Tomas Satoransky is not cussing me out. Though, given the circumstances—we’re locked in an escape room with time running out—I wouldn’t totally blame him. I have been warned, multiple times, of his tendency to do so. His Washington Wizards teammates say he cusses because he’s hyper-competitive, and he’s hyper-competitive because he cares. He really, really cares. Satoransky cares so damn much that he’ll even cuss out his coach, Scott Brooks, if he makes a bad play. “I can’t cuss him out back,” Brooks tells me, “because I don’t know what he’s saying.” Satoransky—Sato, for short—hails from the Czech Republic. As do his expletives. It’s the kind of habit that might lose the favor of a locker room, were he anybody else, and were this locker room housing any other team than the Wizards. On December 29, Satoransky became their starting point guard, replacing their franchise player in the lineup. John Wall would undergo season-ending foot surgery. Washington’s playoff hopes are now on Satoransky. So you’ll forgive him if he’s a little tense.
Getting cussed out by a Washington Wizard is not new to Brooks. Rarely, however, does it stem from the player being mad at himself. “He has words that … I don’t even know what they are. But he’s all to himself. He’s so angry because he has passion to do the right thing.” The right thing is making the extra pass, finding the man cutting, sprinting back on the other end. Satoransky doesn’t just want—need—to win. He desperately, achingly, needs you to win too. Stepping up in Wall’s absence brings an eerie sense of déjâ-vu: Like last year, the Wizards are on the outside of the playoff standings looking in. And just like last year, the man with no savior complex has another season to save. This sense of duty is what makes Sato the most beloved player in the Wizards locker room. Depending on whom you ask, he’s the only beloved player in the Wizards locker room.
No team exudes dysfunction quite like Washington. Recent incidents include: John Wall saying “fuck you” to Brooks; Kelly Oubre Jr., who’s since been traded, also cursing at Brooks; a screaming match between Bradley Beal and former teammate Austin Rivers (also traded); and a verbal altercation between Jeff Green and, once again, Wall.
Reports of discontent trace back years, to the beginning of this iteration of the Wizards—a Big Three of Wall, Beal, and Otto Porter Jr., all signed to maximum contracts. The drama came to a head last season, when the Big Three became a Big Two. Wall underwent knee surgery in January 2018, sidelining him for the two most crucial months of the season. Brooks turned to Satoransky to start in Wall’s place, much like this season. Satoransky was a nobody then, 26 years old and in his second year in the league. He was Tim Frazier’s backup. And Tim Frazier was Wall’s backup. On the nights Brooks put him in at all, Satoransky was averaging five points a game.
I’d say Brooks must have known something we didn’t when he put Satoransky into the starting lineup, and by knowing Satoransky existed, I guess he did. But even Brooks was surprised when Satoransky steered Washington back into the playoff picture. The Wizards were 26-22 when Wall went down, and in trouble. They won their first game with Satoransky as a starter. Then a second. A third.
What was cause for celebration—a sign of new life for the team—soured overnight. Three games without Wall was all it took. The Wizards were scoring more. Shooting better. Defending tighter. Above all, they were sharing the ball. Wall is a ball-dominant guard. Satoransky is a pass-first, pass-second, shoot-third guard. He’ll never make the same money doing that. But he’ll sure as hell make his teammates fall in love with him.
After Washington’s third game (and third win) with Satoransky, center Marcin Gortat took aim:
Unbelievable win tonight ! Great "team" victory!— Marcin Gortat (@MGortat) February 2, 2018
Everyone knew the Wizards were passing more. Wall knew. Worse, Wall knew that his teammates knew. He responded with his own tweet, replying “Lol.” It was deleted shortly after. Four days later, Wall appeared on ESPN’s SportsCenter. “I know I’m a team player. I average almost 10 assists a game,” Wall said. “I’m very prideful in finding my teammates and getting guys easy shots. Even more just shocking hearing it from [Gortat], and understand he gets the most assists from me and gets the most spoon-fed baskets ever.” Wizards turmoil was back like it never left.
Gortat denied the tweet was about Wall. It remains on Twitter. Most of the players in last season’s locker room can’t speak openly about the Wizards’ 2017-18 annual collapse because they’re still members of that locker room. (Though one did, on national television.) But Gortat can. Washington traded him over the summer to the Los Angeles Clippers. It’s in their Culver City practice facility that Gortat confirms the obvious:
“There’s a lot of tension,” Gortat says to me, putting on his right shoe. He stands up, turns to walk away, then turns back with a little smile. “I’m quite sure of it.”
There’s a picture that went viral last year of a man mowing his lawn with a tornado behind him. The scene was remarkable: Despite the rapid winds and haunting clouds hurtling toward him, the man was doing the job he had decided he would do that day. It was a mundane chore that had to be done, and he was going to do it, damn the circumstances. Players love Satoransky because he does “the right thing.” He’s first back on defense; he’s throwing his body at a loose ball; he’s apologizing if he missed you on a backdoor cut; he’s cussing you out if he messes up the play. He’s the calm in the storm. The chemistry guy in a chemically imbalanced locker room.
For all the media scrutiny that’s been trained on the team, the Wizards locker room—the actual, physical thing—is vacant an hour before tipoff. It’s late December, the Wizards are taking on the Bulls, and media members are waiting. The players aren’t required to talk before the game, though I’m told Satoransky probably will, and if he does, well, he’s lovely to speak with. Only three Wizards are in the room, guys as unrecognizable as Satoransky was this time last season. Devin Robinson, Troy Brown Jr., and Chasson Randle are on their phones, sitting at their lockers, chairs swiveled to face the wall. There’s no pregame music and very little chatter. In the proverbial sense, Washington’s locker room is reportedly one of the most dramatic in the NBA. In actuality, it’s just dreary. “Who’d you piss off to get this assignment?” a reporter asks me.
Less than 24 hours later, Wall will officially be announced out for the season; for now, all we know is that he’s off to see a specialist. Brooks gives the news in his press conference before the game. His delivery is anemic, as you’d expect from a coach entertaining the idea of his superstar point guard missing significant time for a second straight season. “At some point,” a reporter asks, “does any part of you wonder when it’s going to end?”
Later in his briefing, Brooks mentions Satoransky. In this very context, Satoransky is proof a silver lining may exist. A silver lining! On the Wizards! Really! “When you’re undermanned, sometimes somebody pops up that you don’t think that was ready, or you don’t think that they’ll be able to handle the pressure of doing it. Tomas was that guy last year,” Brooks says. “Tomas Satoransky saved our season with his great play and effort and determination and grit.”
Discovering Satoransky was serendipitous. He has been one of Washington’s rare feel-good moments over the past two seasons. And that’s exactly how he carries himself: like a walking, talking, firm-hand-shaking, 6-foot-7 feel-good moment. He’s happy to help Wizards employees; if the social media team needs player participation, Satoransky’s the one to ask. He’s a good quote and will play along with reporters’ questions. He nods when he’s listening and makes eye contact. Always the eye contact. The first time Brooks met Satoransky, in 2016 at an Orange County gym, that was his takeaway. “I just liked the way he was fixated on my eyes, and he was listening to everything I said.”
A group of media members approach Satoransky, who’s now at his locker. His Czech accent is a staccato. The scrum breaks up. I introduce myself, and we go over what the next couple days will entail: The plan is to do an escape room. An escape room, for those unfamiliar, is like laser tag for people who like puzzles. A group goes on a made-up adventure where, in order to “escape,” they have to solve problems by working together. Because Satoransky’s supposed to be a great teammate. Get it?
I ask if he’s still OK with doing this. After all, as his agent told me when the idea was pitched, “Tomas is European. He likes to go to coffee shops and … drink coffee.” Satoransky looks the part—the full brown beard, thin mustache, and hand animation are dead giveaways. And it’s very likely that man behind the full brown beard, thin mustache, and animated hand might only want to get a cup of coffee.
“It’s for the story, because I’m a good teammate?” he asks. “Because you have to work together as a group, right?” Satoransky smiles. He’s pitching my idea back to me. He’s worried he’ll be bad at it, and we’ll lose—Satoransky does not like being bad at things, and he does not like losing—but he wants to help. Whatever will make your story better, he says.
It’s mid-afternoon on Satoransky’s day off, and we’re on beer no. 1. Americans are very different, he explains. We’re in Jaleo, a crowded Spanish restaurant that he likes near the arena. The beer is too hoppy in the States, and the people are often hard to read: “I’m not sure,” he tells me, “whenever you ask ‘How are you?’ if you really mean how I am.” The people in Spain were easier. He played there professionally before and after the Wizards selected him in 2012, 32nd overall. Satoransky watched the draft in the Czech Republic, gathered around a television with his friends and his then girlfriend, now wife, Anna. They’d been out drinking that night, and at about 5 a.m. Czech time, Satoransky answered a call from his agent. Shortly after, Adam Silver said his name. It was one hell of a nightcap.
Ernie Grunfeld, Washington’s general manager, asked Satoransky to come to the NBA’s summer league that night. He did, but the Wizards ultimately decided to stash their new draft pick and retain his rights. Satoransky returned to Spain, waiting for four years. The Wizards finally called in 2016, shortly after Satoransky signed a four-year extension with FC Barcelona Lassa. He bought out his own contract.
Satoransky lists the differences he’s picked up on in the time since. First of all, who starts and who comes off the bench means nothing in Spain. “In Barcelona, you never probably had the same starter each game,” he says. “We always had different starters.” In the NBA, starting plays into an entire mess of workplace politics. Ego. Stats. A player “getting his.”
“You can never point at someone and say he’s playing for numbers. No, but it makes a difference,” Satoransky says. He takes a sip, shrugs, and leans back into his chair. “Because you sometimes hear in the NBA, ‘You gotta get those numbers, man. People are watching you.’” Satoransky rejects that advice. Not even by choice, but by nature. He isn’t a go-to scorer. Even worse: He can’t tolerate the thought of making the wrong play.
American coaches, too! The positivity is unbearable. Take Satoransky’s first NBA season. He rarely played—four minutes here, 12 there. Satoransky was desperate to make an impression. He was a full-grown man, after all—a 25-year-old carrying veterans’ bags, doing rookie things, getting rookie playing time. All this just a couple of months removed from being the guy overseas. There was one game where Satoransky was just awful. Horrible, he says. Two turnovers in two minutes. Brooks pulled him out, and as he walked past David Adkins, an assistant coach, Adkins says, “Good job!”
Satoransky lost it. “I’m like, ‘Good job? What? I was terrible.’ And it’s not his fault. He was trying to be supportive. But I hated it. Don’t tell me ‘Good job.’ Now they know. When I’m playing bad, they can’t say anything. Just let him calm down for a bit.”
That’s the other thing: Coaches here don’t have the same power as they do overseas. A coach is like a god there, especially, he tells me, the ex-Yugoslavian coaches. They’ll curse you; they’ll almost beat you. But you take it, and you respect it. Here, the dynamic is reversed because salaries are public, and players’ wallets are way fatter than those of their bosses. “Whenever you know, publicly, the salary of each player, there are politics. It just gives you the questions you want to have and gives you the perspective of the other player. I think it’s always harmful,” Satoransky says. “It shows you it’s a big business.”
I ask Satoransky whether he thinks the communication on the Wizards is good.
He puts up his hand and wavers it back and forth. So-so. “It could be better. ... There’s a lot of rumors about Wizards, all the time. That’s the thing. I think that obviously hurts us. It was always like that, since I came here.” Even before he came, in fact: One month before Satoransky arrived in 2016, Beal re-signed with the franchise for the maximum extension worth almost $50 million more than the $80 million maximum deal Wall had signed three years prior. It wasn’t Washington shortchanging Wall—the NBA landed a massive television deal, which increased the salary cap—but that wasn’t Wall’s problem. Reports suggested he was jealous of Beal; Wall denied the idea with passive-aggression. “Now that you have your money,” Wall said to the press, referring to Beal, “you got to go out there and improve your game. I want you to be an All-Star just as much as I’m an All-Star.” Wall then said that he and Beal “have a tendency to dislike each other,” and called Beal his “sidekick.” “I’m A,” Wall said. “He’s A-1.”
It’s Satoransky’s disinterest in locker room soap opera theatrics that makes him the ideal “glue guy,” the one who holds a team together. Those politics exist within all NBA teams—who’s feeding the ball to whom, who’s stealing boards for stat-padding, who’s shooting when they should be passing—and Satoransky recognizes that. It just doesn’t occur to him to participate. He doesn’t pass to a superstar teammate so he can be in that superstar teammate’s favor. He’s going to pass to a superstar teammate because that superstar teammate is open. And that superstar teammate will be open because Satoransky will be screaming and pointing and clapping to direct the other three guys on where they should be.
Teammates call Satoransky the ultimate glue guy because, like Brooks, they say he does “the right thing” or “plays the right way.” The only Wizard who disagrees is Beal, only because he hates the term “glue guy.” It’s too restrictive. It downplays what Satoransky can bring to the team, especially in Wall’s absence. “We need him to be the no. 1 guy for us,” Beal says.
But Satoransky isn’t a traditional glue guy in every sense. He doesn’t intervene when things get heated. He’s not a diffuser. He’s not an enabler, either. But he does listen when someone wants to be heard. It might be the only way to navigate a locker room like the Wizards’. Gortat, who was in Washington for five seasons, takes pride in the advice he gave Satoransky: “There’s one rule in the NBA,” Gortat says. “The rule is, open your eyes and your ears. Keep watching, keep listening, but shut your mouth and don’t say shit.” If you believe the reports, it’s not a very popular rule in D.C.
On November 19, The Washington Post published a piece detailing a heated practice filled with screaming matches. According to the report, Wall got into a verbal altercation with Green; Brooks told Wall to leave the court; Wall replied, “Fuck you.” Beal yelled to Grunfeld, who was sitting on the sidelines, “I’m sick of this shit!”
Satoransky doesn’t break eye contact as I recount the incident. He waits to make sure I’m done, then tells me about when he was playing in Sevilla. They scrapped all the time. A majority of the practices were intense. One teammate in particular, this guy who used to knock the shit of him with blind screens, constantly provoked fights with Satoransky. And these are people who can actually understand what Satoransky’s saying when he cusses them out.
The point is that it’s OK to be combative in basketball. It’s normal! Healthy, even. “It’s important to say you’re sorry,” says Satoransky, who will later tell me he’s the son of a kindergarten teacher. “But every team has heated practices. Every year. But because we’re losing, there have to be so many reports about us. It’s popular to write badly about the Wizards and what’s going on there. So it got out. But I felt like after the practice that it was great. We talked about it. The people who were involved, they talked about it. Everyone.” Communication—“talking about it”—is important in all basketball; it goes unsaid that those in American basketball need to tell the media that it’s happening.
Satoransky arrives at the escape room with Anna and his brother, Lucas, 10 minutes early. He’s worried he won’t be any good once we’re inside. “We barely made it to the bathroom,” Satoransky says, “I don’t think we will escape that room.” A group walks out, and Satoransky congratulates them on making it out in time. He fiddles with a mini brainteaser toy. “I’m more nervous than before a big game,” he says, half-joking, half-not.
We enter the room and are joined by four strangers who unwittingly booked the same time slot that day. They didn’t recognize Satoransky, though all the clues were there: He’s very tall, young, and dressed in designer. Anna is also very tall (6 foot—she was a combo forward in her day), young, and dressed in designer. We’re within a mile of Capital One Arena. And, to top it off, I give our new friends a quick heads up that I’ll be taking notes because I’m doing a story on the very tall, young, designer-clad guy. Satoransky doesn’t even get that long “I know you must be somebody, but who?” stare most athletes do. He often goes unrecognized in D.C., which works to his benefit today; for the next hour, he’s a top-secret agent trying to diffuse a bomb.
The majority of time spent in an escape room involves wandering around, picking up objects you’ve already investigated, and trying to find answers disguised as dead ends. Satoransky buzzes around until he finds his niche in a geography puzzle. He knows the capital of almost every country in the world, he says. He looks relieved even as he’s scrambling.
Satoransky is asking as many questions as he is answering. He’s an eager conversationalist, widening his eyes and moving his hands and responding with all the affirmative I’m hearing you words like “Really?” and “Interesting!” and “Right, right.” He elaborates on earlier questions unprompted. After I ask him a hard question, he wants to know: Is it awkward or difficult to ask those questions? “You have to ask from your position,” he sympathizes.
What was supposed to be coffee and a quick Q&A turned into a conversation about Swedish crime novels (his favorite kind right now), the effects of Twitter fame, moving in with his wife after a month (when you know, you know), nepotism, food festivals, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (also his favorite), scorpios, and whether Philadelphia Eagles fans are scary or just really, really committed (scary).
“You have a lot of dudes around the league that are just bad guys,” Gortat says. “You’ve got some guys that are just quiet. You’ve got some guys that are just running their mouth too much. But overall, he’s a good guy. You can always find a subject or topic to speak about with Tomas. And he’s the guy who is always going to make your day better. He’s going to always speak to you. Laugh about something. He’s going to joke about something. He’s going to be the guy that when you call him, say, ‘Hey let’s go for dinner,’ or, ‘Let’s go out for a drink,’ or whatever; he’ll be the guy who’ll do that with you. He’s never going to come up with a ‘Hey, I don’t want to,’ ‘I’m not feeling well,’ or he’s not going to respond to your message. Because you’ve got guys like that around the league that you’re going to send a message and you’re not getting a response back.
“From a locker room standpoint, he’s a perfect fit.”
I ask Satoransky if he knows why his teammates like him so much.
“They say they like me? That’s nice.”
Anna tells Satoransky how much past teammates have liked playing with him. She can see it, even if he can’t. He won over the escape room crowd by partnering up with a person from the other group (though all bonding would have nullified if we didn’t break out, which, thankfully, we did). Satoransky does admit to being the “popular one” in school. His coaches have always told him that, as a point guard, “You have to be the guy who everyone loves to play with you, because you kind of put them together.” Yet it’s as if it’s never occurred to him that winning people over is a skill.
Satoransky waits for a follow-up question. He wants to make sure there’s enough material—we’ve been here for nearly two hours—and orders another round. Just in case.
“This is not investigation,” he laughs, “right?”