Marcin Gortat is Poland’s only NBA son. A week before the 2013-14 season, he was traded across the U.S., from Phoenix to Washington, D.C., after an injury to Emeka Okafor threatened to undermine the Wizards’ playoff push. Now Gortat is putting up solid numbers for a Washington team that appears playoff-bound for the first time in six years (in a contract year, no less). Only LeBron James and Kevin Durant finish better than Gortat within three feet of the rim; he leads the Wizards in plus/minus per 48 minutes (+5.4); and his on-court presence provides team-high boosts in metrics like eFG%, assist ratio and fast-break points.
Gortat sat down to talk pick-and-rolls with John Wall, aspirations to become the president of Poland, pregame hype music, ripping towels, the difference between “Polish Machine” and “Polish Hammer” and what it will feel like to be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.
What have you and John Wall taught each other since you got to Washington?
From my perspective, I definitely taught him to slow down a little bit on the pick-and-roll, because sometimes he’s going 100 miles per hour. He’s got to understand that to get a good screen in his situation where he’s not a perfect, perfect sharp-shooter, the big man needs a half a second longer to set a good screen for him, and I think he’s learned to be patient and use the screens the right way. Sometimes we re-screen two or three times in one possession, which is really good. I’ve been working with him, I’ve been on him constantly in the past few months, and I really think that he has started trusting me a little bit more, and we’ve developed that relationship and chemistry.
Do you see him picking up tips that you may have learned from Steve Nash and passed along?
Of course. The most important thing is he should watch him play, watch himself how he plays, and watch the tape and study. I think it will help him a lot. He will see things that he’s not able to see on the court at the same time. And obviously, if he will watch Steve Nash, that would be huge. I can only whisper in his ear, but he knows I’m a big man, and I probably don’t know how it is to be a point guard in his situation, but I was fortunate enough to play with Steve for two years and we created an incredible duo. We were the No. 1 duo in the league. So, he created me, I had a great season with him, so I’m just going to try to use his experience and give it to John.
On a recent national television broadcast, Jeff Van Gundy observed, albeit in a blowout, players on the bench staying into the game and cheering for teammates. Van Gundy said that actively watching while not in the game is an underestimated part of chemistry. You, I can’t help but notice, are one of the more emotional players while on the bench when a big play happens. Where did you pick that up and what does that mean?
There’s a few different reasons. For example, with Al [Harrington’s dunk], the reason why I was actually celebrating that was just because I’m close with Al. We’ve been talking about this dunk for the past 10 days. I said, ‘If you dunk the ball ...' I said, first of all you got to dunk the ball. You still got it. Change people’s minds. You still got that. You’re still capable of doing it.’
He said, ‘Listen, it’s not a problem going up, it’s a problem with the landing.’
So, we always laughed. Finally when he missed one or two easy bunnies around the rim, he said, ‘All right, this time I got to dunk it.’ And when he dunked that, I was just celebrating him, I was happy, and, you know, we all laugh about that in the locker room after.
But where does it come from? I think it comes from just teaching. From all the great coaches [and people] I’ve had in my life. Brendan Malone, Stan Van Gundy, Steve Clifford, Bo Outlaw, Adonal Foyle, Nick Anderson, Tony Battie, a lot of different players and coaches that were telling me ... Patrick Ewing ... said you never know when your time is going to come. You got to be able to perform, and you got to be able to help the team. And I’m just emotional. If you engage in a game like that, that’s also the best way to stay in the game. Sometimes people when they're coming down off the first quarter, they have a great first quarter, and they’re sitting down on the bench and all of a sudden they’re checking themselves out of the game because they say, ‘OK, I had a great first quarter, now I’m going to sit down and relax.’ All of a sudden they go into the second quarter and they don’t perform. So to stay attached mentally, you just celebrate with people everything that’s going on on the court. Like I say, this is the way I do. This is the way I play. I’m passionate about the game. There’s a lot of different reasons why I am who I am today.
Talk about passion. Do you remember ripping that towel earlier this season in Toronto?
Yeah, I remember.
Was that your first towel rip?
Oh, naw, that was probably my millionth towel rip. I’ve ripped a lot of towels. Especially sometimes after the game, and we’re about to take showers, and we don’t have any washcloths, so we’re just ripping one towel in little pieces and obviously they’re throwing me towels to rip.
I was just pissed. I remember that game, I was pissed. I was pissed because I missed some easy layups at the basket and I should dunk the ball. Then I miss easy layups, and then I get some dumb calls and bad fouls, and that’s all, I was just pissed. Frustrated.
With the situation in Ukraine with Russia, I know that Poland has expressed some concerns to NATO about Russia’s actions (including military drills near the border with Poland). Is that something you’re keeping track of?
Quite honestly, even though I’m saying this left and right, I keep repeating this to everybody that one day I would like to be president (of Poland), I’m actually kind of off that subject now, off that topic right now because I really haven’t had time to follow what’s going on. Obviously I’m just checking really quick what’s going on. One thing I know, a lot of people are escaping from the Ukraine. I feel bad for Ukraine because they’re our neighbors. I have a lot of Ukraine friends, players and friends from Ukraine. I’m hoping everything will be fine in their country because they didn’t deserve that. But end of the day, I know a lot of people from the Ukraine will go to Poland to look for shelter and look for a home. And thanks to them, our Polish economy is going to go up, because obviously if hundreds of thousands of people leave the country to come to our country, then we’re looking at a huge boost of a lot of different things, and obviously we’re going to probably help them. I’m not the president sitting in the office, but we’re definitely going to help them and try to protect them.
But you say that when you have more time, you have political ambitions to be president of Poland one day?
Yeah. ... I’m laughing, I’m laughing. ... Talking to everybody about how I’d like to be president one day. We’ll see.
How serious are you?
Well, it’s serious because I’m interested in politics. Let’s put it this way: I’m real interested in politics, I’m talking to a lot of politician people, and I’m real interested in everything. But if I decide to do it, I will start slowly from a small seat, and try to go up and climb that ladder. But right now, let’s not talk about that.
You got the nickname “Polish Machine” from when you played in Germany, and the “Polish Hammer” came after the summer league in Orlando. I feel like you accept both, but do you have a preference?
I accept both. I’m known more for Polish Hammer, but people that know me very well, they’re using more Machine. There are times where sometimes machine stands more, there’s times where hammer stands more. It depends. When you got 70 games of the season and I’m still running like a deer, I’m still lifting like crazy and dunking and doing all this stuff in the practice, that’s the time when they call “Machine.” But there’s a time when I’m blocking a lot of shots and dunking on somebody in the game, and they call “Hammer.” So, there’s a difference.
You once told me before a game that you were listening to “Miami joints, club music and trance music” on your headphones. Is that the routine each and every time?
Most of the time. Yeah, probably for 30 games I will listen to Miami. Another 30 games I’m going to listen probably to house music and then come back to Miami music. I love that. I love strong, trance, techno music. It definitely gets me going. You got goose bumps and then you’re getting yourself ready for the game.
Any rule changes that you think would help the NBA game? For instance, sometimes they talk about instituting FIBA goaltending rules in the NBA. Any thoughts on that or any other changes that would help the game play?
The goaltending? It definitely wouldn’t help. You have too many athletic guys in this league that would tip the ball out of the rim, so pretty much to make a basket you will need to swish it, you know what I’m saying?
I would say I would loosen up a little bit the rules about the fighting fines. That’s what I would loosen up. Because today you go to an ice hockey game, and the one thing they’re waiting for is a fight, you know what I’m saying? So if they could set it up something like that in the NBA. That if there are two guys and they have a problem, if they could just separate everybody. And these two people that have problem, if they could fight ...
During the game?
During the game. Quick, 15-20 seconds, throw few punches, then referees jump in and break this thing up. I think the game ... these two guys, they resolved their problem. They’re both suspended and they’re leaving. But end of the day, they fix the problem between each other, fans are super excited, and I think that would be a pretty cool idea [chuckles].
You’d need bigger refs. You couldn’t have Dick Bavetta out there.
At some point when the referees jump in, then you’d have to stop. You’d have to stop. So I think that would be a great idea, just like the ice hockey fans waiting for that, that’s would NBA fans would get into, as well.
And, I think we’re definitely going to mention this in the players’ meeting, but we definitely have to mention the situation about the fans. When we say something to the fan, and when we curse him out, or when we definitely throw a punch, or we’re trying to hit the fan, we are suspended for half of the season. But when they yell at us or insult us or are cursing at us using bad words, they don’t get anything. So what I would say is that there’s definitely supposed to be a rule where if one of the fans is disrespecting us, then he got to leave the gym automatically.
Your mother was a volleyball player for the Polish national team, your father was big-time boxer -- you have the tattoo of him on your chest. If you weren’t playing basketball, what would you be doing? One of those two things? Something completely different?
You know what, I’m asking the same question. I’m asking myself this question every once in a while and quite honestly I can’t answer this question. I don’t know what I’d do. I would probably ... I definitely won’t play volleyball, maybe I’d be a boxer. I’d definitely be a bodybuilder. I’d lift and I’d probably be a security or some bouncer in the a club, maybe, I don’t know. I’d probably finish school and work toward a direction from there.
On the road in the NBA, you have a lot of free time to fill, on planes, etc. I read once, when you were in Phoenix, that you were big on this game “Clash of Clans.” Is that still your thing? How else do you mind the gaps?
Oh, definitely. I got a lot of games. I got a lot of games on my iPad. Those are actually games that I’m using during the flight, because somehow you got to kill the time.
But in the hotel, I’m doing a lot of different things. I’m trying to learn different languages. Obviously talking to my family a lot. I’m resting a lot, sleeping. I’m reading books mostly about soldiers, about the military, about Afghanistan, Iraq. I’m reading stories like Shaq’s book, Michael Phelps’ book. I’m reading all successful people’s books. I want to know their secrets. I want to know their system, the way they became great, and try to put that into my system and try to get better.
So I do a lot of different things. Those games, yeah ... "Clash of Clans." I also watch a lot of shows. ... "Pawn Stars," "Storage Wars," "Swamp People."
"Storage Wars" is great. Barry’s my man. I love Barry.
This summer you will be an unrestricted free agent. This being your seventh year in the league, you’ve never really been a free agent, as you signed an offer sheet with Dallas in 2009 but Orlando matched, which is something you did not like. So what’s in your mind right now about being able to go through the free-agent process and really be able to be courted for the first time?
All I know is that I’m going to be a free agent. I don’t know how it is to be a player that actually is going to be able to pick the team he wants to play for, you know what I’m saying? I’m hoping that at the end of the day I’m going to be able to pick the team where I will play. I hope there will be a team, let’s put it this way first.
We still have 20 or so games to play. I’ve got to finish strong, and then we’re going to make a run into the playoffs, and then we’ll see what’s going to happen. Then I’m going to call my agent and say, "Hey, you gotta do your job. I did my job, now you gotta do your job. I’m looking forward to holidays now." So, we’ll see.
There’s a lot of different things I’m going to look at. The team situation. The goal of the team. I’m going to look at the point guard. I’m going to look at the coaching staff. I’m going to look at a lot of different things before I’m going to pick the team, and obviously Washington is going to be really close to me right now. I feel really comfortable here. They have two rising stars in Bradley Beal and John Wall, and this team’s definitely going to get better and better. They have Otto Porter, who’s going to be a good player one day. And there’s going to be a lot of different things I’m going to look at. But quite honestly, right now I just want to make sure that we’re not going to lose five in a row and that we won’t lose a spot in the playoffs, because that would be the worst thing. I’m more pumped up for being in the playoffs again and not watching them in front of the TV. Back in the day I was spoiled by [Stan] Van Gundy playing all the way to the conference finals. With Phoenix, I was in the playoffs, so finally now [I have] an opportunity again.