstaps was an early attempt, a reference to the short-lived, feel-good #Knickstape meme pioneered by Iman Shumpert so many, many lifetimes ago. It was never the right fit, though: It was a moniker from the past, and Porzingis is the future.
An obsession with finding the right nickname for the then–Knicks rookie began to take hold last November. In a road game against the Hornets, Porzingis sank a 3-point shot at the buzzer that was ultimately (and erroneously!) ruled an instant too late. Still, the attempt was ballsy and welcome; it was nice to see someone other than Carmelo Anthony attempt a final shot. The following week, also against the Hornets, Porzingis dropped 29, kicking off a conversation about what to call the guy.
A year later, we’re still generally at a loss for words. In 13 games this season, Porzingis is averaging just more than 20 points and playing more than 32 minutes a game, both second only to Anthony on the team. He looks strong, and creative, and self-assured. He is the kind of guy who entices people to sign up for, and tune into, League Pass. And yet there remains no consensus on what to call him; on whether #godzingis or #porzinGOD should be the hashtag affixed to the various reaction GIFs and Vines of him that routinely crush it on Twitter. For what it’s worth, his contemporary Karl-Anthony Towns has gone with the latter:
Figuring out how to refer to Porzingis isn’t limited to nicknames. Is he a power forward or a small-ball center? No longer able to surprise opposing teams, he has started to perplex them instead. How do you guard someone who is 7-foot-3, but can also reliably hit 3-pointers, who has the wingspan of a shot-blocking specialist but the hands of a guard? “He’s got an incredible touch,” said Dirk Nowitzki last week, after the Knicks played Dallas. “He can move. He can dribble. He can put it on the floor more now. He is going to be a great player in this league for a long, long time.”
Nowitzki was sidelined with an injury during the game, but his influence remained on the court: At one point, Porzingis executed an off-legged floater reminiscent of a signature Dirk move. “He was staring me down,” Nowitzki later said. “That was cold-blooded.” Anyone who watched the way Porzingis glared at Kent Bazemore last January has seen a version of that face.
It’s not surprising that Porzingis would ape Nowitzki; not only are the two players frequently compared for their freakishness, Porzingis has a special respect for his elders. He is, like so many great athletes, an absolute nerd for his sport. Growing up in Latvia, he pored over YouTube channels showing NBA stars and even mimicked them sartorially: As a tween, he copied the cornrows-and-sweatband look favored by Allen Iverson and Anthony.
In a predraft interview with the Orlando Sentinel, he gushed that the one thing he looked forward to the most about playing in the United States was having 24–7 access to the gym. Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins reported that Porzingis first ingratiated himself to the occasionally prickly Melo by asking the veteran to show him a move, before buttering him up with the topic of his childhood hairstyle. (“If you could develop a sudden affinity for bucket hats that would be really cool too!” wrote a commenter by the name of “Melo’s Bucket Hat Collection” on the Knicks blog Posting & Toasting.)
Basketball was part of his family fabric; both of his parents had played in Latvia, and his older brother Janis had a 12-year European pro career. It was Janis who urged Kristaps to sign up for English lessons as a kid and, later, who made him watch NBA press conferences as homework for his increasingly promising future. (The decision to surf WorldStarHipHop seems to have been Kristaps’s own.) Now Janis is part of Kristaps’s New York management team, and he and the middle Porzingis brother, Martins, are frequently spotted at Madison Square Garden, where their last name can be spotted all over. At one point early last season, Porzingis jerseys were sold out of the NBA store.
Porzingis’s attention to the NBA helped him endure the lead up to and the aftermath of the draft. He told Adrian Wojnarowski that he knew “some fans — they don’t want a European on their team.” He explained that despite the careers of players like Nowitzki and the Gasol brothers, the baseline impression among NBA coaches and GMs regarding a “mystery man from Europe” was not always positive. “They’ll say, ‘This guy is a bust,’” he told Wojnarowski, bringing up the names Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Andrea Bargnani, and Darko Milicic.
For Knicks fans, the more discouraging names were along the lines of Frédéric Weis and Maciej Lampe. And going into the draft, New Yorkers were further disgruntled by the way the team had finished up the last week of the 2014–15 season. “Meaningless win costs Knicks undisputed top lottery seed,” read a headline in the New York Post after the team rattled off two consecutive victories. It was a ridiculous scenario: After years of having no top draft picks, the franchise finally had one it hadn’t traded away — and still seemed hell-bent on sabotaging even that.
With a 17–65 record, the Knicks ended up with the fourth pick. When they called Porzingis’s name and he walked up in his burgundy, leather-collared suit, boos rained down, and TV cameras honed in on a little kid in tears. Really, though, the booing wasn’t, at its heart, even about Porzingis. It was about the general malaise of rooting for the Knicks. So it wouldn’t take long for the people who thought they had no appetite for a player like Porzingis to turn into the ones most thirsty for his success.
No one will ever complain when a top free agent or established trade target helps his basketball team win games, but there’s something extra special about the progression of a homegrown talent. Thanks to my aforementioned 1-year-old, I can confidently state from personal experience that watching Porzingis develop over the last season-plus has been akin to seeing my own son grow up. My heart now lives outside my body, as they say.
In fairness, I have gotten overly excited about, and ultimately burned by, plenty of other would-be Knicks saviors. There was a time I believed that Stephon Marbury would turn the team around. I once earnestly chanted “MVP!” at MSG and was referring to Amar’e Stoudemire. I knew Linsanity could never last, but I sure did have a fresh lease on life and renewed vigor while it did. But this is something different: an actual, honest-to-Godzingis top prospect with a soaring ceiling, a magnetic countenance, a giraffe’s gait, and an interest in pretty much nothing other than roasting Sasha Vujacic and perfecting his own basketball game. Even the crying kid from the draft has changed his ways.
These days, my text messages to and from other Knicks fans are full of unicorn and heart emoji; they resemble the Lisa Frank binders that were popular last time the Knicks possessed a franchise-altering 7-footer. That’s because in January, Kevin Durant described Porzingis as “like a unicorn in this league.” He said he had texted then–Knicks coach Derek Fisher once New York picked Porzingis in the draft. “I like this kid,” Durant told Fisher. “He can play.” The Unicorn is a worthy nickname for Porzingis: With his downy, velour-rubbed-the-wrong-way hair and his vague sense of impossible magic, he resembles few things more than such a mystical beast. (He’ll also maim you with that golden horn.)
Last year, Porzingis was asked what he thought he should be nicknamed, and he said he preferred “KP.” He was pretty much ignored: It’s much more fun to discuss names like Three 6 Latvia or Alabaster Ewing. To me, though, he’ll probably always be Bazinga. And really, it turns out to be as good a name as any, a fitting mondegreen for the weird and wonderful 21-year-old New York Knick.
It’s a heartfelt outburst, super dorky, something an eager foreigner raised on dubbed episodes of The Big Bang Theory might randomly exclaim. Which makes it an apt tribute to both Porzingis and to his devoted fans. Sometimes regular old language is inadequate for describing true beauty, and the only solution is a made-up word.